a companion discussion area for blog.codinghorror.com

The Vast and Endless Sea


After we created Stack Overflow, some people were convinced we had built a marginally better mousetrap for asking and answering questions. The inevitable speculation began: can we use your engine to build a Q&A site about {topic}? Our answer was Stack Exchange. Pay us $129 a month (and up), and you too can create a hosted Q&A community on our engine – for whatever topic you like!

This is a companion discussion topic for the original blog entry at: http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2010/06/the-vast-and-endless-sea.html


Great post Jeff, Keep up the good work :slight_smile:


It is always interesting to see why it is that humans do what they do. I read about the MIT experiments in Predictably Irrational: http://amzn.to/bNl9Io by Dan Ariely. Great book!


That video is spot on and completely in line with my experience. I have worked with some extremely well paid tech staff and I have never seen such a bunch of useless, lazy F&cks (including to some degree myself).

I have since moved on, started my own company, make next to nothing and absolutely love it.



Great and informative post. It’s very weird to see that business ignores such scientific data.


Well, the money must not be crap, but I have also seen what gets people going is a vision and a mission! Not the kind that so many corporates seem to think will enthuse their staff, with a lot of big talk and useless positive speech while disregarding the real issues on the ground, but something that is actually ‘owned’ by the team, and they can contribute to. Improving the world, in whatever way, is a great motivator! Show me a developer that doesn’t care whether their software is ever used, or making the world a little bit better, as long as they get paid for it, and I’ll show you regrets looking back in 20 or 30 years time.


I don’t mind “communist hippie bullcrap,” in fact I enjoy it. I just hate to see it used to mask a blatantly profit-motivated enterprise whose business model harvests the voluntary efforts of others.


A strong candidate for article most forwarded to one’s boss.


“That $129/month doesn’t sound like much – and it isn’t”

I really wanted to use Stack Exchange but couldn’t afford it… Maybe to enterprise $129/month isn’t much, but to the small guy it is.


Based solely on the description of the experiment, I’m inclined to disagree with the conclusions. This experiment creates a situation where:

  1. Time is the sole differentiating factor (no points for sticking the candle on the wall ‘really well’,
  2. No opportunity to develop a skill (let me go learn about the nature of candle wax…).
  3. The difference between first and second place is pretty extreme.

In such a situation, yeah people are going to get a little frantic, and yeah it’s going to negatively affect their performance.

How does this experiment say anything about real life, where people are motivated to increase their skills over time? Where people and organizations can choose each other based on a variety of factors – including monetary compensation?

By the way, my SO rep is currently above 2700, which, while not remarkable, does demonstrate that I enjoy problem solving enough to do it for a pat on the back. While I’m willing to solve the problems I want to solve for free, I’ll only solve the problems someone else wants to solve for money. And if the other guy is willing to compensate me better, all things being equal, I’m going to go solve that guy’s problems.


The example he gives is completely unrelated to the real world. Asking a group of people to complete tasks they are not professionals at completing is very different from asking a skilled person to complete a task he is a professional at completing. If this idea of incentivizing is so good try to get a house painter to paint your house for the reward of a job well done.

In addition some of the q and a sites that are run for major corporations that need difficult questions answered have rewards over $10,000. I have a strong feeling these questions would never be answered for a pat on the back.

Do you think netflix reward for improving their recommendation engine was fruitless?

I will agree that your post sounds like “a bunch of communist hippie bullcrap”


Intrinsic motivation is hardly a new idea; it’s an embedded feature of human nature. Fascinating topic - one that was researched in the early mists of time by the rishis of ancient India. It’s simple: what people want is to experience greater happiness and escape sorrow. We’ve been given five instruments through which we can find happiness: body, feeling, will, mind, soul. Happiness comes by using these tools “expansively” - in ways that expand our awareness. Suffering comes when we use them contractively. As a distance runner, the most contractive thing I can do is overtrain. OT’d runners are crabby and incapable of much empathy. Expansive training is harmonious, controlled, incremental; it produces joy. Same goes for sharing, whether it’s code or smiles. I’ve done 50-mile races as fundraisers for a small private school. Those races were tinged with an aura of joy. Interesting stuff. I wrote a book about expansive sports - the whole dang thing is online: Fitness Intuition.


I love StackOverflow but this does not compute: investing tens of housands and now millions in a startup does not (somehow) create distorting financial incentives for the StackOverflow team, but your customers paying $129 for a StackExchange does create such a disincentive, for them. How does that work?

Also, “I’m not in it for the money” is the biggest lie in Silicon Valley. While you guys have admirable business practices and plans to give back, why not admit money is part if your motivation? Didn’t some of your team work for free or at discounted rates? You’re honestly saying they – or Joel – don’t want a big payday? There’s nothing wrong with being in it (at least partly) for the money.


Money can’t buy happiness but it can sure make you comfortably miserable, right?

The problem with using money as The primary motivator is that the supply is variable. What happens when you don’t have enough? Organizations usually revert to “You are fired if…” negative territory and we all know those work environments.

Money & Things as a life goal seems hollow. My guess is that most people would are working hard to get Money & Things will say, “It’s a means to an end.” To what end? How much is enough? Show me people who can answer those questions and I will show you people who grok this post.


“I’m not in it for the money” Yeeeeeah Right!!
Not in it for the money? Release everything under GPL or better yet under BSD


I wish they would have given more concrete figures. If you are talking about highly skilled, highly paid types - then maybe the difference between 100k and 110k isn’t a strong motivator.

The white-board video said to pay them ‘enough’ that they don’t have to worry about money. I certainly don’t make ‘enough’ to afford the life-style I’d like to have. And I don’t mean super-rich with a yacht or anything. But enough to have a decent house in a nicer part of town and afford 2-3 kids.


Yeah, that is nice. People need freedom. But if you want to create a good company, you need also something orderly. You can’t build an ocean liner by giving all the workers free hands. There needs to be designing, planning, schedules, etc… You can still treat people like people, not only as resources, but plans have to be made. The same goes to everything in the world. If people are given free hands, they will or at least might consume the nature before they notice that hey, someone has to take some responsibilities here.


For every developer whose intentions are for the best, there’s least one person standing behind him with dollar signs in their eyes and their hand out. Until we have the physical needs of every human on this planet taken care of we’ll still focus more on killing each other than bettering ourselves or society.


You’re doing a great job! Thanks for the ‘vast and endless sea’ reminder…


I don’t think that giving people the ability to make decisions for themselves translates into anarchy. Planning, designing, sticking to schedules, etc are all things that people will address themselves when motivated.

I worked on a farm when I was in high school, and we had the ability to pretty much organize ourselves on our team however we wanted. There was 3-4 of us, all 14-17 years old and a farmer with a tractor pulling a baler and wagon of hay. Our job was to get it off the wagon and stacked appropriately in the barn before the next wagon came. How we did it was our problem.

The key is people in many offices beat around the bush and don’t say what they need to say. On the farm, if someone wasn’t pulling their weight, they shaped up or shipped out. In many offices, people are able to leech off of everyone for months before anything is done. In offices where everyone is focused on the mission, that just doesn’t happen.