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I'm going to be co-founding a business in the coming weeks that will cater to web development, design and web application development, possibly extending into software development in the future.

I'm a programmer myself and so I have quite a few ideas already, but I'm wondering what you guys would personally like as incentives at a job. Because of our location, we'll probably have to lure programmers away from existing jobs or locations, so we need some really competitive bonuses.

Ideas I'd like to exclude right off the bat:

  • Salary. We'll be offering a decent salary for the person's skill level and this is also a given
  • Two monitors/One large monitor. All of our employees will have a choice between these
  • Free drinks & snacks. This is also a given, and not quite specific to programmers :)

If you can provide examples of companies that offer the bonus you're suggesting that would also be nice :)

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12 gb ram; 5 cores; 3 monitors; coffee; burgers; pizzas; twinkies; coke .. that oughtta do it ! –  Wildling Aug 1 '11 at 17:08
Good tables and chairs - not chairs, but those that help your body. When I got one of those I got rid of my lower back problem in two montsh. –  user1249 Aug 2 '11 at 7:43
Flex time is the big thing for me; if I Have an hour commute don't demand I be there at 8 sharp. Also the ability to telecommute and "downtime" where I can mess around with new things - if the minute I'm done with something you drop another one my lap and mention how there's a dozen more waiting in the wings, something is wrong. –  Wayne M Aug 3 '11 at 20:15

24 Answers 24

up vote 24 down vote accepted

Jeff and Joel wrote a lot on the subject (well, related to). Of many, these two may give you a few insights.

Programmer's bill of rights (what every programmer should have)
A Field Guide to Developers (how to make & keep him happy & productive ... well, happy :-)

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For us, the costs-us-but-doesn't-put-money-in-your-pocket are:

  • conferences and training. Two weeks a year (you find them and show me you want to attend) including travel expenses
  • flex time. I had people start work as early as 7 or as late as 10, typically to mesh with kid or spouse schedules.
  • cover your fees to write certifications or similar exams, on top of the training costs
  • no questions asked book buying policy.
  • pop, snacks (popcorn, fresh fruit, pretzels, nuts) bought by an admin and paid for by the firm, and a mini kitchen (in our old office)
  • you can make personal calls, even long distance ones, from your desk, and receive personal calls on our 800 number
  • I have a company car and over the years when an employee has had car trouble I have let them use it if they otherwise couldn't get to work
  • our preference is for no overtime; if it's really required we pay you for it (and therefore you need permission)
  • (I forgot) time off (usually unpaid) for kid reasons like you want to accompany a field trip or volunteer in their classroom. I can't understand places that think making you miss your child's concert or whatever is a good idea. Actually, time off, days/weeks/months, unpaid whenever you want without making you beg.

We've had other things over the years but these are the ones people really appreciated. Some of them, like the fruit bowl, are very low cost but have a big impact.

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+1 for flex time, it's one of the best parts of my current job. It's great when I have somewhere I need to be later that day, or want to catch up on sleep. it's also nice to occasionally allow developers to re-allocate hours through the week. (have a 12 hour day then a 4 day instead of 2 8 hour days, for example) –  GSto Oct 22 '10 at 14:48

Allowing working from home for 1-2 days/week.

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Rather than give one that other companies are already doing, since you want to stand out, how about this idea?

An annual trip to the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) (plane fare and conference tickets)

Depending on where you are in the country, the plane fare might not be too prohibitive and sending the development team as a group might be a good team building exercise. Plus most of us are technophiles, so it would be a cool perk.

If that is too hard to stomach, an alternative might be agreeing to send them to at least one developer conference of their choosing each year. At least this way you get the benefit of the training as a return on your investment.

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Definitely do the "conference of choice" over a mandated conference. Not being a gamer, I could give a flip about E3, and having attended numerous Apple WWDC's, I'd be happy to skip them the rest of my life. However, I'm planning to pay my own way to GUADEC in Berlin next July. –  Bob Murphy Oct 22 '10 at 4:01

Check out this RSA Animate video that describes several incentives that programmers want... in particular:

1) Autonomy
2) Mastery
3) Purpose


alt text

click here


Here is an expanded version with more practical detail, but lacks the creative animation from RSA. (download the MP4)


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Thanks for finding this video! I watched it a while ago, and couldn't for the life of me find it again! –  Frank Shearar Oct 22 '10 at 11:27
Hear hear. The three you list in this comment are easily my top considerations when deciding whether to take a job or not. Salary is a distant 4th, as long as it covers my needs. A related idea is one that Paul Graham voiced in a talk he gave about programmers at big companies. Along the lines of "Letting them build cool stuff is a perk. These companies don't realize that if they let their programmers build neat things, they could pay them less." –  Inaimathi Oct 22 '10 at 14:02

We have a ping pong table and pinball machine in the office, and it's really nice to be able to get away from the screen every couple of hours to do something fun. And neither takes very long to play a game or two, so it's not much of a hindrance on productivity.

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I had to sit near a ping pong table at my last job and the freaking sound made me nuts. I'd rather the company understand that an occasional on-line death match can also be a team-building exercise. Years ago our VP and my manager both understood that and they'd come watch over my shoulder as I'd demolish my coworkers at lunch or over a quick game mid-afternoon. –  the Tin Man Nov 26 '10 at 4:49

Also you could allow them some time to create something or come up with an innovate approach. They could have 2 hours by week free for creating and proposing new exciting ideas to you. If you find these ideas interesting, you could share a participation or some sort of financial bonus. I'm sure they will come up with brand new ideas, some could be really smart and profitable.

I was abroad and I also saw a software company room, just for relaxing. Stressed people could enter these room and sit, listen to music, read a book, play a XBox and Playstation game for some minutes. This is a kind of recreation room! Interesting place to be when you are really upset and want some space to think get a better solution.

This company also had some social meetings, where people get together to have parties, chat, games, and etc. They had a Google approach: if you let your employees feel better, they would work better. (There will be always exceptions).

I hope you find some of those ideas interesting.

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Offering support for any good employee ideas is a great idea! (As is the recreation room) –  Brandon Wamboldt Oct 22 '10 at 0:19

Cash Bonuses

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@Peter, yep I've seen that, but they would definitely work for me. –  user1842 Oct 23 '10 at 1:26
There are two camps here and I assure you that a LOT of us like cash more than anything else. –  Xepoch Dec 28 '10 at 18:52

Respect of their skills, opinions and experience. The most frustrating thing I know is having some idiot who never learned anything proper in his life take decisions without consulting anyone with technical knowledge.

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Not sure this is an incentive in the sense requested by the question, but it's definitely important. It is incredibly frustrating having proven technical skills that are either taken for granted or completely ignored, but rarely respected. –  Peter Boughton Oct 22 '10 at 23:02

couple of things.....

  • Flex Time
  • Company Sponsered Conference/Training/Education/Certifications
  • A book/periodical budget
  • Company-Sponsored social events (BBQ's, Mini-Golf, etc.)

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A new laptop (and not a stripped-down model either). Initially a loan to use however they want, but theirs to keep after some time period TBD.

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Laptops aren't generally good development machines... the screen resolutions are lacking in real estate and the keyboards aren't comfortable. Great for media and maybe the gamer-on-the-go, but not so much for a programmer. –  Corey Oct 22 '10 at 0:43
I love laptops for development. They really make the 45 minute 6am train journeys fly by once I get stuck into some code ;) –  Martin Oct 22 '10 at 1:09
@Corey, that is not always the case. Our team has laptops as development machines, combine them with a docking station, couple of external displays, keyboard and mouse and you are set up. –  Audrius Oct 22 '10 at 7:36

I suppose this depends on the age/maturity of the programmer. For instance a 25 year old programmer would love to get a free laptop, but a 35 year old programmer with a family and mortgage just wants the $1,000.

Anyway, my list:

Book budget
Cell phones (You pay the bill)
Free trips to conferences
Time to work on personal projects
Time to play through out the day

And last -- but certainly not least -- don't start the work day until 11pm! (Just kidding)

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I'd prefer "no cell phone needed". If it's important use email; and if you want to interrupt whatever I'm in the middle of then you're not getting my phone number. –  Brendan Aug 1 '11 at 13:17

What would attract me would be a commitment to give me what I need to be productive. Programmers, in general, like programming, and get annoyed when things get in their way.

This includes providing the resources needed, and a book/whatever budget helps, and most importantly avoiding hindering work. I've seen that happen in several places, because of somebody else's convenience or corporate policy or whatever. Whenever I'm prevented from accomplishing something, I start thinking "Why should I care if you don't?" and then I get unhappy.

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Let people know that you'll get people whatever they need to do their job well. Perhaps you could provide each person a budget to get whatever they find important to make them happy at work, whether it's a nice monitor, more ram, a fancy chair, good books, training, or a Foosball table. This also says "I trust you to make the right decision".

I think you should fund at least one conference/training per year. Provide a social/team budget that can be used for happy hour, lunches or group outings.

Also, be clear on how deadlines are set and what sort of hours you expect. I consider realistic deadlines truly enticing.

I always see "free drinks/snacks" as a red flag. I expect to be paid a salary that makes the cost of snacks insignificant. It can even be a bit of a negative for me because it's hard to avoid the temptation of good snacks while I sit on my ass all day.

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Having free drinks/snacks provided in the office to me wouldn't be about the cost of these items but the availability. I can quite easily afford to get a cold coke or chocolate bar when I feel the need, but I would much rather not have to leave the office for 5-10 mins, especially when it starts getting cold or starts raining. –  Chao Oct 25 '10 at 12:24

Although some basic level of salary, technology and benefits is a requirement for an offer to even be considered - and the possibility of getting rich quick (e.g. pre IPO stock options) can be hard to turn down - these items aren't really what lure developers in. In fact, these external rewards are not good motivators in general: check out Dan Pink's TED Talk on Motivation.

I think the things that really excite developers (and most people) are those that generate an "internal drive." For example, knowing that you'll have total ownership and creative control of a problem or having the opportunity to work with cutting edge technology and become a pioneer in a new space is what keeps people up at night. Solving problems that really matter is nice. Having a genuine opportunity for your work to be seen & recognized is a big motivator. This is why developers flock to companies with a reputation for this sort of work, such as Google.

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I have always found the offer of higher salary, food & drinks and multiple moniters really cheesy as I think it's something way to basic to attract a good developer. Hell even paid fitness options are cheesy these days.

What would attract me would be an open book budget with a note of which direction you wish the developer to go...sorta like a whitelist of topics, and if he/she wanna go outside the whitelist I think he/she should explain what the book is expected to do for the dev. As many others have written I think conferences would be a really nice offer as well, in my current job we go to a conference ever 3 years (which is way to little imo since it's very product specific). What I would like (and would include in my next contract) is a statement that says I can go to one conference free of choice on the continent every year. I'm living in Denmark and that would give me obvious options like TechEd Europe, NDC, Oredev etc. so there are plenty of options that way.

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Here are the things my company offers, and I think working with us is quite nice :)

First, we have a no-questions-asked policy on :

  • hardware : If a programmer wants to buy an SSD, or an extra monitor, or whatever, he just buys it, no questions asked. Of course, if one was to spend $10k on a coding box, we would probably ask some questions, but this didn't happen so far. Our average coder usually has a quad-core, 8gb of ram, and three 22" screens .

  • Books : Want a book on Lisp because you're interested in the topic, although we only do c#/winforms ? go for it !

  • Internet Access : You want to spend a few minutes on Facebook, or to launch Starcraft II for a quick ladder after a few hours of uninterrupted coding, go for it, that's fine with us. You probably know better than us how to put yourself in the correct mindset to code efficiently.

  • Coding tools. Want to buy resharper? go for it

  • Working schedule, and unpaid off days.

  • one day of the week is dedicated to working of whatever you think would help the company going forward, without any sort of approval by anybody. That's right, even if there's a huge deadline next Monday, you can still use your Friday to work on the fancy feature you'd love to have, but no real client really asked for so far...

Regarding compensation, as suggested by the OP, we offer a compensation clearly above market standards, and free drinks/snacks + paid lunch

Regarding the working environment, we are in a nice area (in the historical center of Paris), we've got a fuss-ball table, etc.

But in my opinion, the things that incentives our programmers the most are :

  • The ability to work on interesting projects with the best tools money can buy, and top-notch technology.
  • The fact that every single programmer on the team is way above average when it comes to IT skills. A-people want to work with A-people :)
  • The fact that they are able if they want to (and it's not an obligation) to be in direct contact with clients, so that they can handle projects from A to Z.
  • IT decisions are taken by the IT, not by the business. If the IT department thinks that feature foo shouldn't be implemented before the code base is re-factored, then it's not implemented before the code base is re-factored, period.
  • Everyone is encouraged to give his feedback on existing AND new features, which means that when one IT starts working on a feature, he either totally agrees with the feature, or had a fair chance to explain his points. We're usually very consensual, and it's very uncommon for anybody to work on a feature he doesn't think would be a nice addition to the software.
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If you really, really, really want to stand out from the pack:

  1. Buy pizza for my programming group meetings and/or supply the office space. (Capital IQ ClariFI buys the pizza for Boston Scala, Google supplies the office space)
  2. Pay for an Android or iPhone for me
  3. A window w/ a bird feeder
  4. Provide dry-cleaning/laundry services on site. This can be as much as having a local business come to the office and you subsidizing the costs
  5. Provide grocery shopping services: I order, someone else picks it up.

Finally let me just say screw cash bonuses and the like. What I'm looking for in an employer at the moment is:

  1. A kick-ass computer
  2. An Aeron chair
  3. A keyboard tray which attaches to the bottom of my desk so that I can position it along with the mouse in whatever way I want
  4. A flexible work schedule
  5. Two monitors
  6. Free reign to try out any library or technology that will help solve our problems
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Happy hour with a couple hundred dollars on the tab every couple weeks has done a lot to boost morale where I work. It allows people to socialize and get to know each other better, all while unwinding from the week and having a good time. It is hard not to like somebody who buys you a good beer, even if its your boss.

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There seem to be a lot of toys on this list.

  • Tools to make doing the job you want me to do easier, be it software, work stations and god almighty workspace. I don't want a tiny cubicle. I want space.
  • A decent worklife balance. If you screw up the planning once or twice in a year, fine. If every single project involves allnighters and mandatory weekends, then you need to rectify that and fast.
  • Flexible working hours non-micromanaged on the basis that you assume everyone is trying to cheat you
  • Non-hierarchical influence. The mere fact of being a manager doesn't make that manager more important than the people around him. No royalty, if you like.
  • I like the idea of assigning a training budget to individuals as well.
  • I like the research option.

What I really couldn't care less about are a) free food because this tells me you want to own me all the time b) free games rooms although a decent rest room where I can either read/knit/crochet/draw at lunch hours would be good.

Acess to a nearby gym might be attractive for some people - I climb/swim which means that a room full of treadmills doesn't cut it. But a lot of those things are superficial and will not make up for you otherwise hampering people in how they do their jobs because you won't/can't provide the right tools (and very often, this tends to be software based rather than hardware based) or the right atmosphere (so have a decent dispute situation in place).

Also I'm based in Europe. 5 weeks paid holidays would be better than a foosball table.

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One thing I have learned is that you cannot do a Marathon as a lot of sprints, and that rest is important to code quality.

Hence it is very important if you do long term planning and want to keep people that you focus on having normal, regular working hours for all employees and that overtime is an absolutely last resort. This needs to be an integrated part of the culture, so that e.g. deadlines are planned according to this (with the usual slack), and that it is considered unusual if a person do too much work.

Again this is only for the very long time perspective.

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Give them as much whiteboard space as you can afford, along with lots of different colored whiteboard markers. It's really nice to mind map on a big board, and it's frustrating to run out of space halfway through mapping out a concept.

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Negotiating strategies would lead you to believe that you have to identify what is of greatest value to the recipient that is of minimal outlay to yourself. Salary becomes irrelevant at some point (See Maslow's "hierachy of needs") In my own situation, the biggest non-cash incentives an employer offers at negligible cost include...

  • flexibility in working hours (avoiding the commute, dealing with childcare)

  • showers at the office (to allow cycle commutes and lunchtime runs)

  • technical books every now and again

These are hugely valuable to me, measured in thousands of dollars, convenience and personal well being.

But I would also add that a firm and demonstrated commitment to employee continuous improvement, with quarterly and annual appraisals and proper goal setting is pretty major. Backed up by meaningful actions - i.e. training budget - to use however I choose - would be quite high up my list.

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Offer a Cycle To Work scheme (which is common in the UK and Europe). Offers your employees a cheap bike and they keep fit by riding to work.

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