8 mins

In 2017, a mysterious figure emerged from the depths of the internet to proclaim his intention of donating $86 million in bitcoin to charity.

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The catch? Instead of the lengthy application process normally necessary for grants of this magnitude, the anonymous benefactor requested applications in the form of a one-sentence pitch.

At the time, I was working for a fledgling edtech nonprofit with minimal funding, working out of a cramped windowless room not much bigger than a closet. Fundraising was an uphill battle, with our executive director tenaciously fighting to find small grants so we could keep the servers running. We were paid far below market rate in our shared mission to improve access to education.

When we caught wind of this $86 million ‘Pineapple Fund’, we saw an opportunity to focus more on our mission instead of constantly worrying about keeping the lights on. The only problem was that we had just a single sentence to stand out from over 10,000 applicants.

Luckily, I noticed that the Pineapple Fund website was hosted on GitHub Pages and had an associated public GitHub repo. So naturally, I opened a pull request.

Though my code was pretty bad, the anonymous bitcoin millionaire merged it and thanked me for the contribution. I was hopeful this effort would not just improve the website, but also demonstrate a level of scrappiness that the prospective donor might consider worthy of his philanthropic funds.

For weeks, I obsessively refreshed the site, watching new beneficiaries emerge. Then, one day, I almost fell out of my chair when I saw our logo – with the figure ‘$1,000,000’ beneath it. Frantically, I called my boss to share the news. It turned out he’d already seen it, along with the bitcoin that had been transferred to our account. We’d more than quadrupled our fundraising goal for the year, and it was only January! ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘maybe I can buy you a board game if you want.’

Though well-intentioned, this remark left me feeling oddly deflated. Compared to helping raise a million dollars, receiving a $30 board game felt somehow out of balance. Not to overstate my contribution, another teammate did reach out to the donor via email, which probably had more to do with our selection than my GitHub shenanigans. Nonetheless, I left the nonprofit not long after. What about this interaction led me to go from being perfectly happy working for half my market rate to suddenly feeling so demotivated?

The answer, as it turns out, has a lot to do with monkeys.

Introduction to equity theory

Psychologists have long endeavored to understand what motivates people. One popular framework for understanding workplace motivation is equity theory: the idea that employees maintain a balance between their efforts/rewards and the efforts/rewards of others. Effectively, folks constantly ask themselves the question, ‘Am I getting as much out of this as I’m putting in?’ For example, ‘Does my input of helping raise a million dollars feel commensurate with my output of receiving a board game in return?’

The theory captured popular attention thanks to Frans de Waal’s 2011 TED Talk, which discussed his and Dr. Sarah Brosnan’s study about fairness through the eyes of capuchin monkeys. This short clip explains it hilariously:

To recap, the monkeys were both given the same task. The first monkey was perfectly content to receive a cucumber as compensation until it saw the second monkey receive a superior reward: a grape. What matters here is the perception of fairness. Objectively, nothing changed about the monkey’s compensation except its feeling of equity among its peers. When the fragile equilibrium was disturbed, the monkey subsequently diminished its inputs to match the perceived value of its outputs: giving it a worse reward meant that it would no longer perform the task.

But, fascinating as this phenomenon may be, what does it have to do with engineering leadership?

Equity theory at work

Every day, leaders face countless choices about how to distribute limited resources like recognition, compensation, and opportunity. Who gets to present their work at the company all-hands? Who gets to work on the exciting new initiative? Who gets the nice desk near the window? Every decision you make, whether you intend it or not, is scrutinized by your reports through the lens of equity theory: folks are constantly judging who’s getting grapes and who’s getting cucumbers.

It might not be fair, and it might seem silly, but as Lara Hogan points out in this stellar example about desk moves, human emotions are complex, and seemingly insignificant decisions that you don’t intend to carry much weight might trigger substantial emotional reactions. For this reason, it’s important to be as intentional as possible about both the decisions you make and how you frame them, even when it seems inconsequential. Not doing so can be devastating.

When teammates perceive inequity, they alter their behavior in an attempt to restore balance. They might work less, pay less attention to detail, create a toxic work environment, or even just quit. How can we avoid such awful outcomes?

Discovering your team’s grapes and cucumbers

Luckily, engineers aren’t monkeys. They have their own perceptions of what’s valuable and what’s not – their own versions of grapes and cucumbers. Things like compensation, recognition, and opportunity are important to different degrees to different people. And, given how limited these resources generally are, this presents an interesting opportunity: to deeply understand what each person values and then find creative ways to allocate maximum grapes and minimum cucumbers.

Here are a couple of my favorite ways to understand what my team values so I can make more intentional decisions.

Career narratives and intentional change theory

In 2018, Will Larson published a blog post that changed the way I thought about my career. While opportunities for promotion at most companies are limited, opportunities for growth are not. Whereas only one engineer can become the VP of Engineering, all engineers can work to develop the skills necessary to be an effective VP of Engineering. Separating one’s aspirations for growth from the crude and restrictive confines of the career ladder opens up an entirely new world of possibilities.

I combined the ideas from Will’s post with Dr. Richard Boyatzis’s theory of intentional change to develop a career narrative template that I collaborate on with teammates to better understand where they are in their careers, what they aspire to, and how we can work together to help get them there.

In order to create positive, lasting change in a person’s life, the theory of intentional change outlines three first steps: determining who you want to become, identifying the gaps in your current skillset, and then developing a plan for remediating those gaps. A career narrative that touches on these three points provides a roadmap for managers who want to support the growth of their teammates.

In helping you understand the precise ways in which your teammates seek to grow, the career narrative becomes an incredibly powerful framing tool. With a little creativity, we can help our teammates find immense meaning in even the most mundane of tasks. Fixing a browser compatibility issue in an old version of Internet Explorer, for example, would generally be considered a painful and tiresome chore. However, framed in line with an engineer’s career narrative as an opportunity to develop deeper frontend development expertise, the task suddenly takes on an exciting, motivating new level of meaning.

Brag documents

Another tool for learning a teammate’s grapes and cucumbers is the brag document. As described by Julia Evans, this is a doc for tracking accomplishments, and it tells you so much about how your teammates view their work. At the start of every 1:1, my teammates share what they’re most proud of from the previous week, and it’s astonishing how much I learn not just from what they share, but how they share it.

In one instance, my team had just wrapped up a massive refactor of payment logic. Though everyone on the team was obviously quite proud of this accomplishment, their reasons for being proud were quite different. One teammate was most excited about the new checkout flow’s increased conversion rates, which told me they cared a lot about business impact. Another teammate, on the other hand, highlighted the reduced technical complexity of the new system, demonstrating that they cared more about technical architecture.

Going forward, I was able to use this insight into what my teammates were most proud of in order to identify projects best suited to their motivations, as well as to better frame existing projects in terms of what they cared most about. This is an important element of work motivation – and also life satisfaction more generally.

One of the world’s most prolific psychology researchers, Roy Baumeister, found that when individuals view activities as consistent with their broader core themes or values, they find greater meaning and satisfaction in those activities and their broader lives.

At the end of the day, engineering leadership isn’t about monkeys or grapes or cucumbers, it’s about people and the value we endeavor to add to their lives. As engineering leaders, contributing even just a little bit to someone’s success and flourishing is a far better reward than even the juiciest of grapes. It’s an honor to be able to try to do that, and I hope something in this article might help you do so even more effectively going forward.