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Henrik Warne is a software developer in Stockholm, Sweden. He has been programming professionally for more than 20 years. Henrik is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 22 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

What Do Programmers Want?

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I got an e-mail last week from three students at Halmstad University doing a three month project on what programmers want in a job, and how companies can attract talented programmers. Here are my answers to their questions, in order of importance. Obviously people have different preferences, so it would be interesting to hear what items you agree and disagree with, how you would rank them, and what you think is missing.

The product is software. I like the programs I work on to be the main business of the company. This rules out working in an IT-department, since their job only supports the real business (whatever it is) indirectly. I also like to work on the central parts of the system – the more important it is, the better. If my parts stop working, it should immediately become an emergency issue. Finally, I don’t want to merely configure, adapt and glue together software from other companies – I want to write significant chunks of functionality myself.

Great colleagues. It is very stimulating to work with smart programmers who are passionate about software development. Time and again I see how discussing a problem or a design with a colleague leads to a solution that is better than either of us would have come up with by ourselves. Not only does it lead to better code, the process itself is also very enjoyable.

How do you know if someone is a good programmer? A very good sign is if they keep learning and improving their skills, for example by reading books and blogs, taking courses, and going to conferences. It is not a necessary condition though; I’ve worked with plenty of really great developers that don’t. Finally, good developers tend to attract other good developers, because of the reasons above. The fact that a company has many great developers makes it easier to recruit more.

Challenging problems. Programmers like solving problems with code. There should be at least  some aspect of the product that requires clever solutions, be it requirements on low latency, many concurrent requests, or limited hardware resources. However, a lot of productions software consists of regular code without any particularly difficult parts. So you should not expect to only work on “hard problems” and shun everything else. Besides, it is a big challenge to organize even the boring code in a way that makes it easy to understand and maintain.

Cool technology. This is mainly about using interesting programming languages (for example Clojure, Erlang or Go), but also includes frameworks and applications (for example Hadoop or Cassandra). This is one area where a company may have a problem. If their application is written in a certain language (say C++), it won’t change. So if you want to change to using some new language, you pretty much have to change jobs. For example, if you want to work with Erlang in Stockholm, you could try Klarna or Campanja.

Users. One of the joys of coding is making something that is useful to others. Making something that nobody uses is boring. Having users (the more the better) focuses the development effort and gives valuable feedback. The only exception would be a start-up, but then the overriding priority must be to get users as soon as possible.

Good salary. Companies that have a lot of good developers know the value of great people. Since the variation between great and average programmers is big, it makes economic sense to pay for quality developers – the variation in productivity is much greater than the variation in salary. On the flip side, companies that don’t pay their programmers well tend to be the companies that view programmers as interchangeable “resources”. Those are the companies you want to avoid for other reasons as well, not just for the low salary.

Good tools. This is almost self-evident. Having a fast computer and several monitors speeds up development – who’s against that? (OK, pointy-haired bosses that only see the cost, not the benefit, would be against).

40 hours a week. If you constantly have to work overtime to ship, something is wrong in the organization. Besides, working long hours don’t equate with being productive.

Minimal bureaucracy. For the development process, this is more or less fixed with agile development methodologies, which seem almost universally adopted. General administrative overload is mostly a problem at larger companies in my experience.

Working from home. It’s handy to be able to work from home sometimes, but it is not high on my list. I like being at the office and interacting with people. I’ve worked with a remote office using video conferencing, chat and e-mail, but it didn’t come close to the kind of productivity you get from being co-located.

Short commute. Obviously hard to influence, but not spending hours each day in traffic is really great.


If you are a consultant, some things on the list change. I’ve always liked working for product companies, mostly because I prefer to really get to know a system deeply and seeing it evolve over time. So I don’t have any first-hand knowledge of working as a consultant, but my take is this. As a consultant, it is much easier to get exposed to cool new technology, since you have a chance to work with many different clients. However, even if you have great colleagues, you probably won’t work with them day to day, since you may be with different customers.

So this is the list, in order of importance, of what I look for in a company. In real life there are always some compromises, but the higher up something is on the list, the less willing I am to compromise on it. What are your priorities?

Published at DZone with permission of Henrik Warne, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)


Chris Shayan replied on Wed, 2013/03/27 - 11:03am

Very well defined. What do you think about a practice like here ? I tried it and I got a lot of good improvements.

Henrik Warne replied on Wed, 2013/03/27 - 11:48am in response to: Chris Shayan

Yes, I think autonomy is crucial, especially for programmers. 

Developer Dude replied on Wed, 2013/03/27 - 3:58pm

Core product is s/w: Yes, but for my own reasons. In my experience the orgs where s/w is the core product tend to understand the process/requirements of producing s/w much better than those where the s/w is ancillary to their business. They have to understand it better or the business will fail.

colleagues: YES! Makes all the difference. This and the org make all the difference.

The tech/tools: To some degree this is important. I don't necessarily need to be working with state of the art tech, or tech that will change the world (although that would be nice), but I don't want to be working with a 10+ year old OS and a version of a language/SDK/etc. that is several versions behind the current widely adopted version of that tech. I also don't want to be working with tech that is some homegrown version of something (first job out of college I worked on a platform that was so old the org was scrambling to buy used DG Novas which were not made anymore, hadn't been made for over a decade, and the programming language was some macro language invented in-house).

bureaucracy: bureaucracy is bad mmmkay?

salary: money is good mmmkay?

working from home: an org that doesn't trust me to work from home is outdated and paranoid. I currently commute 60 miles a day (roundtrip) and waste up to 2 hours a day driving that commute. I could just as easily work at home most of the time. I have worked at home for several orgs and they complimented me on the quality and productivity. I cannot live in the city and maintain my sanity so I live out in the boonies. An org that offers to let me work from home regularly, at least some percentage of my workweek, would be attractive to me.

Lund Wolfe replied on Sat, 2013/03/30 - 5:16pm

I guess everybody is different:

  • tech/tools - if I don't like the tools, language, frameworks, etc, then I'm already way out of sync with the company
  • product is software - ideally it is end to end software to users, or a significant piece, or core libraries that support it
  • users - its all about doing the right thing for the users, and the reward is in helping people (the most disturbing opposite is building quality software that is thrown away or never used)
  • bureaucracy - the company doesn't value software
  • salary - the company values software developers

Arthur Gorr replied on Wed, 2013/04/03 - 9:54pm

I pretty much agree with your wants though I might tune the order slightly.  One that I would add, high in priority:  "zone time".  Of course if all the enumerated wants are satisfied, there will probably be ample zone time.

Henrik Warne replied on Thu, 2013/04/04 - 4:29am in response to: Arthur Gorr

Yes, several people have mentioned quiet working conditions, and I agree - it's very important. Like you wrote, if a company gets everything else right, this should be a given.

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