What’s Your Rocket Fuel? Staying Motivated as an Engineer
What propels you from your bed each morning and into the office? What motivates you to work late to complete a task? What energizes you at work? In short, what’s your rocket fuel?
I am fascinated by what motivates people, especially engineers. This is more than a casual curiosity; as a leader, it is my job to understand what motivates my team. Given the diversity of Autodesk’s talented and dedicated employees, there is fertile ground to explore.
One thing is certain: Motivation differs from person to person, from industry to industry. For example, some colleagues enjoy work that receives special attention. It is exciting to hear an executive mention your work to clients or at important events. But for every project recognized, dozens are left unmentioned. You may wait a long time to hear your work praised in front of an audience—so, clearly, this can’t be your primary motivator. It’s essential to seek out and find rocket fuel elsewhere.
The Science of Motivation
In the past, business leaders approached motivation using the outdated extrinsic model of reward and punishment, or, the “carrot and stick.” Forty years of robust research shows that for most tasks, extrinsic rewards don’t motivate employees—especially for work that requires creativity and cognition. Although the carrot-and-stick approach may work for routine and tedious tasks, most work requires intrinsic motivation.
Business has been slow to adapt to these findings. But in 2009, Daniel Pink published Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. In this book, Pink shares what modern psychology can teach business about intrinsic motivators, especially for creative problem solvers. He describes three important motivation factors: autonomy, the desire to be self-directed; mastery, the urge to improve skills; and purpose, the desire to do something that has meaning and is important.
Pink warns readers: Businesses that focus only on profits without valuing purpose have poor customer service and unhappy employees.
Discovering Your Motivation
So, what motivates me? I have been fortunate to explore various jobs with different motivations throughout my career. I have led cutting-edge projects, and I have worked on projects considered to be boring by some—but I had tremendous autonomy and impacted millions of customers. No matter the project, I always felt that I had a great gig, motivated to deliver my best.
Still, purpose has always motivated me most of all. Regardless of the number of customers, to be responsible for something that customers rely on has always been incredibly exciting.
Understanding what motivates you from deep inside can help you understand the type of work you enjoy. Your intrinsic motivators will help you decide if you want to work on a risky, new adventure (like Google Glass) or a ubiquitous product with the broadest impact (like Google Search). Apple Watch or iPhone? Solar-generated power or a traditional power utility? Examples abound and innovation occurs in both new and established organizations.
Three Purpose-Driven Categories
I organize purpose-driven motivations into three separate categories: opening new doors, removing friction, and partnering across the organization. First, some colleagues are driven to open new doors by working on innovative products and features that create fresh opportunities for customers. I know of customers building entirely novel ventures using new products that remove obstacles for mobility and ease of use. Many of my colleagues find reward in building tools that can help such entrepreneurs invent something new.
Second, others enjoy removing friction for customers by streamlining their workflows. At first glance, this work may not seem as glamorous as building a completely new product, but these projects can be game changers for customers and far outweigh the importance of a new tool. Whether the team improves the software to draw faster or require fewer steps to accomplish a task, some of my colleagues enjoy squeezing every possible efficiency into a product to improve a customer’s experience.
Finally, some engineers find motivation in partnering across the organization, working as part of a larger team. Most projects don’t succeed within the vacuum of a single team. To solve challenges, engineers may work with finance, customer support, and marketing colleagues. Success through partnering can have a broad effect, as these solutions often impact far more customers than a single product feature.
There are countless ways to categorize and consider motivations. And when you discover your particular rocket fuel, work becomes more rewarding. So what drives you? The autonomy to direct your work, the mastery of specialized skills, or the purpose of being part of something larger? What does this look like in your office or across your career?
I’m fascinated by these questions on a personal and professional level. Understanding your motivation as clearly as possible is one element of a rewarding career. Discovering my motivation and working with highly motivated colleagues has always made my job more enjoyable. It makes work seem less like work. It helps to soften the hardest challenges and it magnifies the rewards.