The Perks of Being a Developer

How to properly care for your coders.

  • On a handout provided at the “How to Hire Developers in a Competitive Market” workshop a few weeks ago, a long list of descriptors attempted to serve up some insight into the psyche of developers. Among the more typical dev stereotypes like “tenacious” and “innovative” were more specific terms, like “sensitive BS detector” and “anti-establishment.” Oddly missing from the list were “Kegerator obsession” and “distaste for donning footwear.”

    But we’ll get to that.

    Much like unicorns or rent-controlled apartments, software engineers are a rare, fascinating breed. Many are sensitive to sunlight, only wear hoodies and boast a blood composition of 90 percent Mountain Dew. Unencumbered by emotional irrationality, they operate primarily on logic, using highly complicated algorithmic equations to make even the simplest of decisions, like which sushi place to order from. They are obsessive, strange and brilliant, and they make some of the most beloved products in our modern world.

    But cultivating a happy developer requires special attention and care: you can’t just toss them into a new office environment armed with a cheap tote bag and a laptop riser and expect them to come up with the next Facebook. Both early-stage startups and established technology companies have recognized the creature comforts that are key to attracting and retaining talented developers, and they are far from the typical yearly pizza party that most employees are used to.

    “Developers, especially the ones I worked with [at Rackspace], tend to really like being able to sit in front of computers and write code all the time,” said Marisa Keegan, a corporate culture consultant who used to work as a “Culture Maven” at Rackspace. “They don’t want to be interrupted or be pulled away from that task of writing code, so flexible work hours are necessary.”

    Free food is also a major draw for companies hoping to keep devs happy. “Not to stereotype, but they were young single guys who didn’t really want to have to cook their own food, so if we had food for them, they loved it,” said Ms. Keegan.

    At the startup at which this reporter used to work, the office was decked out with a ping pong table, a fully stocked fridge and top-notch computer accessories. We were also privy to occasional company treats, like an ergonomic advisor, a masseuse and free pizza every Friday.

    Forrst founder and CEO Kyle Bragger told Betabeat over email that he had seen the following first hand: “Those keg machines, workout equipment, booze, nap pods, arcade games, motorized standing desks and treadmills you stand on while working.”

    At Asana, a collaborative information managing application, each employee gets $10,000 to customize their workspace, which leaves us to wonder: how much does a Sports Illustrated calendar cost these days? Jason Throckmorton, one of Asana’s PR folks, clarified over email that the $10k is meant to cover the cost of a workstation, like a laptop, a mouse, etc. And, admittedly, ergonomically-friendly office chairs don’t come cheap. Tal Safran, a freelance developer at Branch, proudly sent us a picture of his swag-looking $500 home office chair.

    Referral programs are also a way that companies encourage developers to bring their talented dev friends into the fold. Plus, it’s easier to keep engineers happy when their friends are around.

    “We do have the obvious ping-pong table and well-stocked kitchen. We’re big on coffee here: Stumptown or Grady’s Coldbrew,” said Annie Werner, a community coordinator at Tumblr. “But perhaps one of the coolest perks is our ‘Refer Madness’ program. Basically, if you make a successful referral, then you get to pick a fun/interesting ‘adventure” you’d like to have for a day, and Tumblr will pay for it. It might be just you, or include other members of your team. A few people cashed in on their Refer Madness bonuses together recently so that we could all take a company field trip to Medieval Times.” (Oh, what we’d do to see David Karp jousting with costumed knights in a gold paper crown.)

    And let’s not forget the company-labeled swag, of course.

    “T-shirts were a really big deal for Rackers,” said Ms. Keegan. “We had t-shirts for every occasion. One of the projects I worked on was a new recruiting campaign. We interviewed employees and asked them what drew them to work for Rackspace, and one of the developers said, ‘If it weren’t for all the free shirts, I’d have to come to work naked.’ So that actually became one of our recruiting campaign for software developers.”

    Google is famous for its swath of drool-worthy perks offered at the legendary Googleplex, the company’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Employees enjoy daily meals prepared by world-class chefs, special rooms designated for taking naps, sporadically-placed massage chairs and even Japanese toilets with seat warmers and built-in bidets. In the summer, you can take a dip in the wave pool that lies smack in the middle of the Googleplex. This reporter has seen these things with her own eyes! And they are magnificent.

    “I love Google’s perks but I by no means feel I MUST have any of them,” said Mike LeBeau, a senior software engineer at Google, in an email. “I think a lot of the perks are really effective and a very smart way to keep employees happy and productive.”

    While the food and games are great, some developers don’t require material goods as much as a relaxed company culture to get their coding juices flowing. You know, like a place that’s okay with bare feet.

    “I take my shoes off,” said Mr. Safran. “It’s not necessary, but way more comfy.”

    Whatever works.