What Do Purple Squirrels Eat?

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Strange question for an HR article? Not really, if you are in the technology industry.

"Purple squirrels" are well known as tough challenges for IT recruiters, even in a down market because purple squirrels are techies with very specific, very hard-to-find skills in technologies that are in very short supply—in other words, candidates who are perfect fits for what the job requires. Often software developers in the newest technologies such as Python, Ruby or Scala and even "older" Net are as scarce as the other species of purple squirrel.

John Bischke, an advisor to several tech startups reports on how tough it is to hire people with technical skills. "At a party recently, a startup founder told me ‘If you could find me five great engineers in the next 90 days, I’d pay you $400,000.’ Which is crazy talk. Unless you stop to consider that Instagram’s team (mostly engineers) was valued at almost $80 million per employee or that corporate development heads often value engineers at startups they are acquiring at a half-million to million dollars per person."(TechCrunch, April 28, 2012)

In fact, Bischke goes on to report that coding is as hot as it’s ever been. Technical and math occupations are expected to add over 785,000 new jobs from 2008-2018 (BLS). The bad news comes from the Marginal Revolution blog: "In 2009, the U.S. graduated fewer than 38,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science but over 89,000 students in the visual and performing arts." Bischke’s tongue-in-cheek commentary: "We are raising a generation of American Idols and So-You-Think-You-Can-Dancers when what we really need is a generation of Gateses and Zuckerbergs."

Even if you can find your purple squirrels amongst the 38,000 potentially available candidates, how will you keep them from being recruited away by the next great start up? The answer relies on focusing upon what purple squirrels eat— or rather, what keeps them nurtured and engaged. This is not only so that they get excited by the technology, but also so they can also can deal with spending eight hours a day (often more) sitting alone in a cubicle, struggling with challenging algorithms and complex systems, to say nothing of business users and customer demands.

Serial web entrepreneur, Rob Walling, in his article Nine Things Developers Want More Than Money, gives us a great start, based upon over 12 years of experience in the field and feedback from hundreds on his questionnaire intended to anecdotally measure software development motivational factors. After covering organizational psychologist, Frederick Herzberg’s "Two Factor Theory" on job satisfaction, outlining both hygiene factors (working conditions, quality of supervision, salary, safety, and company policies) as well as motivation factors (achievement, recognition, responsibility, the work itself, personal growth, and advancement), Rob applies the theory to his own experience.

He writes: "One of my early programming jobs was for a web consulting startup during the dot-com boom. There were seven of us…shooting each other with water pistols, throwing Nerf footballs around the office, and cranking out insane amounts of caffeine-driven code. We learned a new language every project and were always on the cutting edge. I remember thinking that a company across town could have offered me a $15,000 dollar raise and I wouldn’t have taken it. The motivation factors were overpowering.

"On the flip side, the benefits were terrible, the office was a series of tiny cubicles, gray from years of neglect – Smurf-blue network cables hung from the ceiling, and supervision was…well…non-existent. And although hygiene factors were lacking, developers flocked to work for this company and only one left while I was there. She was interested in a more stable work environment and better benefits, and went to work for a large financial institution…."

This reflection led Rob to develop his questionnaire on what motivates current software developers, and the results offer some relevant insights. Here are Rob’s Nine:

1. Being set up to succeed.
2. Having excellent management.
3. Learning new things.
4. Exercising Creativity and Solving the Right Kind of Problems.
5. Having a Voice.
6. Being Recognized for Hard Work.
7. Building Something That Matters.
8. Building Software Without an Act of Congress.
9. Having Few Legacy Constraints.

While some of these motivators sound specific to software development, the underlying drivers are similar for any industry: realistic deadlines, encouragement of independent thinking, learning new skills or the ability to challenge old ones, challenging work, someone to listen to one’s problems (who can do something about them), recognition for hard work, concern for one’s career development, doing something to make the world a better place, authority to make project decisions without calling a meeting, and the freedom to start anew when the past (in developer’s jargon "legacy, crappy code") is a hindrance.

The response to Rob’s informal questionnaire was overwhelmingly positive and supportive of the relevance of these motivators to software developers worldwide. As a result of asking readers to think about what motivates them in their current and even past jobs, Rob is helping people focus upon one of the most significant elements of career exploration—what motivates developers to join an organization or to stay with it when other factors might seem to be beckoning them elsewhere?

Two comments from Rob’s audience are particularly relevant to the 21st Century workplace and retaining hard-to-recruit talent. On the one hand, superstars, it would seem, will let little stand in their way. One response to the questionnaire was: "All a physicist needs is a pad and pencil, a parking place for his/her bike, and decent Health Insurance. Same with programmers." Another wrote: "It doesn’t matter how exciting the technology is if I don’t get to see my son."

Organizations looking to hire and retain Purple Squirrels (or for that matter, any talented candidate) will continue to showcase great salaries and the latest technology, but they will need to be cognizant that many potential next-gen Gateses or Zuckerbergs also crave the often elusive motivator of quality time with those who matter.