How to Feed and Care for Your Developer

Lessons from Joel Spolsky's lifetime of study.

The view from the Fog Creek office. (

Fog Creek Software has a fish tank embedded in one wall. The fish are pretty and colorful, but not neon; it looked like there might have been an eel in there too. They wandered around their dark blue and green environs, their movements accompanied by the soft white noise of the pump, imparting a sense of calm.

The offices of the developers of Fog Creek look sort of like fish tanks, because they have sliding glass doors to make them more soundproof. The compartments look airtight, as if you could fill the whole thing up with water. Founder Joel Spolsky has been preaching for years that developers should have private offices. It’s better for their temperament, and it reduces distractions and makes them more productive, he argues. Mr. Spolsky himself has a closed-door corner office, with a view of the Financial District in one direction and Fog Creek’s airy lunch room in the other.

Fog Creek has a motto: “What if programmers were treated like rock stars?” Betabeat had a chance to glimpse the office of the esteemed New York company last night during a class, “How to Hire Developers in a Competitive Market,” taught by two employees of Fog Creek’s uppity younger cousin, Stack Exchange. The message at the end of the night: developers are choosy, peculiar, brilliant and needy. But their needs are actually pretty simple.

The night started out with an amateur psychoanalysis of the developer. The developer is a detail-oriented perfectionist. He or she has a “very strong bullshit meter.” He or she needs to be able to get into the “zone;” Fog Creek has what amounts to a “do not disturb” sign on one of the doors that says, “The sys admins are working heads down until _____.” The developer is also obsessed with merit and craves status within his or her own sphere. Other adjectives included “pasionate,” “competitive,” and “opinionated.” “Prima donna!” suggested someone in the audience.

So how do you go about ensuring your developers are happy, healthy and at their most productive?

First, the Stack Exchangers said, figure out what developers care about:

  • interesting work
  • good conversation
  • being stimulated outside of work
  • creature comforts (standing desks, soft mats to stand on, ping pong tables, food)
  • being able to get into the zone
  • having the right tools for the job
  • independence and self-direction
  • sense that they’re having an impact

Mr. Spolsky has been thinking about this stuff for a long time. At the end of the night, we were given copies of “Smart & Gets Things Done,” Mr. Spolsky’s 2007 book about how to find and hire the best people. (The title is stolen from Microsoft’s recruiting philosophy.) Back in February, Mr. Spolsky wrote a blog post entitled “Programmer Nesting Rituals.” In it, he argued that developer salaries are not the most important factor for a developer picking a job; he will expand on that idea in a keynote at the ERE Expo, a recruiters’ conference in San Diego, later this month.

It was interesting to see the ideas implemented in life. Both the offices of Fog Creek and Stack Exchange are spacious and pleasant. They have fully-stocked kitchens, with cereal, beer, pizza, and the works; employees can send an email to the office manager with grocery requests. Fog Creek has a strict 9-5 rule, so the office was completely empty at 6 p.m. Upstairs at Stack Exchange, a few sales, community managers and programmers still hadn’t left by 7 p.m. Fog Creek has a corner office that’s been converted to a library, complete with leather armchairs and shelves of programming books. Programmers are encouraged to order whatever books they want from Amazon. Stack Exchange, where sales and community employees sit in a bullpen-style office in the middle of the room, with developers in offices around the perimeter, has a ping pong table. Every desk is electronically convertible to a standing desk. Mr. Spolsky is also a big proponent of the Aeron chairs, the spendy furniture that became a symbol of dot-com excess, which start around $600. In six years, he wrote in 2007, no one had ever quit.

Much of this seemed obvious to us, but the best practices are surprisingly uncommon at places that hire developers. Mr. Spolsky seems to have made it his mission to make the world a better place for developers by evangelizing about job satisfaction and workplace culture. As the presenters talked about developer care, one attendee periodically burst into laughter. She had recently quit her job at a finance firm.

How to Feed and Care for Your Developer