Treat Them Well - Embedded.com

Treat Them Well

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I recently worked with a company embarking on a big firmware project, one whose success was critical to the company's future viability. They're fortunate in having a dedicated group of smart engineers, nearly all of whom had been with the outfit for many years. Though the developers were supportive of the new effort, most were wary, concerned about the intense pressure associated with such an important and high-visibility project. Worse, management historically treated software as a necessary evil, not as a core component of their product. The firmware team got little respect and was usually blamed for schedule slippages.

Over a couple of days of discussion we hashed out a development process, tools, designs, schedules and more. The bosses saw a clear path to success and were happy. Team leads were raring to go.

The developers were still wary.

New techniques and tools weren't enough to overcome an ingrained culture that treated the engineers as second-class citizens. Without an intellectual &#151 and more importantly, an emotional &#151 commitment from the developers, there's no chance of succeeding in any aggressive product design. Treat engineers like unimportant cogs in a giant software factory and they'll respond like robotic automatons mindlessly slogging through the day's grind. Maybe an assembly line populated by dispirited laborers works when cranking out widgets, but programmers must be entirely engaged – mind and soul – to produce great products.

Management's primary role in any company is to help people be productive. They must devise ways to get the team excited, committed, and generally gung-ho about projects. Yet in far too many organizations the bosses confuse paperwork and meetings with managing people .

Apple Computer understood this in their early years. Music, rec areas, free sodas and a sense of fun pervaded the company. Software engineers really didn't want to go home. They were treated like kings and performed brilliantly as a result.

So I made some suggestions. After layering on process, tools and techniques, pour on a coating of caring. Have the big boss meet with the team and wax poetic how important these people are to the project and the company.

Give the team special status: comp time, free meals, provide pizza on weekends (not from the cafeteria but delivered from the best place in town), flex time, maybe hot new computers. The idea is to elevate them in their minds, and by implication in the minds of the rest of the company, to a special level.

Call the effort a skunk-works project. People like to feel special . Issue them special badges for the duration of the project. People like to be part of an “in” group .

Do unexpected things for the team. If an engineer is working late, once in a while deliver flowers to his wife with a note of appreciation from the big boss. Surprise the developers with little tokens of appreciation for extra effort.

The big boss can paint a picture &#151 in positive terms &#151 of the importance of the project to the rest of the company. That will, or course, create a little peer pressure to help motivate the team. Negative motivation, like “if this fails we're doomed” does not work.

Do these ideas seem silly or sophomoric? Perhaps, but in my experience it's the little things that get engineers wired about their work. Motivating engineers is one of the hardest of all management challenges, yet the one that provides the greatest benefits to producing awesome products on time.

Engineers are quick to see through the disingenuous. Authentic appreciation, demonstrated often, is a powerful force. The costs are amazingly low and the benefits stunning.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at . His website is .


Reader Response

Read: _Soul of a New Machine_ ISBN: 0-679-60261-5.

Very enlightening. I don't think it is in print still. A local library might. It is a lesson for quite a fewpeople. The ending seems typical for software/hardware engineers.

– Tom Watson


Many if the ideas you have presented can be found in the book “Peopleware” by Tom Demarco and TimothyLister. It is great to be reminded of these excellent ideas that really do work in the real world. I have been onboth sides of this issue and that extra effort from management can go a long way in motivating softwareengineers. Great stuff!

– Eric Rotvold


My students do better when given rewarding projects, or projects that have an positive impact onpeoples lives.

– Bill Murray


Software engineers are often treated like cogs in a software factory. But your solutions don't get to the rootof the problem. The most important thing they need, but which very few employers will provide is a productivework environment. The basic feature of which is a quiet private office with a door and a window. IBM came up with this in the study for the Santa Teresa project. The study has been replicated and other studies done on thedelitereous effects of noise and distractions. Business has responded by ignoring such ideas and giving outfree sodas instead. Or worse, they'll install a soda machine with a noisy compressor in the hall right outsideyour office.

I don't object to the free pizza on weekends, etc., but if the employer doesn't provide the support needed to getthe job done (office space, computer, software and hardware tools), then the frills become an insult.

– Gary Chatters


I can't agree with you more.During my fifteen years of working in industry I almost never encountered a manager that had the flexibility totreat the engineering staff as you suggest. Unfortunately, I suspect things will get worse as engineers are nowseen by senior management as a “cost” to be reduced by offshoring the work. Management seems to be saying thatengineers who want to continue to work in the field should accept third-world working conditions and wages.Otherwise, find some other employment. You are right that the costs of implementing your suggestions are low andthe benefits high, but to the manager that sees the engineer as only as a COST that needs to be LOWERED thissounds silly — he wants to know how to rid himself of their salary not how to make them happy.

– Alwyn E. Goodloe


“If an engineer is working late, once in a while deliver flowers to his wife with a note of appreciation from the big boss.”

Great suggestion but not all embedded engineers have wives. Some of us have husbands.

There seems to be an implicit assumption in your article that all embedded engineers are male. While there may not be many of us, statements like this without a corresponding suggestion for female engineers show how pervasive stereotyping is in our profession.

– Ann Yadlowsky

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