Management their productivity is your productivity

Bored People Quit

Much has been written about employee motivation and retention. It’s written by folks who actively use words like motivation and retention and generally don’t have a clue about the daily necessity of keeping your team professionally content because they’ve either never done the work or have forgotten how it’s done. These are the people who show up when your single best engineer casually and unexpectedly announces, “I’m quitting. I’m joining my good friend to found a start-up. This is my two weeks’ notice.”

You call on the motivation and retention police because you believe they can perform the legendary “diving save”. Whether it’s HR or a well-intentioned manager with a distinguished title, these people scurry impressively. Meetings that go long into the evening are instantly scheduled with the disenfranchised employee.

It’s an impressive show of force, and it sometimes works, but even if they stay, the damage has been done. They’ve quit, and when someone quits they are effectively saying, “I no longer believe in this company”. What’s worse is that what they were originally thinking was, “I’m bored”.

Boredom is easier to fix than an absence of belief.

Detecting Boredom

There are many reasons other than boredom that someone will quit. Your company might suck or be headed towards suck. This person might randomly get an offer that fulfills their life’s dream. There is a bevy of unpredictable reasons that someone will leave, but boredom is an aspect of their daily professional life you can not only easily assess, but also fix. More importantly, boredom is not initially catastrophic. Boredom shows up quietly and appears to pose no immediate threat. This makes it both easy to address and easy to ignore.

My three techniques for detecting boredom:

  1. Any noticeable change in daily routine. A decrease in productivity is a great early sign that something’s up, but what you are looking for is any change in their routine. Increased snark? Unexpected vacations? Later arrivals? Earlier departures? Anything that strikes you as out of the ordinary for someone whose day you are familiar with is worth considering. The root cause of this change may have nothing to do with boredom, and the best way is figure that out is…
  2. You ask, “Are you bored?” Even if you don’t have a gut feeling, it’s a good question to randomly ask your team. When I ask, I look you straight in the eyes and if you can’t stare me in the face and answer, I’m going to keep digging until you look me in the eye. Remember, the goal here is to discover boredom before they know it, and the act of a simple question might be just the mental impetus they need to see the early signs in themselves.
  3. They tell you. And you listen. You’d think that someone walking into your office and stating that they’re bored would set off all sorts of alarms in your head, but that’s because you’re halfway through this article wondering when I’m going to cut to the chase and explain how to fix bored people. The reality is that someone is going to tell you they’re bored quietly and when you least expect it. They’ll tell you halfway through your 1:1 and they won’t use the word bored. They’ll say something innocuous like, “…and I really don’t know what to do next,” and you’re going to blow right by the most important thing they’ve said in a while because you’re worried about your next meeting.

As I’ve reflected on the regrettable departures of folks I’ve managed, hindsight allows me to point to the moment the person changed. Whether it was a detected subtle change or an outright declaration of their boredom, there was a clear sign that the work sitting in front of them was no longer interesting. And I ignored my observation. I assumed it was insignificant. He’s having a bad day. I assumed things would just get better. In reality, the boredom was a seed. What was “I’m bored” grew roots and became “I’m bored and why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?” and sprouted “I’m bored, I told my boss, and he… did nothing,” and finally bloomed into “I don’t want to work at a place where they don’t care if I’m bored.”

I think of boredom as a clock. Every second that someone on my team is bored, a second passes on this clock. After some aggregated amount of seconds that varies for every person, they look at the time, throw up their arms, and quit.

A Boredom Plan of Action

Whether someone is bored or not, you always need to be able to answer two questions regarding each person on your team:

  1. Where are they going?
  2. What are you currently doing to get them there?

In your head, answers sound like this:

  • Francis wants to be a senior engineer and we’re getting him there by giving him increasingly more responsibility.
  • Ronald wants to build his own company, so I’m going out of my way to include him the meetings where he can learn how the sausage is really made.
  • Brooke has no idea what she wants to do, so I’m throwing curveballs at her until she hits a home run.

Knowing the answers to these questions makes the rest easier, but if you don’t have answers, you can start figuring them out by:

  • Keeping an interesting problem squarely in front of them. Walk through your team right now and tell me the project they are working on that floats their boat. It doesn’t need to always be their main project, but there must be a piece of work on their plates that when they talk about it, their eyes light up. If their eyes aren’t lighting up, if there is no project in mind that will get them rambling endlessly, you…
  • Let them experiment. Let them obsess. Let them scratch that itch. If there is no project on their plate that you know is engaging them, create time for them to explore whatever they want to obsess about. I absolutely guarantee there is an investigation somehow related to their work that they are dying to tinker with. The business justification for this wild-ass effort is likely not obvious, so I’ll define it: the act of exploration is as valuable as the act of building.

    Exploration is hard to justify because it’s hard to measure. When exploration is complete, you often have nothing to hold up to your project manager to explain or justify the expenditure of time. Here’s what you tell them, “My job isn’t just building product; I also build people.”

  • They can only ‘take one for the team’ for so long. There are legitimate and frequent situations where someone needs to suck it up and dig into crap work for longer than they’d like. This is an inevitable function of teams of people working together — work becomes stratified by perceived importance. There’s no shit work when the work is all yours, there’s just work you like to do and work you have to do.

    Occasional stints on the latter are a good perspective reset for everyone on the team, but being left too long on “have to” work is a guarantee of eventual boredom. What isn’t obvious is that there are folks who aren’t going to complain because they believe the right thing to do is to take one for the team. They worry that that the act of complaining is tantamount to saying, “I don’t believe I should do shit work” or they’re simply wary of being accused of not being a team player.

    We all get shit work, but it’s the responsibility of the guy or gal in charge to dole this work out fairly and consistently. That means they’re constantly aware and communicating to the person who is currently taking one for them, knowing how long they’ve been taking it, and when they’re going to be done.

  • Protect their time. Embrace the ambiguity of their experiment. Agreeing to let them experiment and obsess about a fascinating project is only half the game. The business day is full of previously undiscovered “things to do”, and your knee-jerk response when you find this new, urgent piece of work is to saddle it on the guy who is working on… something. You don’t know what it is because he can barely describe it himself, so please handle this urgent task. I swear when you’re done you can get back to… whatever it is you’re doing.

    A terrific way to accelerate the boredom clock is a promise of productive and creative time that is then taken away. In the heat of the moment, the ambiguous nature of their experiment makes the decision easy: Get this urgent, unplanned task done or make progress on the unmeasurable? The only thing this decision teaches your team is how little you value the cultivation of your people.

  • Aggressively remove noise. In addition to previously undiscovered work, a daily set of distractions courtesy of exhausting people will pull your engineer away from their work. Random meetings, phone calls, interviews. These 30- to 60-minute tasks feel transactional and brief and there is no way you can fully remove a team member from them, but you manage them. Similar to crap work, it’s your job to evenly spread the load of daily noise across the team. More importantly, it’s your job to remember that productivity costs surrounding these micro-tasks aren’t just the 30 minutes necessary to get them done, it’s the context-switching tax involved in stopping their work, preparing for the task, doing the task, and then rebuilding the context regarding the work that floats their boat.

    There are two aspects of interesting work that equally fire up the nerd brain: the identification of interesting work and making progress on that work. And progress is not measured in interrupt-driven minutes, it’s blocks of delicious, uninterrupted hours.

  • Tell them what the hell is going on. Much of the above activity implies that you’re paying attention, but your attention is only half the solution. The other half is regularly keeping folks in the loop regarding your thoughts. In terms of a low-cost means of keeping your team content, the simple act of saying, “I know where you want to be and I’m thinking about how to get you there” is a way to demonstrate you care about the growth of your team.

Don’t Forget What It’s Like to Build a Thing

This piece might read like I believe that engineering is some privileged artisan class and that I’m overly protective, and that is exactly what I believe. My gig is the care and feeding of engineers, and their productivity is my productivity. If they all leave, I have exactly no job.

Part of your credibility as a leader is your public and repeated declaration that it’s your job to help your team succeed, but you have another task: you need to keep building stuff.

I’ve gone back and forth on whether managers should code and my opinion is: don’t stop coding. Each week that passes where you don’t share the joy, despair, and discovery of software development is a week when you slowly forget what it means to be a software developer. Over time it means you’ll have a harder time talking to engineers because you’ll forget how they think and how they become bored.

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99 Responses

  1. Spot on. This is not only something I watch for in my team but have to watch for in myself. I think it’s easy to blame boredom on the company but I personally try and take some responsibility for letting myself get bored. What can I do to improve the situation? Are my leaders stopping me from doing this? Usually no, but if yes, then we have a problem.

  2. I run a company and I am horrible about *watching for this myself* on myself.

    This has definitely happened some times in the past, which were the ones where few things got done with any speed because nothing was interesting.

  3. This is 100% on-target. There are different kinds of engineers, but most love solving problems in elegant ways. The phrase “Software Engineering” can obscure the fact that crafting software is a combination of engineering and art. Some of the best programmers are a combination of both.

    Imagine asking an artist to paint 1000 perfectly identical paintings? All engineering, no creativity. Most would go mad out of sheer boredom.

    Innovation is about *creativity* and creativity rarely happens on a forced schedule. Invention happens through “tinkering” and during “exhale” moments (just think how many great ideas or solutions you’ve discovered while in the shower or in the bathroom!).

    If a creative is being forced to grind on uncreative stuff all the time for extended periods of time (months) with no time to exhale or tinker or explore, they will hate their job (and maybe their life).

    And as Rands points out, interruptions are death to creativity and creation. Imagine the painter or composer forced to stop and answer the phone every 10 minutes – likely they’d just give up on their creation project or task in disgust and decide to try again some other day (or quit).

    This is why letting your creatives experiment and get into the “flow” of real work, removing the small interruption stuff is so important as this article so aptly describes.

    True Insight from Rands yet again. Believe it. Enact the solutions. Win.

  4. River 3 years ago

    great stuff, as usual. always find myself nodding in agreement when i read your posts. the great thing is that the core principles you lay out apply whether it’s a big team in a big company, with more formal career paths, or small teams, or a small company that is one team. having a person or people who keep these questions and priorities in mind, and cultivate the space for understanding each team member and supporting their goals, is crucial. thanks.

  5. I wish I had a dollar for every time I said “I just wish they would tell us what they’re thinking, we can handle the truth.”

  6. Schuyler Brown 3 years ago

    Phenomenal post. In the early days of a startup everyone’s at a sprint heading towards the same finish line, but as you start to scale and add layers of management, inevitably you lose that common sense of purpose. A startup lives or dies by its people and this is a healthy reminder of how to keep your team motivated…

  7. Wow! Thanks for writing that. I also think this implies largely to non-engineers. Some of today’s tech companies have 20% time for engineers but not their other employees. Well, guess what, other employees get bored too. Probably even more bored than engineers. And while it’s probably easier to replace some of the other positions today, giving 20% creativity time to non-engineering employees could actually increase creativity in the organization as well. You’ll be surprised what non-engineers could come up with if they were given some freedom.

  8. Steve 3 years ago

    You have hit the right spot.

    I shortened my job training by half a year because I got bored. A year later I had quit my job because of boredom and went back to school and later university to get a computer science degree but even there boredom began to creep into the university life. But I am able to keep up because I reduced the time I invest in the university and started doing projects for companies on the side, each in a different field with different technoligies. Each project going about 3 to 5 months.

    After all this time I can say that I need at least every 6 months something new, where the learning curve goes through the sky again. Else I get bored and start searching for something new on my own.

  9. A. Nonymous Engineer 3 years ago

    Uh, wow. I am bored. I’ve even used the phrase in #3, and I’m showing the signs in #1. Worse, my reputation for getting things fixed when it’s on the line means that I take one for the team frequently, often including disruptive business travel.

    @Patrick: Not all of you can, and one such bad egg will induce a permanent conservative response.

  10. You nailed it. As someone who has lost developers due to boredom, I can tell you that this is very specifically a developer issue. Not necessarily because they’re a “privileged artisan class” but because their work is specifically to design solutions to problems, and then create those solutions. This type of mind gets restless with the shit work sometimes required as part of the process. If they’re just repeating tasks, they lose that fire that fuels them to solve real problems. But if you build a good culture, and have the work to support a creative environment, you can hopefully minimize, if not completely eliminate, this problem.

  11. I really like this, starting from the moment where someone bored transforms into someone not believing into the company. It happens way too often.

  12. Gonzo 3 years ago

    Sadly, too few pay attention to this. I didn’t know what to call it, but I fit the profile exactly and the reasons are exactly those listed. One thing I will add, though, is that while saying you’re working to help the employee advance is important, only giving that as lip service is a fatal mistake.

  13. @A. Nonymous Engineer – I’m also bored. While reading through the article I was thinking about all the subtle ways that I have expressed my boredom. I’ve found they think that I just need more to do so i get more ‘shit’ work. To stem my boredom I experiment at home which leads to a word worse than bored, Tired.

    @Rands. really enjoyed the article. Your writing reminds me that there are people who truly understand engineers.

  14. Kevin 3 years ago

    You struck a chord. I am becoming one of the bored ones, currently just frustrated.

    While exploring technologies is encouraged, they are fruitless. “Yes, it’s a great (framework|database|server|language) and looks interesting but we’re going to stick with what we know.” Even when what we know isn’t meeting our needs. I still do it because I see great value in knowing what’s out there, but no longer am as vocal.

    The worst here though, I feel, is the politics. More then anything, I feel that is what gets in my way. The decisions of technology are left to the ones who currently are only involved in reading, not using, it. I don’t know about you, your company, and this is the first time I’ve seen any of your writings but I’m curious: How do you deal with the politics from above?

    Great post, you’ve made my morning.

  15. You nailed it. Every job I’ve left, save one, has been because of boredom. Or in HR speak, “lack of engagement”. I knew I was bored with the work at hand. They knew I was bored, we talked about it regularly, but they couldn’t or didn’t make adjustments make the workload more interesting.

    Life is too short to be bored.

  16. Xenophobe 3 years ago

    > If they all leave, I have exactly no job.

    Of course you can avoid this whole problem by using H1Bs.

  17. Marshall 3 years ago

    Reading through this was rather eye-opening. As one of the bored people, I’ve been ‘taking one for the team’ for almost a year now, and in that time I’ve seen the majority of our talented engineers who’ve been forced to do the same leave for greener pastures.

    Reading all of the things that a good manager should be doing to help out his/her employees, I was struck with how few my own manager seems to be doing. Whether he’s actively disinterested in me as an employee or if it’s just coming across that way, the effect is the same.

  18. Jason 3 years ago

    @XENOPHOBE

    No you can’t. Why do you think it would be OK for H1B workers to be bored? They’re skilled developers like everyone else.

  19. Felix 3 years ago

    I’m getting dangerously bored. Thanks for identifying ways to try and fix it. Great article!

  20. @Kevin – I see the same thing all the time. Maybe try and ask to used the new ‘thing’ for a single project or two as an example to show everyone its merits. I also think that ‘new stuff’ is another form of the chaos monkey(http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/2011/04/working-with-the-chaos-monkey.html) at work; its is a good thing. I have yet to convince a superior that breaking or relearning things on purpose is a good idea.

  21. Great comment at the end there encouraging engineering managers to keep on coding. You’re right on the spot in identifying how non-coding managers will eventually lose touch w/ their subordinates – whether in the inability to communicate on a technical level, or just a warped sense of thinking that no longer matches the engineer’s values and perspectives. It’s no wonder that most engineers hate working for non-engineering managers.

  22. I change my work when I am bored. Interesting, how soon I’ll get bored from that too?! ;)

  23. Kimberly 3 years ago

    This article should be mandatory yearly (at a minimum) reading for every manager. Thank you for writing this.

  24. Any tips for how to bring about change when you are the peon? I was young and it was my first job out of college, but butting heads with PMs and management simply made them dig deeper trenches. Eventually the developers were proven right; the 3rd party “partner” screwed us over in pricing, project failed, and all the developers left or were laid off but looking at LinkedIn profiles, the PM and management is still there. Is it just a failed cause with nothing to do but jump ship?

  25. Most companies have boring software systems that do boring stuff. You can’t help getting bored. How many companies are doing something really cutting edge? Not that many in my experience. This is why I consult instead of working fulltime. For me, fulltime jobs with their ridiculous employee reviews, bullshit meetings, horrible sick day / vacation day policies & general bullshit just can’t be tolerated. Most work environments I see in IT are really bad. Everyone is practically working two jobs because management is too cheap to hire enough people. If you are working 60 hour weeks plus, your management & work environment suck in my opinion. At least as a consultant, I get paid for every hour I work. Full timers routinely get scammed out of bonuses & get no overtime pay. Boredom is just one symptom of the typical IT shop disease.

  26. iNonymous 3 years ago

    This article hits the nail on the head.

    Last Friday, I gave my notice at Apple to go work at a startup for precisely these reasons. Even though I’m only rounding my first year out of undergrad, I’ve been bored for months and want career change.

    Every sentence, every feeling description, every situational example, every example phrase, every everything about this is 100% on.

    Managers: Take notice. My Apple manager, had he read and applied this, might not be losing me in a few weeks.

  27. Excellent! Thank you.

  28. I always love your work, here’s an additional thing about why employee’s don’t “just say it.”

    They’re afraid of withdrawal of money, promotional opportunity.

    Dev: / I could tell Boss that I’m bored, but then she won’t put me up for promotion this quarter, and Billy needs braces and I could really use the cash. And she may think ‘Well if he is bored he may bail, better give the kudos to someone that has no complaints’…so I better be quiet and nod nicely… /

    Boss: Hey Dev, what’s up? Hows that project?

    Dev: Oh it’s great. Things are coming along on schedule.

    Boss: So hey, I’m still looking at promotion for you next cycle, how are we doing there?

    In this case Boss is really, really great: being engaged, soliciting feedback, helping Dev along, etc. But Dev’s sense of desire for material comfort and / or extrinsic recognition is blocking honest communication. This ensures that the boredom will have plenty of time to fester into a real cancer.

  29. I quit my job this week because I was bored. Nothing was challenging me and everything that came out of my manager’s mouth was tin-canned from 1998. The architect is in bed with IBM and gets cuts for products we buy and never use. The person who is supposed to be a visionary thinks SAP is the future. The “Build Manager” has trouble configuring Cruise Control, and can’t write a shells script if their life depended on it. A guy who spends half a day posting on newspaper websites on political articles makes more than me. The Solutions Director’s idea of moving forward with mobile technologies is sending text-messages (not even using a gateway, but provider emails, e.g. 123456789@att.net etc.). The contractor we hired is friends with the architect and hasn’t delivered anything to production in three years. Oh, my manager is also the architect and DBA’s neighbor. We tried to hire a stud, but ended up getting a 50-year old guy who doesn’t know what encapsulation means. The DBA struggled to configure foreign key relationships, and just discovered IP-based security, nor does the DBA have any idea of how scaling works. BTW, the consultant uses his own text editor (one that he wrote) which sucks and has 10% of the features of Notepad. I can go on forever.

    I’m the guy who has either single-handedly written 90% of our apps (ones that work and are in production, not the ones that have been developing for three years without a sniff of production). There’s no work anymore because of bad organizational decisions and a major decision to go with a half-baked product nobody uses but we think we can rescue it.

    I took a kick-ass job with another big company, pays $25K more, same benefits, and I get a senior position. But really, I quit because I was bored.

  30. Stuart 3 years ago

    Great post.

    I’ve written down all the reasons why I’m bored at work and the various company bottlenecks and blockers that are causing it. As soon as I get back from my 2 week vacation, I’m handing in my notice. (I’ll also give my boss all the reasons too.)

    It’s a scary prospect quitting without knowing where I’ll end up next but I have enough saved in the bank to allow me a few months of working on my own stuff & will hopefully have the ability to go around pairing at companies to see how they do things. Scary but also very exciting.

  31. Man I am so bored. I have given many signals to management, but they don’t get it. I am worried that being very clear about it (“I’m bored!”) will not solve anything (“would you like to become a project manager?”).

    Wish I could do a skunk works project or something. I love sports, so I’m too tired to work in my spare time. It needs to happen between 9 and 5.

    It’s true that I’m less productive when I feel this way, even though what I’m asked to do is rather easy (I’ve certainly done it before). Boredom leads to extreme procrastination for me.

    Thanks for the article, helps me get perspective on this issue.

  32. Marie Haggberg 3 years ago

    This article should be required reading for management (engineering or not). Many great points and helpful observations. Thanks for an excellent post.

  33. This article really resonated with me – spot on.

  34. Dear Rand,

    What are some of the best ways to get bored people to quit? Are there questions I can ask, or should I coordinate with coworkers & attempt to systematically isolate them & thereby increase boredom?

    Thanks,

    rektide

  35. Great article. But for most companies where IT is an expense, which is most corporations, too many managers and upper managers don’t seem to give a damn. When they find out you’re bored, they give you busy work. If you’re any good at what you do and finish faster than everybody else or just complete projects faster than they can give you, they give you more busy work. Or they assume you’re not working because a real workers works 8-9 hours a day. They don’t care if your projects are done or not.

    The one place I disagree is management and coding. For some people, yes, but for others, it’s not all important. I’ve had plenty of a-hole managers, many whom were former incredible software engineers who sucked at leading. They sucked at managing. Great engineers and developers but horrible managers. As much as we like to dismiss managers as those who do nothing, it takes a certain skill set and talent to be one. You don’t need to come from an engineering background to be a great manager. Like I said, i’ve had plenty of crappy managers who were once great programmers and engineers. It did not translate. Some people should remain engineers. It’ what they do best.

    Your entire boredom article can translate to those who still think they are coders. A manager who thinks they are better than everybody else, who locks themselves in an office all day, who talks down to everybody, who would rather be coding than in a meeting, is going to be a bad manager. So while it’s good to keep on coding, if a manager still thinks of themselves as an engineer and programmer first, manager second, they probably are going to be a poor manager to work for. That and if they lock themselves in a room to code, they sure aren’t communicating with anybody. And a part of great management is actually fighting for interesting work and projects. In many large corporations and government organizations, it’s the managers who fight for interesting work. Those who would rather be coding, don’t know how to play that political game. And yes, it’s a stupid game where because of a managers right connection or conversation with some VP, your team gets the cool projects while another department gets the busy work. Happens all the time. And what i’ve learned is a manager who still thinks of themselves as a coder, actually sucks as a manager and never gets you the interesting projects. They create bored departments.

  36. Daniel 3 years ago

    This is perfect. This resonates very truly with me. I’m bored. I’ve told my boss. He doesn’t care.

    When I quit, he will beg me to stay. I know the business inside-out, I’m effectively his #2, but he doesn’t get it.

    Why can’t we discuss this before I quit?

  37. Nice article with some critical points to look out for.

    But it should be noted that there are many reasons for an employee to leave a company not always boredom.

    Things like lack of trust, value and acceptance will also have a massive impact on your employees.

  38. John R 3 years ago

    And for that (like Patrick Berry above) who think “I wish devs would tell me when they’re bored”: we often don’t know that we are bored, we just know that we’re unhappy. If we’re too busy getting stuff done and not introspecting/self-managing, we don’t have the time to realize the unhappiness is caused by boredom.

    It’s not that we’re trying to hide something from our PMs or lie to them, or even that we’re trying to receive the material comforts that appearing to be content in our jobs brings us – though that might be the case. It’s that extracting the reason for a feeling is something that can only be done when you have the time and energy to self-evaluate. 1:1′s often, in my experience, are more like journeys of self-discovery, as I enunciate things that I didn’t even realize I felt, or I say something and in the back of my mind I go “hey, that’s indicative of , I hadn’t considered that”.

  39. Amazing article. Very interesting comments trail also.

    As a manager, I think this article is a must read for everyone. It is going to save so many heart burns on either side – engineer or manager; and is really insightful. Listening for the important stuff with complete integrity and not steamroll over is something which this article just re emphasized for me personally.

    Very nice work. Thanks.

  40. Blick Black 3 years ago

    Seriously, let them quit.

    There is a huge difference between an okay employee and a great employee. The great employee with make their job fun somehow. The okay employee will wait for someone to make it fun for them.

    Okay employees are a dime a dozen, you’re not missing out on anything if they quit.

  41. Very nicely written! It’s a must read for everybody in the field, regardless of title.

  42. And how do I get to work for you?

  43. John H 3 years ago

    I’ve been reading this blog for about 6 years now and I’ve gotten a couple of your books. This might be the most insightful thing I’ve seen written here. It stands out even compared to the high quality of the other articles.

    This blog post makes me want to leave the NYC tech industry and check out Silicon Valley.

  44. James 3 years ago

    I can honestly say that I’m bored with any project that comes from the company that I work for. I usually finish things weeks prior to the ship date (including testing). So I tend to sit around for a while waiting for the next project to come down the tube. However I made a deal with my boss that I can work on my open source projects in my down time. That’s the only thing that keeps me from quitting (basically the 20% time that Google, etc. give their engineers). The down side is the fact that we’re using the open source projects in our production code and they’ve cut turn around time in half, so now there is more waiting (it’s becoming closer to 50% time now)…

  45. Der Roboter 3 years ago

    I like your analysys a lot. When you have time maybe you find a way to kick the habit for those who already seem like a lost cause – they’re probably best described by the last sentence here “Over time it means you’ll have a harder time talking to engineers because you’ll forget how they think”

  46. Another great piece. Has anyone else noticed that boredom can spread like a disease throughout your team? If you lose one bored rock star, their rock-star buddies who stayed behind won’t last a year.

  47. Code Monkey 3 years ago

    I liked this piece, but I would add that a bigger factor (possibly contributing to the boredom) would be managerial incompitence, at least perceived incompitence. When managers fail to disclose reasons behind decisions, it leaves the employees wondering if managmenet has no clue what’s going on, or simlply lost the capacity for intelligent thought somewhere along the rise in station.

  48. @DAD Creativity ALWAYS happens on a forced schedule. It rarely happens on a full schedule. There is a difference. The first comes with a deadline, the other is packed with crap.

  49. Steve Blum 3 years ago

    I agree with the general consensus that this is a good article, and it has helpful ways to identify and combat boredom (and hopefully reduce quitting).

    One issue I take with the author is the writing style. This article is written for managers of software developers and engineers, not for managers of fast food joints, right? So why use all the gutter language? There are many other ways say Sh$t work:

    grunt work

    cruddy work

    boring work

    menial tasks

    redundant tasks

    Any of those would get the point across – and you could even use different ones in different sentences – and at the same time keep the article on a professional level, making is possible for me to forward it on to colleagues (which I will not being doing because of this oversight on the part of the author).

  50. You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head. Speaking as someone who just finished typing a resignation letter about thirty minutes ago and is waiting to print and sign it (I have a formal job offer in the works). Boredom is an incredible motivator, especially in a word with so many alternatives to boredom.

  51. Great post. My question is what happens when boredom has crept throughout an organization?

  52. Hmmm. At least bored employees who quit don’t need to be replaced. That’s pretty much by definition.

  53. Jonathan Hill 3 years ago

    I really don’t see how this article is any different from those accused in the opening paragraph of using words like motivation and retention without actually doing anything. It’s just using a whole lot more than two words.

    The action items and bullet points can be summed up by saying this: “Focus, and don’t micromanage.”

    Exactly what to focus on is a strategic objective and can’t be addressed in an article since it’s entirely unique to each organization, and this post even alludes to that fact in terms of suck factor.

    If you’ve got focus, and you’re not a micromanager, and you’re still getting bored people quitting, then either you just trimmed a little weight that shouldn’t be replaced, or your bet on strategy is wrong (and your employees are smarter than you – generally the case). It still doesn’t do anything to help your HR and engagement problems.

  54. my grand mother always used to say, ‘boring people say they’re bored’. you have to create your own fun. push your boss. ask to get involved with more interesting stuff. dont just sit there and say nothing. you have to communicate and tell people you are bored, otherwise no one will know!

  55. Richard 3 years ago

    I definitely fall in the bored and don’t believe in the company category. After a couple years of this ongoing boredom, I was moved to a new position. Learning, new duties, different work enviroment, great! Two more years and we’re full circle. Boredom. Management has finally noticed, and keeps trying to engage me with new responsibilities. That’s all well and good, but there’s another problem.

    I’m being underpaid for the duties I’m tasked with now. Hell, I was being underpaid for my duties a position ago, and haven’t seen an extra penny since.

    Boredom sometimes is the ailment, and not the cause.

    Keep pulling the string, and you’ll find the real problem (or in my workplaces case, they won’t?).

  56. Jack Xe 3 years ago

    These so-called “bored” IT workers should be glad that they have jobs in this brutish economy. Stop whining and get back to work!

  57. Cameron 3 years ago

    Just what I needed to read, spot on. Jack XE, agree we you that we should be appreciative of having a job in a tough environment, but I feel a bit of guilt that you aren’t being as productive or giving your employer their moneys worth and at the same time not enjoying yourself. I love nothing more than making progress. Management still need to play a part in creating that environment where they can thrive. It needs to be more than just a token “you’re doing great” as this lasts a few hours and you quickly end up bored again.

  58. Mitch 3 years ago

    Rands: I’ve been reading you for a couple years now and this post, of all those I’ve read, has made me think — I really wish I’d have worked for you at some point.

  59. Nicely written and right on the spot, just one subtle comment -

    How come the two male engineers in the example you provided have a plan, while the female engineer has no idea? Just a thought – if you provide an exmple try to think “out of the box” it helps in dealing with the employees overall and keeping them happy.

  60. Foozie 3 years ago

    This is an important topic, but in this market, I see resource and compensation support to be the #1 issue-of-the-moment in acquiring and retaining talent.

    In NYC right now, developers of any tier or specialty have their pick of high-paying jobs. I’ve never seen it like this, its far, far more competitive then the dot-com boom years. I think unemployment in the field is statistically at the rate considered ‘full employment’.

    My recruiter the other day offered me a finder’s fee to fill two *Drupal* heads for $175k a pop (! ! !)

    All three of the projects I have worked on in the past year *wishes* they had the developers to ask if they were bored. Most of them are working at half-staff as the candidates are simply not available, and in some cases they lose the few heads they do have because they are doing the work of 3.

    So, I don’t see boredom as the big issue right now, the big issue for developers is ‘Am I working too hard or not making enough money?’ You want that internal monologue resolved for them the minute you meet them. Pay more, hire more people, or scale back your projects to match your resources.

  61. Brill Pappin 3 years ago

    Well written!

    This is the abstract lesson that *all* managers, regardless of industry should understand. It’s the heart of what they do and if they don’t understand it, they will simply not be good managers.

    The sad truth is that most managers don’t get this. I’ve only worked under one or two earlier in my career that really went to great lengths to make sure their team was never board, Those teams were always hard to leave and they were always the teams I spent most of my time with.

    I’ve tried to emulate those good managers when i had to manage (sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing), but I could never have written the article you did and put it in such easy to understand terms.

  62. Very good article. I left the IT industry due to boredom at work, projects where either over staffed or over quotated. I use to see how long to near the end of a project I could wait before I had to make a start on it, usually I converted weeks to days.

    Dave

  63. andrew 3 years ago

    There are two types of managers of technical people that I’ve come across in my 35 years of work.

    The first is people like you; they are rare, to be treasured when you are lucky enough to find one.

    Much more common are folk engaged on a corporate career who use people/team management as a stepping stone for their career. You know when you meet one, because they are always off to a meeting with their manager, and always want to tell you about the advice they gave to their manager on the cell phone on the way to work that morning. Rarely do they look at your work or try to understand your worker-bee situation. For them the world is all about looking UP and OUT , for that’s where their next opportunity will come from. Of course, their managers love them, because they are always paying attention to their whims.

    Keep up the good work rands.

  64. Rands, your posts are always worthwhile, but you’ve really outdone yourself this time. Thanks !!!!

  65. Thanks for explaining how being bored and being swamped in work are not a contradiction. Having lots and lots of work to do is indeed very frustrating given the type of work is shit work and not of the interesting type that developers usually are hired for, and would even enjoy doing without pay. Seems like the paycheck is really just compensation for the boring tasks. Also, from experience, I can tell you that the problem of this article is not specific to software development, but to other fields of engineering, too. I really don’t get why companies hire (and pay) developers who are able to hit the high notes and, unlike this or the liked article suggest, swamp them in boring tasks.

  66. Great post. It makes me think back to the example of DEC, a kind of a pre Google, early post Frederick Taylor form of enterprise. Keep up the good work.

  67. @ZB – total agree.

  68. Tom Passin 3 years ago

    I’ve often found, when I’m not very interested in the work, that I can warp the work to start including things I’m interested in. This can succeed because there is always more than you can possibly do, so you have to choose a subset anyway. I slowly (maybe over months) extend the subset to include things more to my interest.

    You can’t always pull it off, but it’s surprising how often you can.

  69. Great posting. Deserves to be republished somewhere. FastCompany maybe?

  70. This is a great post. Sometimes management believes that a ‘busy employee’ is an ‘engaged employee’. Boy, is this false. Avoiding boredom includes consideration for work ‘content’, not just the number of hours worked. Most employees would gladly work a few more hours if they were engaged and passionate about the cause or business.

    Thanks,

    Rick

  71. Boredom has an evil twin: burnout.

  72. anonymous 3 years ago

    Very nice article … Wish all managers read this! It seems to me that management cares only for exceptional rock star engineers? If an average engineer (who gets things done but not necessarily come up with ground breaking ideas) is bored of his work and decides to quit, no body cares. Management’s attitude is like, if not this person, some one else .. there is no shortage of developers … is this just my perception or a fact?

  73. Rand, I just read this for the third time and it was clear to me that this was(is) one of the thought provoking blog posts I’ve read in a long time.

    I’m a software developer, but first and foremost I’m a creator, a tinkerer.. a maker. When a job doesn’t let me excercize the thing I’m best at, I lose touch and interest in that organization. One can only try chaining the environment for the better for so long before they decide to depart.

    Like one of the previous commenters pointed out, this needs to be mandatory reading… Or at least distributed to a wider audience,

    Thanks for succinctly writing exactly what was on my mind.

    -Mark

  74. Great article!

    While I completely agree with your point of view in the manager’s role on preventing or mitigating boredom, the Engineer’s responsibility in this is missing. A good manager should be constantly detecting and helping to resolve boredom. However, the good Engineer also needs to put some work into it. At the very least, have the dialogue with the manager when the manager engages. Even better, have some ideas of things to try to scratch that itch. The Engineer who makes her engagement completely the manager’s responsibility isn’t taking responsibility for herself.

    As for whether managers should keep coding, I think I get what you’re driving at. It’s not about coding. It’s about having a personal non-management project to keep reminding you what life was like before management. That I agree with. Otherwise, you will eventually lose touch with your team. Plus, it’s a good way to prevent your own boredom!

  75. Bored Gov Engineer 3 years ago

    …I’m bored at my job now! Its time for me to launch a company and use this article as a resource. Thanks!

    -bored Gov Engineer

  76. Marty Turner 3 years ago

    What’s interesting to me is that after suffering through (but surviving) Agile with SCRUM development for 18 months, many of its failings are outlined above (chief one for me being the incessant noise created by groups of people talking all day in a open office environment (with management (who have offices) telling us always it’s “for the common good to put up with it all…”))

  77. I agree with all of that, but it also sounds really patronising.

    It sounds like you’re herding sheep.

  78. T-rex 3 years ago

    Talented, bored engineers? This post is a recruiter’s dream. Seriously, if anyone is curious about new opportunities, please drop me a line (mithras2 AT gmail.com). I’m talking to you, A. Nonymous Engineer, Kevin, Marshall, Daniel.

    It can’t hurt, and it might even help.

  79. I got so bored I stopped even looking for companies to work for… ;^)

  80. As an software developer that tried-and-failed-to-manage-bored-people-and-eventually-felt-into-boredom-himself-and-quit, I cannot agree with you more. If only I had read this a year ago…

  81. There are some good insights here but I have to agree with @Liza – thinking that this is entirely management’s responsibility is perfectly in-line with today’s generation who want everything handed to them without putting in the effort. Absolutely the manager needs to play a role in the development of their people – albeit a supporting one – but engineers also need to take responsibility for themselves and drive their own career.

  82. Girl Bored At Work 2 years ago

    This spoke to me. The reason? I’m bored at work right now. And I only started three months ago. And prior to me even being hired, they laid off 2/3 of the company. When they hired me, my first day I was told that they didnt even think they needed my job until work backed up.

    So, now that I’m bored five to six hours a day (I’m full time), I don’t know what to do in fear of losing my job. Sadly, in this economy, saying your bored might mean you could lose your job. I still don know what to do about it – but trust me, I’m looking around.

  83. The title of this article was really what pulled me in.

    I used to work with by far one of the best designers I have ever met. I say “used to,” because it was only about 2 weeks ago that he quit.

    He left to start his own venture, in pursuit of his own dreams. Why?

    Because it was interesting.

    It wasn’t designing packaging inserts for bedding retailers. It wasn’t continual let downs of promised projects that fell through. It wasn’t a loss of faith and trust in core leadership.

    It was hope.

    It was a light of possibility that something he created could make a difference in the world. He’s worked harder in the two weeks he’s been gone than he has his entire life. Because he owns it. He has, can, and will make it his own.

    //

    But (not) surprisingly, I’ve seen this happen before. Another fantastic designer. Great personality and unparalleled design talent. He left to move to Georgia to return to his longing for the town of Savannah. But it wasn’t just that. He wasn’t being paid enough, but more importantly, he wasn’t being challenged enough.

  84. I’m not saying it’s intentional, but it’s interesting to note the gender bias in your examples: Francis and Ronald are ambitious to be engineers/company owners, whereas the woman, Brooke, has no idea what she wants to do!

  85. There are so many things you can do wrong as a manager, that i would not overestimate boredom as the one thing you should look at. The right question should be: “Can you imagine, that you are happier in this place? And if yes, what we should change?”

    The answer gives you a good impression (there should be a yes), if someone is happy with the kind of stuff he is doing. If you can both laught about the thing you should change, then the situation is ok or very bad (sarcasm). If you get some real points which you can not solve, the best thing you can do is to explain it. Maybe you will lose someone or maybe you get more time so that changes will happen. But in short it comes down to: Change it, love it or leave it.

  86. michael 2 years ago

    The worst thing you can do to cure boredom is give someone something “new” that they view as busy/crap work, just so they have something “new” to do. New isn’t always interesting.

  87. I am extremely impressed. One sign that this post is very awesome and useful is that it has been steadily getting positive commentary over the course of the year that it has been on the web. Thank you.

  88. silicone repair tape 2 years ago

    Outstanding post however , I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this topic? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Kudos!

  89. Another idea for relieving boredom and letting people exercise their creativity and do work that makes a difference: Allow employees to allocate a portion of their week to volunteer or pro bono work where they can apply their skills more creatively.

  90. I’m in a discipline about as far removed from engineering as it is possible to get – but it is creative.

    All of it applies.

    Just sent a copy to my entire management structure.

    With luck at least one of them will read it….

  91. Matt 1 year ago

    I was an engineer at Apple for 5 years and lived through many organizational changes. (They happen quite often and fast.)

    I absolutely 100% agree with your article as I’ve lived it first hand. Under one manager I was thriving and felt part of history versus another where I was starving and just a cog in a machine.

    Thank you for sharing.

  92. Lurk 1 year ago

    All true. The only problem is the managers who need to read and learn from articles like this won’t. Very depressing.

  93. april 1 year ago

    This is great! I am a designer, and not an engineer, but I found this to be a very smart and well written post. I agree that everyone in any management position should read this. I think it is even good advice for volunteers, if I can just figure out how to adapt the principles.

  94. James Trottier 1 year ago

    I found your article very insightful, but may I ask you one question? What planet do you live on? The reality is that no manager, anywhere, cares about his subordinates. He’s too busy saving his own ass, on a constant basis. I think it’d be better to provide solutions on how employees can motivate and “un-bore” themselves. Letting it rely on your boss, is like expecting your bank to care about your financial woes. They just want their money. If you could make managers understand that motivated employees benefit his standing and his situation and his boredom issues, then, perhaps you’d have a chance …

  95. Wow. This struck a chord

    I’ve been bored for 3 years. One year ago, I quit the job I hated, went to another job, with new promise and enthusiasm. After 6 months, they handed me my redudancy on Christmas-fucking-eve! AND they made me work through the 4 weeks of notice on site. I have no nice words for my “saviours”.

    Fortunately, I didn’t burn my bridges so, now I’m back at the job I was bored with, and I’m still bored.

    I dunno, maybe it’s absence of belief with a large helping of self imposed boredom.

    I’ve just bought a bike shop (with the help of my inspirational wife). We’re going though the planning of details. Price agreed, finance approved. After 30 years in IT, I can’t wait to leave.

    For me, it’s too late. IT, you’ve lost me.

  96. TR Davis 11 months ago

    I just found this article while I was speculating my own job situation, it’s a bit different than the situation you’ve listed.

    I’m a hardware technician / system developer for small business that took a job with a new company when I moved 100 miles for my new wifes job. e\

    The company that I work for promised that they were going to promote my skills and use me to increase their client base (with a raise that came with the boost in revenue promised), after a month of pack / ship work for ebay sales they put me in a warehouse counting apple parts because I’m a acmt and in the owners mind I am the best person to inventory the parts because I know what they are.

    Wish he would have seen this article before I made the secret decision 6 weeks into my new employment that I was done and moving on.

    I like the man on a personal basis but he’s no manager.

  97. Interesting stuff. I’ve been on both sides of the fence. Currently I am the designer who is bored. When I say ‘bored’ I mean that, while find the work technically challenging and the pay is okay, I really don’t know what I’m doing here.

    I could probably wile away my time here until I dropped dead. But until that day, I’d still be doing the same things, locked in the same room with the same people, having variations on the same conversations. Then when I did expire my epitaph would be “Dave – does anyone know what he really did?”

    So thanks, I’m not sure your article was intended for someone like me in my position, or to elicit such a reaction, but it did! I am out of here.