How do Developers Define Success?

This is part 2 of a series of blog posts based on a talk I prepared called Successfully Derailed Product. It’s about the ways in which we define and talk about “success” influence what – and how – we build. See part 1.

 With the caveat that how we define success comes from various places, and any collective definition is most likely nonsense. I set off to understand the ways in which developers, and particularly individual contributors think about success.

I started with the Stack Overflow survey. Caveat: I hate it and I think it’s riddled with bias. For example, women make up ~fifty percent of the population, around ~twenty percent of technical roles… and 7.2% of the respondents to this survey.

So let’s start by looking at how developers feel about jobs and careers. Developers tend to be pretty satisfied with their career, a bit more so than their current job.

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When looking for their next job, the top priorities are professional development, compensation, office environment and technologies.

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The most valued parts of compensation are vacation time, remote options, health benefits and expected work hours.

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Most developers check in code multiple times a day. And the more often they check in, the happier they tend to be.

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Success metrics developers would choose are: customer satisfaction, time and budget, peers rating and product performance. It’s interesting that manager ratings and self ratings are considered about as useful. Not a ringing endorsement for managers there.

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So to rounding out the quantitative data riddled with bias, I got some biased qualitative data in the form of posting a question on twitter.

https://twitter.com/catehstn/status/974977571728314368

I got some interesting responses. But I’d also love to know what you think. (Leave your answer in the comments or tweet at me).


Many of the themes from the Stack Overflow survey showed up here – shipping code, learning and developing, autonomy.

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There was also a theme of recognition – including financial. Which makes sense, because as as society money is the usual mechanism by which we communicate value.

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People also talked about the way the sense of accomplishment changes (or has to change) as your job evolves and you take on more responsibility.

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Another theme, though, was the theme of impact. People using what was built, benefitting others in some way.

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The graphs show trends, but people’s personal definitions show that success is personal. We see the baggage people bring with them from previous (external) definitions, the way that definition changes over time, or that what we believe is important conflicts with what makes us happier in the moment.

It was noticeable to me that women who responded seemed much more likely to talk about the supporting others in some way – whether their teammates, or people using what they worked on. There are a number of different observations we could make here – one is that the patriarchy trains women to consider others in a way that is not as true for men. But also it hints at what might be different about those survey results if they were more representative of the demographics of the industry – and what could be different if the industry were more reflective of society as a whole.

What’s next? A look at the way we talk about team success.

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