by Esther Schindler

Is There Anything Developers WON’T Do For a Pizza?

Jan 11, 20083 mins

Need more productivity from your software development staff? Need ’em to put in more hours to get a project done on time? Buy ’em a pizza and hand out t-shirts. It’s an age-old and effective method to get programmers and techies to willingly (sometimes enthusiastically) give up a weekend. But why do they come so cheap?

Recently, I was researching an upcoming article related to software development quality. In other words, I visited several online communities where developers congregate, such as the excellent SQA Forums, and asked for input. To my mild surprise, several suggestions for improving software quality include the appearance of a pizza delivery van.

It’s not that I’m shocked that developers appreciate offerings of food. It’s that their desires are satisfied with such a simple answer. A steak dinner? Sure, that’ll get anyone’s attention. Pizza and cheap beer? Why does that work?

It isn’t that developers are unaware of the effect. Wrote one correspondent, “Even though we really know that [pizza] means overtime… we somehow still get excited about it.”

Surely, you think, that can’t be all they want. If free food was the only thing that motivated developers, people would be dying to work at Google. Hey, wait—

I have a hard time imagining this being effective in other professional communities. Would doctors show up at a New Medicine briefing for a pizza? No. Want accountants’ attention? You’d better throw in a free round of golf. Even cynical computer journalists require more than pizza and a t-shirt for attention-acquisition. A seriously good buffet can do it. A vendor polo shirt, at a minimum. (One friend from Seattle confided, “Only if it’s long-sleeve.”)

But give techies a t-shirt that says, “The lost weekend: 1,500 bugs, 48 hours!” and they’ll abandon plans for whatever approximates their real life. This can be extended from developers to technology enthusiasts; as user group officer, I could get members to spend their weekends demonstrating someone else’s commercial product at the local CompUSA store… simply with the promise of a Team OS/2 t-shirt.

And pizza? Some call it a rotary debugger.

I’m not sure what makes developers different in this regard. It may be reflection of the “creative endeavor,” that is, a design-centric profession in which one starts with a blank screen and invents something new. (Are painters and novelists as pizza-driven?)

Or (and?) it may be due to the solitary nature of that creative effort; food becomes an opportunity to gather, and edible gifts (however minor) are an acknowledgement of team contribution.

For example, another correspondent wanted the boss to bring breakfast (Egg McMuffins is his personal preference; “if it must be a special treat then bring in some strudel. Really anything that sounds foreign or contains more than two syllables would be fine”), leave it in a common area, and send out a short, simple e-mail that states you wanted to surprise the staff with a little thank you for all of their hard work. Adds Brent:

“Do not make it part of a presentation. Do not include any work details. Do not link it to overtime. Do not mention [the food] again later. Just bring them in and leave them for your team. This is a huge morale booster that people will remember.”

Somehow, though, I’m not sure that those two items fully explain the phenomenon. Got any better ideas?

—Esther, who requires chocolate for motivation. Dark chocolate, and none of that cheap stuff.