a companion discussion area for blog.codinghorror.com

The Vast and Endless Sea


The research shows money is required to motivate people for repetitive, uncreative work. So that gives you an idea what most kind of jobs consider themselves.


What does the Stack Exchange owner paying $129 a month have anything to do with people participating in a site?

I’ve heard you and Joel make this argument before on the podcasts and it still makes no sense.

If Stackoverflow rewarded people with money instead of reputation, and knowledge then yes, your argument holds water. Right now it seems like you’re forcing your ideals into your argument.


^^Nathan brings up a good point and makes me think of one more factor that this view doesn’t appear to take into account: playfulness. We’re inherently attracted to play in some form or another and will often go out of our way to engage in something for free as long as it’s fun. Amateur sports, fantasy football leagues, XBox achievements, custom maps/levels/characters/content, etc. all take work, time and passion for little or no monetary gain because they’re fun. If you took some of Mr. Pink’s examples and instead of money, made it a game to see who could come up with the most creative solution, the results might be different.


Why don’t I just ask the obvious question about “intrinsic motivation”.

a) general version

How is it possible, given that you are correct, that professionals beat amateurs ? In anything, from landing on the moon, to sports, to car manufacturing, to book writing, to software writing.

b) specific versions

Why are there better games (and for that matter, better drivers) for windows ? ( s/windows/xbox360/ or any other console)

Why isn’t bread available for free (since an amateur baker beats a professional, and the same goes for farmers)

Why is are there better IDEs for windows than linux ? And why are none of the “passable” IDEs created 99% by paid people ?

You get the point. Studies can claim how the world is free and all happy all they want, but one look around tells anyone with half a brain differently.


Still, it is important that people are not given too much freedom in wrong situations. I mean, responsibility like management or leading is easily avoided by “giving the team free hands”. There is nothing wrong with management nor leadership either, if done properly. And management is needed at all levels and aspects of a company, not just managing of the lowest production level.

Creativeness can emerge if you are not constrainted. But lack of all constraints isn’t good either. Constraints guide new developers, and old developers too.

One good example is that documentation is many times under appreciated. There is more like an attitude that documenting is waste of time or undoable in reasonable time or just for noobs. If software developers are writers, they should be able to write the documents too. Then the documents would save time later in many kinds of situation.


Thanks a lot. You just motivated my employer to pay me 25% less, but make my job more “fun.” This month, I’ll try paying my mortgage with “fun.”

I agree that there is a point at which more money is no longer the top motivator. But test that theory against a situation where you KNOW your efforts are making someone a boatload, and you don’t get to see any of it. That is much demotivating, friend.

As with all things, it’s a balancing act. There’s only so much more “fun” and “interesting” you can shovel at me before I want more money so I can do other fun and interesting things besides programming.


Very interesting article, but to me it seems like there are other factors.

At every job I have ever worked, there are people who either have or don’t have what we call “work ethic”. These employees in identical circumstances do tremendously different quality and quantity of work. How does science explain this?

Also, can this be related to the classroom? What creates the desire to do well in school? Does that “A” or “100” really signify better work or better effort and motivate students, or is it just a meaningless letter and number?


A teacher might give some assignment based on what the teacher is interested in. Then students do the assignment and the teacher gets answers that he finds interesting. Some students might consider that more like using the students as work force, which is not so motivating. This happens especially on every kinds of work trainings, where you might have to work for free as a trainee. If the student has same interests in the field as the teacher or trainer, then there is no problems and the student enjoys high grades.

Usually ambitious students say very clearly what kinds of assignments they want, so that the assignments support their studies. Not so ambitious students might accept “worse” assignments too, as not everyone can get to do the same assignments anyway.

There are different kinds of people in jobs. Other people can be “used” more easily, because they cannot say no to tasks.

Then the other people know exactly what are their responsibilities and how they want to develop their careers. The career builders hop from company to company advancing in hierarchy and leave a company if it is going to go worse. The career builders usually negotiate highest salaries and really concentrate on looking good towards their bosses.

Career builders are also more strict, they don’t like failing. They try to get into the best teams, get friends with the best and highest ranking people, and so on. Career builders are also socially intelligent, and they climb ladders into leading positions by applying or just by being promoted. Their motive is to play things well, and so they are doing what they want to do (build career), and they get paid good. The work is secondary, they might quit any day for a better and or better paid job.


While money is not a good motivator,

the lack of money is an excellent demotivator.


I can see why you can dare to say “not in this for the money”. After all, in many countries including the USA money is not really a big issue for basic life quality and you can easily gather enough from other places, thus that’s how SO could even be created.

But even if it’s true, Jeff, don’t say that.

You will probably never have a chance to experience how it is to live somewhere in which money is an issue in the daily life. In which you can easily become poor and strive for food, if you are careless enough and have no network. And it’s easy enough to accomplish that as well.

Luckily we don’t need to experience everything we learn to acknowledge them.

Once you can drop your other income sources to work exclusively to stack exchange, you will be in it for the money as well. And money doesn’t “magically” come to who is well intended. That alone is far from enough. So don’t say “all you mean is good to the world”. Everyone wants that, but everyone needs money nowadays just to survive in society.

And even that caveman who says he uses no money to live is not actually capable of doing anything in society without someone spending money for him. And people will only do so in exchange to something.

Why? Because trading is moving. And life requires movement. It is needed for a society to live as well, and that is trading, with or without money. It so happens that in our current time money represents trading. Simple as that.

Maybe you could say you’re not in this to become “filthy rich” or something, and I’m pretty positive that’s what you meant. I even believe it’s true, nobody in sane mind really wants money that bad. But you sure are in for the money because we all are living for the movement.


I think Dan Pink’s best point is actually, ‘pay people enough so that they stop thinking about money and start thinking about the work’.

It’s impossible to be intrinsically motivated to build the world’s best frobgasting tidwiddler for someone else when you are worrying about how you are going to feed your children tonight, or where you are going to sleep.

It’s only once our basic needs are being met on a sustainable basis that we can branch out and explore our interests and drives in other areas. As a species, we’ve taken around 196,000 years or so to get to a point where we don’t have to constantly think about how to survive, and it’s amazing how our culture has exploded in a veritable orgasm of complexity in the remaining 4,000 years.

We’re all in it for the money up to a certain point, because like it or not, money is survival - beyond that point is where all the interesting questions start to appear, and where we still have a lot to learn, it seems.


So this is suppose to apply to developing software? Keep in mind that there are many aspects to developing software that do not involve high-level problem solving. This is why documentation, commenting code, timesheets and some types of tech-support and bug-tracking would benefit if there was a pay incentive and are often neglected.

How many people would put the energy and effort into SO if they didn’t just throw out a suggestion for a solution, but had to code, test, debug, comment, document and track the time spent?

Oh, and that great new beautiful chunk of code you wrote just became part of a project that was put on hold for now.


Its a great study to see how far someone will go to rationalize their choices and decisions.


I think some people here as well as maybe the author of the article are missing some of the points of these studies. First, some other studies about why people do paid or unpaid work show that there are significantly distinct categories of people, for which the motivating and demotivating effects of different kind of incentives can be different or even opposite.

It boils down to the fact that the group of people that are the most motivated by intrinsic motivators (desire to improve oneself, sense of commitment to a community, etc) is only a minority. For this group monetary incentive does not work. But it does work for the other groups of people. It means that companies that manage like Google or Atlassian can work, but other companies can work too. They just need to hire different types of persons.

Second point, it does not mean that money does not matter at all for these people. Just that paying them a variable amount of money depending on the quality of their work is ineffective. It’s a bit different. They will want the most money possible, but once the amount is settled, it cannot change depending on their performance or it will lower it.

Last point, intrinsic motivation is by definition egoistic. You can’t have someone work for you only with intrinsic motivation. It works the other way, they will find you only if they’re interested. Therefore companies will always need extrinsic motivators to attract employees: money, good work environment, etc.


I saw the video the other day, and I’ve read similar research papers by scientists tasked with the goal of “dis-entangling performance from pay”. A question to ask is, “Who sponsored these studies and why?” I speculate business leaders do because their goal is to increase profit margins, which return more money to investors and allow them to increase compensation for themselves. That isn’t exactly Utopian, but I doubt Utopia seeking individuals sponsored such research.

It also might be interesting to launch another study to see what happens to those motivation levels when only a few people prosper well from the efforts of many after motivating them using social engineering methods described in prior research.


StackOverflow is fantastic, and Jeff is a fantastic writer. Which is why it hurts to read this article, which comes across exactly like this: “Don’t hate me because I’m rich, since I’m trying hard not to be.”

There are a couple of things wrong with this.

  1. It’s OK to want money. Really. Just because some people will be envious, and there are others who want money to an unhealthy degree, does not mean money, or desiring money, is inherently bad. You can be a good person who is also well-off.

  2. What’s certainly not OK is to say you’re doing something purely for intrinsic satisfaction, and at the same time charge $129 a month for it. Your attempts to take the focus off this fact by highlighting how much intrinsic enjoyment you also get from the process of coding I find a bit sickening. I feel condescended to.

If you are lucky enough to be in a position where you can afford to do something purely for the intrinsic satisfaction of it, that’s wonderful. In that case, it’s prudent to look around you, notice that not everyone is that lucky, and consider whether talking loudly about your position of luxury would be rude. So even if you were offering Stack Exchange for free, I would advise you to go easy on talking about how much you enjoy programming for its own sake.

No doubt you do get a lot of satisfaction from working on Stack Exchange, and naturally you want to tell people about it. Here’s my suggestion: Don’t. Or at the very least, openly admit at the same time that it’s a profitable venture and that you hope it will continue to be. Yes, I’m telling you to risk offending the envious so that you can be taken seriously by everyone else.

You’re doing great work Jeff, take some pride in the success (including the financial success) you’re experiencing. Don’t flaunt it, but don’t apologise for it either. And please don’t try to pretend you’re working for free.


@Jeff Atwood
Thanks for another interesting installment. While the focus of the article is on people building teams or hiring people, I as a programmer can relate to the basic idea, too. I perceive those times in my hitherto work life as the most productive, where I was able to feel like a part of the product, as opposed to feel like one cog wheel among many, disposable at any time.

I am not sure how you got to the “since I’m trying hard not to be” part of your impression. I cannot see anything in the article about Jeff avoiding to make money. It is rather about earning his money with something he loves to do. And about propagating that idea.

This part of your post, “Your attempts to take the focus off this fact by highlighting how much intrinsic enjoyment you also get from the process of coding I find a bit sickening”, is turning the articles message on its head. The focus is on the enjoyment, but money is also made.

If you follow the link labeled “Stack Exchange 2.0” in the article, you can find this comment from Mr. Atwood: “That said, of course money is necessary to run a business and hire and pay people, but it’s not the goal.”


@casual_juergen: It’s funny isn’t it – IMHO that comment of Jeff’s at the “Stack Exchange 2.0” link that you mentioned is a low point in that otherwise frank, open and informative discussion. That comment, like Jeff’s entire article above, attempts to minimise the importance of making money as one of Jeff’s goals with SO, implying that either he’s ashamed of making money (perhaps believing that it unfairly comes at the expense of others), or believes others will see it that way and react negatively (which could well be accurate, sadly).

Despite the fact that Jeff and Joel surely believe (as I do) that SO has genuine value to the programming community, and that they love doing this work, they are not doing it purely for love and no other reason, and to hear Jeff imply that they are, or that they only charge enough to cover costs, is disingenuous.

To me, to come out and tell the world in a blog post that you are not “in it for the money” is protesting too much. It’s a misdirection aimed at either relieving a guilty conscience, or (my guess) placating the envious hordes.

Maybe Jeff and Joel really are underpaying themselves – in effect donating much of their time to SO. That would be a noble thing to do. But in that case I don’t want to hear about this noble act from them any more than I want to hear some guy brag about how much he gives to charity each year. Maybe it’s just a cultural thing, but where I come from (New Zealand) a certain amount of modesty in these matters is the norm. But in truth I doubt this “Let’s underpay ourselves” scenario is actually happening.

Anyway, those are just my feelings and opinions, and you’re certainly welcome to disagree. Many people say they have found this article to be one of Jeff’s more inspiring ones, which is something that amazes me, but there you go. As I said I think SO is fantastic, and Jeff is a very entertaining writer.


Experiments are a dime-a-dozen. Here is one: Get a bunch of groups of undergraduate students (try to choose within the same major because of the problem of self-selection into majors by value systems and personality traits). In both groups, each student will be given a short document containing spelling errors. Each spelling error found is worth, say, $2 (or maybe 2 points on the final but that is harder to get past Institutional Review Boards).

With some groups, announce that every person will earn the same amount equal to the $2 times the total number of spelling errors identified by the group divided by the number of people in the group.

With other groups, announce that everyone will be paid based on the number of spelling errors she finds and nothing else.

With other groups, announce that everyone will be paid a certain base amount (say, $4) plus ($2 - d) times per spelling error she finds.

With yet more groups, ask them to vote on the distribution rule. There are at least two treatments here: For example, you can ask the students to vote on the distribution rule before doing the work; if you do this, you can have treatments based on whether the results of the vote are announced. Or you can ask the students to vote on the distribution rule after doing the work.

Students must be paid in real money. You must not use any deception. (These are the rules that set Economics experiments apart from those Psychology experiments).

Try to guess what kind of relationship between “total output” and distribution rule.

Of course, there is intrinsic motivation. It may be tickled by a desire to make more money (so that one can afford better things for oneself or for others that one cares about – a desire to make money does not preclude caring for others) or it may be tickled by other things the person values that cannot easily be bought with money.

I am reminded of my favorite line in the Aviator: “You do not care about money,” Howard Hughes says to his fiancee’s family, “because you have it.”

Jeff (and Joel): I love SO. I have put a lot of time into answering questions on SO because I like it (see http://stackoverflow.com/users/100754/sinan-unur ). I have also mentioned on meta.stackoverflow.com that we are generate content so you and Joel can make money. I don’t mind it. I get something out of SO which you cannot buy with money but yet is still valuable. Plus, I have been enjoying both of your blogs for almost a decade now.

Just stop pretending having money, wanting money etc are bad things. Enjoy yours.


"Anyway, those are just my feelings and opinions, and you’re certainly welcome to disagree."
I apologize, if my post came across as sort of indoctrinating. That was not my intent. In hindsight, I should have added an “in my opinion” somewhere.

Cultural differences might indeed be an explanation for the fact, that we draw very different implications from Jeff’s Statements.