3 Simple Strategies for Motivating Your Tech Team

By Etelka Lehoczky, Inc. magazine, March 2017

When Anastasia Leng quit Google to start Hatch.co, a shopping site for handmade goods, in 2012, one of the skills she’d developed at the tech giant proved crucial. Managing some of the world’s best IT talent gave the marketing specialist deep insight into how their values and priorities are different from those of other businesspeople. “I was like a fish out of water my first six months,” she recalls. “I needed to earn the engineers’ respect by understanding the things they were saying at a philosophical and logical level.”

That lesson proved essential as she built Hatch.co and, later, creative-intelligence platform Picasso Labs, both based in New York City. You could use some of Leng’s acumen, because your IT workers feel misunderstood, according to a recent survey. Forty-nine percent are frustrated by your unrealistic expectations, says a 2016 survey by Experts Exchange, and another 34 percent complain of your “lack of technology understanding.” How do you get the most out of your IT department when you’re not particularly (or at all) tech-savvy? These strategies can help you talk to–and manage–your tech team.

Smarten up
“What helped me build credibility with engineers was learning to talk the talk,” Leng says. “You need to know what terms and acronyms mean–one engineering language from another.” Don’t balk at extra study. Even with a master’s degree in computer engineering, Adam Kornfield, co-founder and CTO of New York City-based notebook maker Baron Fig, learned a lot from a coding boot camp he found on CourseReport.com. “If you have the knowledge, you will earn more respect,” he says. One key lesson? “Get help. Now I have a network of developers I can talk to when I have questions on advanced things. You’re never going to learn it all. You’ve got to stay humble.”


Feed the soul(s)
Programmers aren’t all the same. Learn how to make each individual’s work experience rewarding. “For some, it’s really important to contribute code back to the open-source community,” says Maria Seidman, co-founder and CEO of New York City-based mobile-app developer Yapp. “That’s not universal. Some might want to build products or solve gnarly problems.” Many developers crave well-written code–a desire that may cause conflicts. “A lot of times engineers want to fix a system with a lot of Band-Aids on it–[a task with] no customer ROI,” says Kate Matsudaira, a programmer and the principal of Seattle-based Urban Influence. “Have a conversation about the real benefit. Is it employee happiness? Productivity? Help the technologists understand that everyone wants the company to be successful.”


Make work work
Craft an optimal workflow. Don’t load on too many projects, says Yapp co-founder and CTO Luke Melia. “A typical entrepreneur has a lot of stuff going on–juggling phone calls, closing those deals,” he says. “An engineer with six projects at the same time is probably overwhelmed and not going to get anything done.” And when collaborating, keep teams tight. “Attempting to design by consensus doesn’t work well. We keep working groups small–three or four people,” says Mark Dickson, co-founder and CTO of the 2015 Inc. 500 company Whiplash Merchandising in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That said, “we try to keep everyone out of silos. Every day we have a 15-minute meeting at which the whole group can chime in. Everyone can always see the larger vision of the company.”

Double cheese won’t make techies value meetings. These tips will.

Seriously, enough with the pizza
“The software community has an international mix of people, and a lot are vegetarians. They’re looking for healthier options. It’s more ‘veggie forward’ now than ever before. Always have salads and fruit available at lunch.”
–Liz Weiss, founder, Meal Makeover Moms


Lead with data
“Send out whatever you want to talk about two to three days in advance. Engineers like to marinate on something before they give feedback.”
–Anastasia Leng, founder, Hatch.co and Picasso Labs

Time it right
“Meetings should happen only at the beginning or end of the day. If I’m an engineer and I get to work at 10 a.m. and have a meeting at 11:15, the likelihood I’m going to get productive work done first is a lot lower than it is for other workers. It takes uninterrupted time and space to ‘load’ a problem into your head and keep it there long enough to write code.”
–Luke Melia, co-founder and CTO, Yapp