What Motivates Me to Work?

May 30, 2022 —

This is definitely not the kind of stuff I typically write about here. But it is increasingly something that I've been thinking about over the past two-ish years and figured that's as good a reason as any to write about it here! This is about my own personal motivations when it comes to sitting myself down to get actual work done. Whether it's personal side projects, or perhaps more importantly, for paid work for an employer.

Like many of us, I know that there are times when "work" doesn't feel like work at all, and I am constantly motivated to continue pressing forward. These are the times when I find myself cursing the seemingly low number of hours in the day and keep telling myself "hey, you need to set this aside, it's 8pm, and you still haven't even started cooking your dinner yet!" We all also have our off periods where our motivation and enthusiasm for some piece of work is almost non-existent, and it ends up being a big slog to continue pushing ourselves forward to get the work done.

There are many factors that affect our motivation over time. Including things completely outside our control, and even things completely outside the actual work itself. But putting these things aside (though, still noting that they are indeed also important), what generally do I think motivates me?

I'm not going to pretend that I have a perfect answer either, but I think some events over the past two years, as well as noting certain things and patterns from years prior, have at least hinted at one pattern that I'm starting to notice. And who knows, maybe I'm wrong and have misread things. But sometimes it helps to write things out to organize ones own thoughts! I mean, that's what this website that I often forget that I even have is for right? A blog, to jot down ones own personal thoughts. How about that.

From my professional start as a software developer in 2005 right through 2020, I always worked for organizations that had somewhat small development teams, even if the organization itself was large. Even at the hospital that I worked at for most of the period from 2013 to 2020, which is the largest organization I've personally worked for in my career, there was a large IT department, but the development teams within it were very siloed. There were multiple teams, but the responsibilities of these individual teams were largely disconnected from each other except for some common set of web services and messaging interfaces that the team I worked on was responsible for maintaining.

Anyway, when you work for development teams like this, very often every team member has a strong voice. There are exceptions to this that I'm sure some could point out, but in many situations, a small team like this often means that every team member's voice is heard and that the barriers to effect real change in direction for the project, planning, code, architecture, etc. are much smaller than they might be otherwise on a development team of hundreds or more. It's kind of like working at a small startup, even when your development team is embedded within a large organization.

For all of its faults, I really enjoyed working at the hospital. I worked on a few different clinical web applications that actual nurses, doctors and other staff inside the hospital would use daily to help provide care. This was obviously very impactful work. Later on I worked on a big migration effort of the aforementioned web services and messaging interfaces that powered much of the other development teams at the hospital. We did such a massive amount of work for a team of 6 developers. And I can say, that even though the technical stack we used certainly wasn't new and exciting in any way, I almost always found the work interesting and motivating. We regularly worked through problems, solved architectural issues, planned, wrote good documentation for our future selves, and more. I also very much liked the team I worked with. This was the second time in my career that I'd worked at an organization where it genuinely felt like my team were basically a bunch of friends. People that you genuinely got along well with and that you genuinely cared about.

This is what made it painful to leave at the end of 2020. I knew for a year that a big change in the organization was coming and that it was, in all likelihood, going to cause me to leave. And truth be told, the way that the events unfolded over the course of 2020 was actually somewhat worse than how I predicted they were going to unfold. That stung. A lot. I headed into 2021 in possibly the biggest bout of depression I've ever personally experienced.

This coincided with my joining a startup, also in the healthcare space, in January 2021. My depression at this time almost certainly played into this, but I was not happy and left in just under two months. My shortest time ever at any job. The big contrast to my previous jobs was that this was a large development team on a fast growing startup that had more than tripled in size over the previous year. All these developers were essentially working on the same product. So this was the first time I'd be at a company working as a small cog in a big machine. I saw a lot of ugly things (not just code, but processes and leadership) that I did not like, but knew that I would not be able to do anything about because you can't just pivot a large codebase like that and of course, there are other more senior people in charge. My voice just isn't as big now as I was used to for the past 15 years. The fact that I got about a 50% pay raise didn't really make much of a difference in my mind. I was still unhappy. Perhaps I should've given it more time, but the existing depression wasn't helping, that much was clear to me.

After a few months of being voluntarily unemployed, I started another job in July 2021. This was with an organization that had been around a long while. I was explicitly trying to ignore fast-growing startups this time. Here I would be joining a small development team of 5. I would also be taking a ~20% pay cut from my previous short-lived job. But I felt like it was going to be worth it for what I was guessing would be less stressful, better work-life balance and benefits.

Initially it was clear to me that I was inheriting a giant ball of mud. Lots of technical debt, and a painfully obvious perfect textbook example of microservices done wrong. The organization was undergoing a migration effort that was a couple years behind schedule. The development team I joined was at the heart of this, unfortunately. But "that's fine," I figured, "nothing is perfect and with a smaller organization like this we can slowly start to steer things in the right direction."

This time the barriers that I encountered were not technical at all, but were all leadership problems. The organization knew that this project was behind schedule but the leadership (at all levels, direct team lead right through to executive level) were simply unwilling to do what was necessary to fix the project. From the executive leadership that painted a picture of open communication and a willingness to listen and accept feedback but then in the next step ignore the received feedback completely and fell back to the same old mistakes yet again, to the team lead who simply didn't understand how to prioritize work on a short deadline and instead had people working on objectively unimportant tasks when there were plenty other bigger fish to fry. It was all set up to fail and despite my making a lot of noise all along the way, I found that I was completely powerless to fix things.

I ended up leaving in early 2022, but the last few months were an incredible slog for me. I felt the least amount of motivation that I'd ever felt anywhere. I wish I was one of those people who could just shrug off decisions from their manager, project lead, tech lead, or whoever else is above them, that they know deep down are "wrong." I am not one of these people. I know that sometimes you just gotta do it even though you know it's wrong. But when you have been given a history lesson at the organization and have heard all the different "20/20 is hindsight" takes on why this organization is over two years behind schedule on this big migration effort, and then can see very clearly for myself, how the leadership is just making the exact same mistakes again ... yeah, my motivation just evaporates completely.

And so I've found myself reflecting on this most recent experience quite a lot since leaving there early this year. It left such a stain in my head that I still cannot fully shake for some reason. I'm sure it will fade away with time, but it makes me realize that what motivates me is the feeling that the team I am working with is on the right path. It might not be a perfect path. There may be many warts still. But at least we're headed in the right general direction, as bumpy as it may be. And that previous job just did not even feel that way to me whatsoever. And this feels very similar to the other startup I was oh-so-briefly at in early 2021 where I had a similar feeling of hopelessness.

Unfortunately, I now find myself in another somewhat similar position today. I'm a few months into another job at an older startup (been around for about 10 years) that has a number of technical debt issues but much more importantly, a number of serious leadership issues. And this is evident to me right away on my team's current project which seems to have been just haphazardly thrown at this team (shortly before I joined) with barely any planning or technical design whatsoever. Talking about this with my director amongst other people has not helped matters for me personally. I get reassurances, but I now see indications of the pattern I saw at my previous job. Where you can see the same type of talk and the leadership seemingly not learning from prior mistakes.

And yet again, I find my motivation to have crashed down through the floor. Because I know that at this large of a startup which has proudly claimed it plans to continue growing at this pace into the future, that things are likely to get worse before they get better. And that I am likely to be pretty powerless to effect any change, at least if I am to base that prediction on current events and discussions.

Again I am left with the feeling that we are not on the right path. And I find myself wondering "what is the point?" throughout my day. It is so completely mentally draining to me.

It is interesting to note how little salary seems to matter in this either. Something I didn't totally expect. I am making more right now than I ever expected to in my career, probably owing to the fact that I joined a US-based startup (one of the worst-kept secrets in Canada's tech sector ... want to get paid a lot? Don't work for a domestic company!). I am literally making twice what I was in my previous job. And I find myself often contemplating moves to much lesser paying companies now.

So, what do I think motivates me to work?

The feeling that I am contributing to a good solution. That we are on the right path, even if it's not a perfect path. And at least to a certain degree, a feeling that I have a voice that is heard and respected and not just listened to for appearance's sake and then disregarded.

Now ... if only I could find a job again that gives me that feeling ...