133. Motivation

In today’s episode, we are talking about motivation — what keeps us up at night and what gets us out of bed every single day? We are joined by a special return guest and friend of the show, Kevin Thomas. Kevin is a Principal Consultant and Director at Stride. There are some obvious motivating factors, such as money as well as less obvious ones such as purpose and autonomy. For each of us, we find different things motivating. Currently, for William, mastery is the greatest motivating factor, but he suspects that over time, as his career progresses, this will change. On the other hand, for Kevin, he finds that helping other people meet their goals is what drives and inspires him. Motivation is not static and can also be influenced by a range of other factors, such as the specific project you are working on, how close you are to your long-term career goals and even the circumstances of your personal life. To hear what motivates us and see how it aligns with what drives you, join us today!


Key Points From This Episode:


  • The three important levers that have to be present to motivate people.
  • Kevin and William’s current motivators.
  • How to keep yourself motivated when one of the motivational levers is out of balance.
  • Even within a time constraint, there is still a great deal of autonomy you can exercise.
  • There is an inextricable link between trust and autonomy.
  • Some of the ways you can have your autonomy restricted as a developer.
  • By working in the corporate world, you have to relinquish some level of autonomy.
  • How money as an external factor is linked to motivation.
  • The difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivators.
  • Kevin's ‘teach and learn’ for this week’s episode.

Transcript for Episode 133. Motivation


[00:00:01] MN: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developers podcast, in fantabulous Chelsea, Manhattan. I’m your host, Michael Nunez. Our co-host today –

[00:00:09] DA: Dave Anderson.

[00:00:11 WJ: William Jeffries.

[00:00:12] MN: And today, we’ll be talking about motivation. We’ll ask each other what keeps us up at night and what allows us to wake up in the morning to go to work.

[00:00:20] DA: I mean, if I'm up at night because of work, I don’t know if I’m waking up in the morning. Is that great motivation for me?

[00:00:26] MN: Some people do it. We’ll be able to dive into some of those concepts. Today, we have a guest friend of the show, Kevin Thomas. How’s it going, Kevin?

[00:00:34] KT: Good. Good. How are you doing?

[00:00:35] MN: We’re doing all right. Tell us a little about yourself.

[00:00:37] KT: I’m a Principal Consultant and a Director at Stride. So I manage lots of people. I could talk to them about their goals, what they’re trying to do. So that would be great to talk about why we’re all here, what we’re trying to accomplish, and what our purpose is.

[00:00:51] MN: Cool. Yes. So we’ll just talk. We can just start. What are some reasons of motivation that allows us all to go to work? I’ll open the floor for anyone who wants to speak. Or I can go first. I don’t know with you guys.

[00:01:04] DA: Is one, two, three money?

[00:01:08] MN: Yeah. Money! Well, yeah. Money is number one. That’s a huge motivation for a lot of people. 

[00:01:12] DA: Yeah.

[00:01:13] WJ: So I think there is a model that I always reach for when I’m thinking about motivation, and it has three prongs in it. There’s mastery, purpose, and autonomy. Those three things are really powerful motivators. So if you’re trying to motivate a team or if you're trying to get yourself more motivated, making sure that those three components are present in your job is really powerful.

[00:01:38] KT: But you just said autonomy is the third one. That’s usually the first one, because I feel like purpose has the most impact.

[00:01:43] WJ: I think that if you want to make it sound punchy, then yeah. You flip the order. I was like sort of trying to remember.

[00:01:49] KT: You remembered all the right things.

[00:01:49] WJ: What was the other one? Autonomy, mastery, purpose. 

[00:01:53] DA: Also, that abbreviates to MAP, which is like PAM, MAP. MAP!

[00:01:58] WJ: So, I mean, I’m an independent consultant and I work for myself. So I am my own boss, and I consider myself to have a high degree of autonomy for that reason. If I want to take a contract, I take that contract. If I don't want to take a contract, I don't take that contract. I also think that I'm on track to pursuing mastery, mastery of a craft like software development. That's the field that I chose. That's a craft that I am trying to perfect.

I think that purpose is the one that would probably be the most fuzzy, because my main reason for doing this is money. I think purpose is something that I'm trying to develop in my career. I think that by investing in this skill set, I'm hoping that when I do get passionate about a particular purpose, I can go off and start a company or join a team that's doing something really powerful and meaningful. I'll be better equipped to contribute, because I've spent this time consulting different companies and learning as much as I can about the field.

[00:03:05] KT: So it’s funny you guys both said money first. For me, I do care a lot about supporting myself like earning a living. But it's critically important to me that money isn’t my driving factor. I have some other goal, and money is like a side benefit.

[00:03:19] DA: Yeah. I partially said it as a joke. But, I mean, like if you're not making enough of it, then it's a huge motivator. But as soon as you're making enough and you don't have to think about it.

[00:03:30] KT: But it’s not a joke. You got a fiancé. You got a life eternal plan. Sometimes, it matters.

[00:03:35] DA: Yeah. It’s true. I got a dog. I got to feed that little pup.

[00:03:38] WJ: It’s also kind of hard to determine at what point it is enough, which I think is a kind of a trap. Does it ever really feel like enough?

[00:03:45] KT: When you don’t have to feed your dog the cheap kibble. You get the real kibble.

[00:03:48] MN: You got that green free kibble.

[00:03:49] DA: That good, good. That good, good. Yeah.

[00:03:51] MN: Just eating that dehydrated meat cubes.

[00:03:56] WJ: You’re not on that Pharma dog train?

[00:03:59] DA: I don’t know. No.

[00:04:00] KT: But for me, there has to be something more. So I find that, I love adventure. I love trying new things. But when I actually set off on my own, I miss people. I miss that connection. I feel most at home when I'm like helping other people meet their goals and aligning that with my goals.

So I think that’s why consulting makes sense for me, because I really like that empathy. That's what makes me feel like I can reflect and I care about what I'm doing.

[00:04:24] DA: Right. Yeah. I mean, there’s certain situations where it’s like, “Okay. You have the mastery. You are –” I feel like I’ve been in a situation where I was like, “Okay. You can write Python. You need to write Python really well. You have autonomy to do it, but like why? I'm just writing it into a vacuum, and the people around you are – The people that like – Or the thing that really make it worthwhile.

[00:04:53] KT: So the old cliché of programming is like you learn a new programming language. You learn a new paradigm every year. We didn't find to be true or even that compelling. I do like learning new things, but I feel like the challenge more of like working with people. I like the fact that my job is changing so much every year. This job and over my career, it’s been a big transformation from being just focused on delivering super hard technical features and C++ to caring about people, having empathy, solving bigger organizational problems on a human level.

[00:05:23] MN: I have a question, William. You mentioned that at first you – Learning the mastery and you feel like you have autonomy I guess for the people in the room. Is it often times you're leaning on one of those three pegs with more weight than the other two as you learn or become autonomous or find your purpose? Is it always 33% given to each one of those three pillars or do you find yourself in one client putting more weight towards mastery and in other places trying to be more autonomous? I’m just curious about how that plays in your everyday motivation in life?

[00:06:01] WJ: So I think that for me mastery is the most important. I’m feeling like I'm progressing like I'm getting better. That's the thing that motivates me to most of those three factors. Then autonomy would probably follow after that. Then at the moment in my life, purpose would be three. I value it, and I'm excited when that need is met. But if I have to sacrifice one of the three, that's the one.

[00:06:27] MN: I see.

[00:06:28] WJ: I think that that probably will change.

[00:06:31] MN: When the times comes. Whenever the purpose hits you.

[00:06:35] WJ: Yeah. I mean, I've met other people who are further along in their career and who are more disillusioned with their constant pursuit of mastery. They seem to have the opposite set of priorities. For them, purpose is the most important. Then autonomy is the one that gets sacrificed, because if you're working toward a cause and you have to work with people, sometimes you don't get to have things your way.

[00:07:01] MN: Does anyone feel like mastery is not the number one most important thing? I think, Kevin, you mentioned that purpose is the one that belongs in the front?

[00:07:08] KT: Yeah. I got through different phases and different parts of my career. If my confidence dips, I want mastery again. It’s like the thing that I started caring the most about. Then purpose is what definitely drives me right now like trying to care more and do it better because I care. But autonomy is the thing that keeps the other two things going. If I don't have autonomy, then I don’t feel like I’d be successful with mastery or purpose.

[00:07:35] DA: What do you do to keep yourself motivated when one of those levers is kind of pushed back upon like you’re trying to learn something new but it’s like, “Okay. No. We need to do it the old way,” for whatever reason? Or like, “Okay. We have a deadline,” and this is kind of pushed upon you? Sometimes, the lines can be like, “Okay. This is energizing. We’re getting together as a team and pushing over the edge.” But sometimes, it feels like a drag.

[00:08:05] KT: I’m usually motivated by really big challenges. But sometimes, success just feels out of reach. Sometimes, I'm just frustrated or I don’t feel like I’m set up for success. So it’s those situations I really try to adjust the goal. If things are impossible, I set a smaller goal and try to feel good about that small goal. Sometimes, I end up talking myself into feeling good about a thing that's not great, and then I'm kind of just trudging through it until I get out of it. So it's good that my job naturally moves me to any situation every nine months or a year or less.

[00:08:39] WJ: I think that deadlines sometimes can be seen as a restriction of autonomy, but they don't have to be.

[00:08:47] MN: Elaborate what you mean by that.

[00:08:48] WJ: So deadlines – Sometimes, somebody comes along who is like, “You have to get this done in X amount of time,” and it feels like they’re sort of removing your choice, your determination to take longer and to do things differently.

[00:09:02] KT: So you’re saying instead just go on vacation right before the deadline?

[00:09:05] WJ: I’m saying that you still have tremendous autonomy to do things different ways, even if you are expected to meet this particular deadline. That becomes a goal, and sometimes these deadlines that we get are actually not set by some other person who’s taking away our time. That's just like reality like, “Hey! We have X amount of runway. We have to figure out how to start generating revenue before we ran out of runway.” That’s the goal.

That deadline doesn't take away autonomy. It is a challenge, and then it's up to you to exercise your autonomy to come up with creative solutions in order to meet the deadline.

[00:09:42] DA: Right. Things that you’ve thought were important may become less important. You can exercise your autonomy to choose not to pursue those things.

[00:09:51] KT: So I have a different take. I think the people blame circumstances when autonomy questions come up. But it’s actually the driver autonomy isn't the specific circumstance. It’s trust. So if everyone around, if your peers, if your team, if your boss, if they trust you, you’ll have the autonomy to pick a path to solve the problem. If they don't trust you, they won’t give you any autonomy.

So in a collaborative environment, I think it’s all about building trust, which is also the thing that builds toward success anyways.

[00:10:16] WJ: To me, the classic example of a job that has no autonomy would be a factory assembly line worker where you pick up a piece and then you put it into this spot. There's only one spot that you can put it in, and you don't get to exercise any autonomy in your job. I feel like that's just like a thing that doesn't really ever happen in software, because it’s just so complicated. There are so many possible ways of doing it. I think sometimes people will try and restrict your autonomy through like a code review or –

[00:10:48] MN: I think specialties in the codebase as well could be one or like, “Oh! You specialize in that legacy service. You're responsible for that now. You stay there and build that feature.” It’s probably like the closest thing I could think to the factory worker.

[00:11:01] WJ: I got pre-assigned tickets.

[00:11:03] DA: Yeah. Right. These are you three batch screws that you must drill into this piece of metal.

[00:11:03] KT: You know what? All it takes to take out that autonomy into a new factory worker is if your stories come in as technical requirements. If your engineering manager wants to simplify things by having to solve this specific technical problem and not this solution serves this need for a user, you don’t have any creativity or freedom to find a better solution.

[00:11:26] WJ: I still find like there's a lot of creative freedom in just the way that I write the code, even if there is a fixed requirement and I can't negotiate that at all. It’s just like there – If you’re writing a [inaudible 00:11:38] complete language, there are infinitely many ways to accomplish the same thing, and there's creative expression there.

[00:11:46] KT: You’re right. You’re right.

[00:11:48] DA: Unless you’re writing YAML.

[00:11:51] WJ: If you’re doing configuration, sorry. That I think would be the closest analogy is if you are configuring – If you’re doing the same configuration over and over and again for a million servers.

[00:12:04] MN: By hand.

[00:12:06] DA: Like an artisan.

[00:12:07] KT: Do any of you guys feel like autonomy is your driving force sometimes?

[00:12:10] WJ: As in like primary motivator?

[00:12:11] KT: Yeah.

[00:12:12] MN: I find that one to be I think the least. I think mastery for me is actually the one that motivates me the most, because I want to make sure that I'm doing a good job by knowing the things that is expected of me to do that job. While autonomy, it’s irrelevant for me I guess, because there's a job that needs to get done and I need to know how to do that. So just to get it done. Get it done. Mastery, know the thing, do the thing, and move on is kind of my idea.

[00:12:41] KT: I do kind of feel like it’s an underserved framing, and it’s helpful to think about it a different way. For me, if I’m leading a team, autonomy is like usually the biggest question, because I want the team to be self-organized and find a way to success that they feel ownership of. So it’s less about necessarily succeeding and more about having the freedom to succeed or fail.

[00:12:58] WJ: How do you choose a goal? I mean, that’s – There’s that – I think there’s tension there. There has to be a goal for people to try and achieve in order for that self-determination, in order for that autonomy to be productive.

[00:13:13] KT: I usually abdicate the goal directly. The goal is usually meet this deadline, deliver this product the customers will love, something on those lines.

[00:13:22] WJ: To some degree, we have then restricted their autonomy like, “This is the deadline or this is the product.” It’s all sort of a spectrum.

[00:13:31] DA: Yeah. I mean, constraints breed creativity to a degree.

[00:13:36] WJ: Right. Yeah. If it’s a totally blank canvas, that can be paralyzing.

[00:13:39] DA: If you accept work in the corporate world, then you accept some level of removal of autonomy.

[00:13:46] KT: Yeah.

[00:13:46] DA: Well, some places like I guess Valve. Valve is supposed to be like kind of a completely hierarchy-less structure where you just choose whatever the heck you want to work on. But that’s why we’re never going halfway through.

[00:13:58] MN: Yeah. We’re never going to get halfway through because of that ever.

[00:14:01] KT: If you’re working for a startup that has an angel investor who’s recurring, who doesn’t care if it succeeds or fails, who just wants to keep putting into it, that’s actually really terrible, because you’ll have autonomy but you’ll lose. You don’t know if you have mastery, because the stakes aren’t real. You don’t really have purpose, but you have no one to impress. You’re just moving forward.

[00:14:19] DA: You’re just building features because it’s like, “Yeah. This feels like the right thing to do or this seems cool.”

[00:14:24] KT: So there’s a tradeoff between the three things as well sometimes.

[00:14:29] WJ: Are there any other frameworks that people like for motivation?

[00:14:32] MN: I mean, where does money actually fit in the three?

[00:14:35] WJ: I don’t think he really knows.

[00:14:35] KT: It doesn't.

[00:14:37] MN: Because money is important though. Well, I mean, I think that money is correlated to your mastery I guess in the workforce. How well you do a job can be whether you make more money in that sense. Autonomy doesn't equal cash, because you can choose to do things while you may or may not. But purpose, that’s like if you had a purpose like, “Oh! I want to build an app that can get me a cab.” That purpose but you still need the mastery in order to get the application done.

[00:15:15] KT: It depends on your cultural values. So there's like a New York thing where your self-value is how much you get paid. So it’s all tied into your identity. Your feedback about having mastery is just your paycheck. That’s what tells you you have mastery.


[00:15:30] WJ: To me, I think there's a difference between this kind of internal motivation like I’m doing something meaningful. I’m changing the world, or I'm getting better at my craft, or I am the master of my own destiny. An external motivator like I'll give you more money.

[00:15:46] DA: Right. That’s like the intrinsic versus the intrinsic motivations. Internally, I want to continue to grow and have purpose and whatnot. Externally, I don't want to live in tree. I want that good kibble for my puppy, and I want lots of buffalo chicken pizza for myself.

[00:16:08] MN: I had that thought recently where like before in time what was important is like a paycheck. I have a family I have to lookout for. I think now I am out of place where I have to look. Every day, I go to work. I say, “Okay. I want to learn. I want to do something different or learn something new, and the paycheck is going to come eventually as long as they continue to pay me.” But that motivation has changed the way I go to work now, because it's not like I don't have to worry so much about the cash that is coming in.

[00:16:46] KT: If you’re there to support your family, I feel like that's about purpose more than the other two things.

[00:16:49] MN: I see.

[00:16:50] KT: So it depends. It’s very — What do you mean by intrinsic and extrinsic? What’s your definition for that for motivation?

[00:16:59] DA: So intrinsic is like your internal forces that motivate you like desire to learn more, your maybe purpose where you feel fulfilled by the work or the mission that your work is completing like you're having some positive impact in society, whereas extrinsic would be like money and power.

[00:17:25] KT: I see.

[00:17:26] DA: Fame. I don’t know.

[00:17:27] KT: Yeah. I just don’t feel that break down personally, because I got a theory that people are altruistic, because it makes them feel better about themselves. It’s an indirect intrinsic motivation kind of, but it’s controversial.

[00:17:41] WJ: Right. Yeah. I think the theory is that species evolved and communities evolved to be altruistic, because it was better for the survival of the group.

[00:17:47] MN: And that's not the case now?

[00:17:52] WJ: No. It’s still the case now. It’s just that through that evolution, people have developed reward centers in their brain that makes them want to be altruistic.

[00:18:03] MN: I see.

[00:18:03] WJ: Because the tribes or communities or even whole species that did not have that trait were more likely to die out.

[00:18:13] MN: I’ve noticed that one of the reasons that I enjoy going to work is the – I now have a brand new day take to learn something, as I mentioned before, but also teach something to someone else. I feel like I've done a lot of agile methodology in different teams to be able to spread that knowledge to other teams that I work for, and the ability to have that opportunity is the reason why I enjoy it. I think I lose it when I don't have that ability like, “We don't want to hear anything from you. You quiet down and get to work.” It's like that's when I start feeling crippled. So it depends on the trust as you mentioned that I have with the client that allows me to spread the knowledge that I know about agile across the entire organization.

[00:19:00] KT: I think that’s I want for our firm and maybe across the development world to like always be driven by teaching and learning. But I don’t know if it scales. I don’t know if everybody else wants that.

[00:19:09] MN: Some people just want money, bro.

[00:19:13] KT: But maybe I don’t want to work with them.

[00:19:15] MN: No. That’s true, and that’s you being autonomous about who you want to work with.

[00:19:19] KT: If someone wants the money, if they want the cushy desk, because they don’t want a challenge, if they never want to do math, let’s not relate to that.

[00:19:26] MN: Kevin, it's been a while since we had to teach and learn. I want the teaching and learning.

[00:19:30] KT: Teaching and learning?

[00:19:31] MN: Yeah. Can you teach me something?

[00:19:33] KT: All right. So –

[00:19:36] WJ: And after that, mastery. Yeah.

[00:19:38] DA: There you go.

[00:19:38] KT: So I’m on a team that’s doing an organizational assessment with a client, trying to see how their teams are operating and what the trend – What their goals are and what’s not going well. So one of their big challenges is that they have five different modules, then a bigger project. It’s a good idea to try solving separate concerns, but you also need all to like hold together. So they’ve had very minimal integration testing, functional testing that’s actually fully end to end. So our recognition to them is that they should immediately try to solve that big hard problem first. Instead of making five separate pieces work better and better over months, they should this month write really hard tasks that actually try to cover everything like touch all the features. Back to back, they have to be integrated across boundaries.

So the teach and learn was that – A guy on my team was pushing with this integration testing and another guy on my team said, “Oh, yeah! That’s a walking skeleton.”

[00:20:34] DA: Spooky. Very spooky.

[00:20:35] MN: So spooky. What’s a walking skeleton?

[00:20:38] KT: A walking skeleton is a great name for programming strategy building a new application where you start from an interface of sorts, but you start from knowing what your use cases are and having a really big picture like we know we’re going to get through these steps but not the specifics of what it does. So you get that to go, even though it’s missing the details and meet your functional tests. Then you add more functional test, and you flush it out. But you start from a fully working skeleton, instead of having a complete leg that can't walk, because it’s not connected to anything else.

[00:20:38] MN: Spooky. So by having a broad integration test to test all the features that are currently in place.

[00:21:20] KT: Yeah.

[00:21:21] MN: Then you slowly flush out those tests to be more detailed to the business needs.

[00:21:29] KT: You’ll step out some parts of your application to be imaginary, but everything that’s there is minimal but is proven to work altogether as cohesive piece. So it’s called a walking skeleton.

[00:21:38] DA: Very few HP. Missing the details.

[00:21:42] KT: Right out of parts of the Caribbean.

[00:21:45] MN: I was thinking The Walking Dead.

[00:21:48] KT: Walking zombies.

[00:21:50] MN: Yeah. There you go.

[00:21:51] DA: It’s always gone.


[00:21:54] MN: Follow us now on Twitter @radiofreerabbit, so we can keep the conversation going. Like what you hear? Give us a five-star review and help developers just like you find their way into The Rabbit Hole and never miss an episode. Subscribe now however you listen to your favorite podcast. On behalf of our producer extraordinaire, William Jeffries, and my amazing co-host, Dave Anderson, and me, your host, Michael Nunez, thanks for listening to The Rabbit Hole.



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