Motivated software engineers are engaged and focused,
while satisfied ones are happy
Centre for Informatics
Federal University of Pernambuco
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Centre for Advanced Studies and
Systems at Recife – C.E.S.A.R
+55 81 3425.4700
Computing and Communications
The Open University
Milton Keynes, UK
+44 (0) 1908 65358
Fabio Q. B. da Silva
Centre for Informatics
Federal University of Pernambuco
+55 (81) 21268430
Centre for Advanced Studies and
Systems at Recife – C.E.S.A.R
+55 81 3425.4700
Context – Motivation and job satisfaction are not the same thing,
and although business organization research recognized this a
long time ago, in Software Engineering research, we have not. As
a result, thirty years of research on motivation in software
engineering has produced knowledge on what makes software
engineers generally happier, but not about how to increase their
motivation. Goal – In this article, we aim to identify visible signs
of a software engineer who is motivated to work. Method – We
describe a field study in which 62 practitioners in Brazil reported
their view of "motivation" in the context of their practical work.
Data was collected by means of audio-recorded semi-structured
interviews, and a thematic analysis was applied to identify the
most relevant descriptors of motivation. Results – Our data reveal
that (1) motivated Software Engineers are engaged, focused, and
collaborative; and (2) the term "motivation" is used as an umbrella
term to cover several distinct organizational behaviours that are
not necessarily related to the individual´s desire to work.
Conclusions – Without a clear picture of the difference between
these two concepts, work-based motivation programs may not be
designed effectively to address either turnover or performance
issues. Overall, this work indicates the need for a more effective
conceptual system to investigate and encourage both job
satisfaction and work motivation in software engineering research
Categories and Subject Descriptors
D.2.9 [Software Engineering]: Management – programming
Management, Performance, Human Factors.
Work Motivation, Job Satisfaction, Software Engineers
How best to motivate software engineers is an issue close to many
productivity and reduce turnover. However, in this paper, we
argue that two related, but distinct, concepts are too often
conflated by both researchers and practitioners: work motivation
and job satisfaction.
According to two recent systematic literature reviews in the area,
140 articles about motivation of software engineers were
published between 1980 and 2010 . The research results,
however, are inconclusive, and allow us to develop only abstract
models, such as the MOCC .In addition, a recent empirical
study involving a series of case studies in different
types of software organizations, identified a large variety of
factors that reportedly affected the work motivation of software
engineers. This variety led us to question whether ‘motivation’ is
simply a very complex phenomenon, or were our respondents
attributing inconsistent meanings totheterm‘motivation’orwere
we in fact collecting opinions and experiences about several
phenomena, rather than a single one?
A closer inspection of these results indicates that‘jobsatisfaction’
is frequently used as a synonym for ‘motivation’. However job
satisfaction and motivation refer to different phenomena . Job
satisfaction affects physical and mental health, absence, and
turnover, i.e. satisfaction makes people happy, while individuals
motivated to work will perform as best as they can, i.e. it affects
Such confusion challenges the development of effective strategies
to get the best out of software engineers, because much of the
previous research on “motivation” in software engineering
actually investigates job satisfaction, which has no proven direct
effect on productivity . In addition, we have no clear picture of
the visible signs of a motivated engineer, because motivation is an
In this article, we shed light on this issue by uncovering visible
signs of a software engineer’s motivation to work, based on the
individual perspectives of 62practitioners from five different
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Brazilian organizations. We collected rich data and conducted a
thematic analysis, providing evidence that motivated software
engineers are engaged, focused on their work, and collaborative.
The remainder of this article is organized as follows: In Section 2,
we present the theoretical bases that guide this research work: the
Job Satisfaction Theory and the Job Characteristics Theory of
motivation. Section 3 summarizes the current state of art about
motivation and satisfaction in software engineering. Section 4
describes our research questions, methods and techniques of data
collection and analysis, and the results are presented in Section 5.
Section 6 presents a discussion showing how well the data
answered our research questions and Section 7 presents some
concluding remarks and future work.
2. MOTIVATION AND SATISFACTION
ARE NOT THE SAME THING
The study of work motivation and job satisfaction developed
mainly in 1900s. In the first 50 years of the 20th century, no
explicit distinction was made in research studies between work
motivation and job satisfaction , although they have been
implied to refer to different concepts since the early theories.
Organizational behaviour research has significantly advanced
since this time, and it is now clear that work motivation refers to
the desire to do the work , while job satisfaction is a complex
If a research effort sets out to identify the antecedents and
outcomes of work motivation or job satisfaction without a clear
understanding of their distinction, its findings may be confounded.
For practitioners, devising management schemes without a clear
and consistent basis may result in ineffective practices .
Locke  developed an extensive theoretical study to redefine
the construct of job satisfaction. Since his definition was
presented, it has become a consensus between academics from the
organizational behaviour field . In contrast, work motivation
has remained a fuzzy abstract concept, and the study of human
motivation has branched out in different theories in several fields.
This has contributed even more to conceptual uncertainty and that
is still problematic to researchers and practitioners in the area.
Table 1 summarises the six most relevant theories of motivation
for the software engineering field , emphasising the
conceptual differences between motivation and satisfaction
contained in each theory.
Although work motivation and job satisfaction are connected,
there are two critical characteristics that make work motivation
distinct from job satisfaction. First, motivation is future oriented,
while satisfaction is past oriented , i.e. motivation is an
antecedent of performance, while satisfaction is a consequence of
work events. Second, work motivation is about individuals’
perception of the work and its intrinsic characteristics, while job
satisfaction is about the perception of a broader set of elements
present in the workplace, including but not limited to the work
itself. In addition, motivation to do work impacts upon
productivity while job satisfaction impacts attendance, turnover
According to Locke, happiness is the main observable trait of
satisfied behaviour. In contrast, the observable traits of
motivated behaviour are elusive. The large variety of
interpretations of the term 'motivation' within the available
theories challenges the accumulation of knowledge about the
observable motivational traits and contributes to this uncertainty.
Ambrose and Kulik observed that, in the 1990s, research in
the Organizational Behaviour field turned its lens toward
observable and measurable elements of behaviour, while abstract
concepts such as ‘motivation’, moved “backstage as a largely
unmeasured, but still theoretically relevant, mediating variable”
[18, p. 280].
Table 1- The differentcharacterisationsof‘satisfaction’and
‘motivation’in the main theories of motivation
Motivation vs. Satisfaction
It is not possible to find an explicit definition of
motivation and satisfaction in this theory.
However, a semantic difference is implied
between the words ‘motivation’, which refers to
a state of need, and ‘satisfaction’, which refers to
a state of no need.
States that satisfied people are more productive,
and that job satisfaction is activated by two
independent sets of factors: motivators (or
satisfiers) are the primary cause of job
satisfaction, and hygiene factors (or dissatisfiers)
are the primary cause of job dissatisfaction.
Satisfaction results from the convergence of
subjective expectations and actual outcomes of
an action. Motivation is the process of deciding
whether an effort to perform a specific action is
worthier than its available alternatives, and it is
guided by the maximization of satisfaction
Motivation is the willingness to strive for the
goals of a particular organisation. The four
elements that represent motivated behaviour in
the Goal Setting theory are: Direction: goals
direct attention and action; Effort: the amount of
effort mobilized in proportion to the perceived
requirements of the goal or task; Persistence:
directed effort extended over time; Strategy
development: the development of strategies or
Job satisfaction is the pleasurable emotional state
job as achieving or facilitating the achievement
congruent with or help to fulfil one’sbasicneeds.
Inthiscontext,‘subjective’ means pertaining
only to individuals. Val u e is that which one acts
to gain and/or to keep. Need refers to objective
requirements for wellbeing.
Internal work motivationrefersto“beingturned
Satisfaction is the degree to which the employee
is happy with the job, or with specific aspects of
Some motivation theories have gained special attention because
they suggested operational ways of assessing antecedents and
outcomes of work motivation in practice . The Job
Characteristics Theory of motivation , for instance, which has
become the most popular theory of work motivation in the
software engineering literature , covers both job satisfaction
andwork motivation,butitreliesonthenotion of‘internalwork
motivation’, which refers to a set of internalfeelings. While job
satisfaction can be assessed through scales of happiness, this
theory does not suggest external signs of motivated individuals.
3. RESEARCH IN MOTIVATION FOR
The two systematic literature reviews on motivation in software
engineering both produced long lists of factors that
reportedly influence (either positively or negatively) the
motivation of Software Engineers to be more (or less) productive,
together with several outcomes of more and less motivated
However, the conceptual bases of the primary studies retrieved in
these two systematic reviews is very diverse, which make their
integration and synthesis somewhat challenging. Table 2,
illustrates some of this diversity by presenting example papers and
their focus. In order to learn from the differences, and advance our
knowledge on this issue, research efforts need to address similar
Table 2–The focus of studies on "motivation" of software
Focus of the studies
Antecedents of job satisfaction.
Intention to leave/stay in an organization
Reasons for choosing IT as a career
Reasons for developing open source software
Reasons for choosing an open source software to work for
Reasons for doing a specific task (e.g. refactoring)
Antecedents of work motivation
Performance, productivity, proactive behaviour
Hall et al  presented a deeper discussion showing that the
studies explicitly mentioning some theory of motivation either
used it in a superficial way, or in a partial way, asserting that
“studies of motivation in software engineering (…) should be
more rigorously based on existing theory”[20, p. 10:25]. The
updated review conducted by França et al.  shows that this
picture remains unchanged.
The MOCC model  is the most recent advance in the study of
motivation in software engineering. The model currently stands as
an abstract, holistic model that enables researchers and
practitioners to have a better understanding of the landscape of
motivation, and provides a coherent framework for integrating
research findings. Nevertheless, the model combines different
concepts of motivation and job satisfaction in a single synthesis,
and puts together results from research that may have been
interested in one, both or neither of these concepts (Table 2).
As a result, we can conclude that more is known about software
engineers’ job satisfaction, but little is known about software
engineers’ work motivation. In order to address this gap, we set
out to obtain a deeper understanding of work motivation for
software engineers. Our main contribution, in this paper, consists
of a set of observational traits of behaviour that characterize the
motivated behaviour of software engineers. We expect this
contribution to enable more data-driven empirical research in this
area, and to serve the initial basis for a more solid framework to
guide and integrate research findings about motivation of software
4. GOALS AND METHODS
In 2010 and 2011, we conducted independent case studies aimed
at developing a better understanding of work motivation in five
Brazilian software organizations (Table 3). Rich data was
collected from 62 practitioners, including analysts, developers,
testers, managers and executive directors. The participants were
selected intentionally, following a maximum variation strategy
regarding age, work experience, and education. The interviews
followed a single script, and were conducted by different
researchers in each organization. We then developed separate
grounded theories  that each identified, described and related
factors that reportedly explained the “motivation” in one
organization. All the interviews were conducted in Portuguese,
and the analysis was performed by native speakers in the original
language. More details on these case studies can be found
Table 3 - Organizations' characteristics
Org. 1 - government organization situated in Recife-PE, Brazil,
provided IT services to the State Government and to citizens. It had
2,580 employees, distributed in 14 main units and in other public
buildings. It used traditional methods of software development.
Org. 2 - private and not-for-profit software development organization,
with about 300 professionals. Its headquarters were located in Recife-
PE. It developed solutions for IT, Telecom, Industrial Automation, and
others. It was SW-CMMi level 2 certified.
Org. 3 - small software development company, established in 2006 in
Recife-PE. It focused on on-demand development of IS products in
areas such as management, finance, mining, health, and others. It
followed agile-like processes. The company comprised 27 people.
Org. 4 - IT Department of a public university in Recife-PE. It is
responsible for the maintenance and evolution of the university's
software systems. It had 37 professionals, following an agile SCRUM-
based approach adherent to the Brazilian MPS.br model
Org. 5 - open source software community created in 2010, consisting
of a set of mailing lists hosted in Google groups, with the active
participation of about 30 people. Projects were developed following an
agile-like procedure. The community did not pay anyone for
Then we ran cross-case syntheses  using the meta-ethnography
approach . The large and complex models resulting from that
effort led us to question whether the participants of the interviews
referred to a single well-defined phenomenon, or offered opinions
and experiences about several phenomena.
During the case studies, participants were informed that the
research focused on motivation, and the word “motivation” was
used in the interviews, but no definition of the term was suggested
before or during the interviews. As suggested by the grounded
theory procedures, in those studies, we approached the data
without the guidance of any previous theory of motivation, and
the analyses relied on bottom-up definitions of the phenomenon.
In the present article, we are specifically interested in the
meanings that practitioners attributed to the term “motivation”.
clearly motivated and demotivated co-workers? Are these
perceptions effectively addressing the phenomenon that we are
To do this, we used the raw answers that participants provided to
three specific questions embedded in the interview scripts, and
conducted a thematic analysis. The questions were:
Q1. How would youdefinetheterm“motivation”?
Q2. How would you describe a clearly motivated co-
Q3. How would you describe a co-worker that is clearly
Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analysing, and
reporting patterns (themes) within the data . Two researchers
coded the answers independently. The codes were merged, and
grouped in more abstract categories. Conflicts were discussed in
face-to-face meetings until agreement was achieved. All analysis
was performed in Portuguese.
According to Cruzes and Dyba , thematic analysis has limited
interpretative power beyond mere description, if it is not used
within an existing theoretical framework. In this paper, we
interpret our results in light of the Job Satisfaction Theory 
and the Job Characteristics Theory , previously described in
A total of 56 valid answers were provided for Q1, and 58 valid
answers for Q2 and Q3 (Table 4). Several answers communicated
the lack of confidence participants had regarding the precise
words to use to define motivation, and to describe motivated and
demotivated co-workers, but only answers such as “I do not
know” have been considered invalid for analysis purposes,
because they are not useful to make any further inference.
All the data is in Portuguese, and the analysis was conducted in
the same language. The examples were translated to English in
this paper to improve readability for the international community.
Table 4 - Number of participants and valid answers
Tot a l
Regarding the first question (Q1), 12 distinct patterns were
identified. Table 5 provides an example of how one of these
patterns was generated from the data. These 12 distinct patterns
were then collated into three abstract groupings. Table 6
summarizes the eight most frequent patterns in three groupings
and indicates the organizations in which the participants referred
to each definition. Note that the example in Table 5 appears in
row 4 of Table 6, and in Group I.
Table 5 - Example of one pattern construction
pleasure of being productive”
Part. 003, Org. 1, Director.
from doing the
“Itiswhen youlike that, when that gives
Part. 021, Org. 2, Tester
you pleasure, when you feel good doing
something that someone ordered you to
Part. 038, Org. 3, Manager
“I think that motivation is to do whatever
you like, whatever makes you happy.”
Part. 044, Org. 4, System Analyst
Table 6–Patterns of definitions for the term "motivation"
It is the overall welfare in the job
It is the pride for doing the work
It is to make people feel
It is the pleasure/happiness from
doing the work
Desire to work
It is the extra-effort applied to
It is the desire to do the work
It is the willingness to attain
It is the willingness to grow, to
Regarding the other two questions (Q2 and Q3), we identified 30
behavioural descriptors (adjectives). Table 7 shows an example of
how the adjectives were identified from the data.
These adjectives were grouped into nine categories with a higher
level of abstraction (Table 8). In Table 8, positive adjectives
Table 7 - Example of behavioural descriptors identification
“First,hearrives early. Smiling, solve the
problems promptly, doesn’twastetime. I think that
the main thing is when you perceive that the
the things with pleasure.(…)Allthesethingsshow
motivation. The person pursuits solutions, doesn’t
expect it to come from nowhere…heisproactive”
Part. 006, Org. 1, System Analyst
Table 9 shows the frequencies with which each category was used
to describe motivated OR demotivated behaviours. According to
this table, descriptors in categories C1 to C6 were mentioned in all
cases. C1 – Engagement and C2 – Happiness hold the most
frequently used descriptors. Table 10 shows how consistently the
participants described the opposite behaviours. Forty-five
participants (77%) described motivation AND demotivation using
adjectives from the same category. This indicates that the category
represents a consistent interpretation of motivation in practice.
Category C1 – Engagement was the most consistently used
through all the cases to describe both motivated and demotivated
behaviours. C2, C3, C4 and C5 were also consistently utilized by
some engineers in all organizations. Although C2, C3 and C5
were among the most frequently mentioned categories (Table 9),
their consistency can be classified as low, i.e. the participants
mentioned it either to describe motivated or demotivated
behaviour exclusively. Only in Org. 5, which is an open source
community, was C3 not consistently mentioned, and this may be
because developers are physically distributed and co-workers are
less likely to notice the concentration levels of others.
Table 8 - Behavioural descriptors for motivated and
C1 – Engagement
C2 – Happiness
C3 – Focused
C4 – Collaboration
Ava i la b le
C5 – Professionalism
C6 – Productivity
C7 – Creativity
C8 – Stability
C9 – Optimism
Table 9 - Motivated behaviour (Frequency)
Categories mentioned in Q2 OR Q3
* Representative of half or more participants in that case
Table 10 - Motivated behaviour (Consistency)
Categories mentioned in Q2AND Q3
* Consistent for half or more participants in that case
6. INTERPRETATION AND DISCUSSION
Our theoretical framework proposes that job satisfaction and work
motivation refer to distinct phenomena (see Section 2 for a more
detailed theoretical discussion). Job satisfaction is the pleasurable
emotional state resulting from the appraisal of one’s job as
attaining, or allowing the attainment of, one’s important job
values, while work motivation refers to the desire to work.
Considering a single minute action, motivation happens before it
while satisfaction happens afterwards. The Job Satisfaction
Theory suggests that Job Satisfaction is signalled by the happiness
of the individuals at work, while the external signs of a motivated
behaviour remain unknown. Human life in fact is a continuous
composed by series of actions, so both concepts are mutually
reinforcing, because past satisfaction shapes people's perception
about experiences and the world around them, which
consequently affects their motivation for future actions.
The data presented in the previous section may mean that our
participants do not regard work motivation and job satisfaction as
distinguishable phenomena, or it may mean that they are not
aware of the distinction. Either way, it supports our initial claim
that the participants of our case studies do not distinguish between
job satisfaction and work motivation. The data shows, in two
complementary ways, that these different phenomena are
conflated in their responses:
First, Table 6 shows that the most frequent definitions attributed
to the term motivation pertain to Group I, which focuses mainly
on feelings resulting from the appraisal of the job, such as pride
and happiness. The definitions in Group I converge to the
definition of satisfaction provided by the Job Satisfaction Theory,
while the definitions in Group II in fact fit better with the
definition of motivation provided by the Job Characteristics
Second, Engagement, Happiness, Concentration, Collaboration
and Professionalism are the categories of behavioural descriptors
most frequently and most consistently mentioned by our
participants to describe the motivated behaviour of their co-
workers. However, these five categories of descriptors clearly
belong to different concepts of our theoretical framework, as
shown in Figure 1.
Figure 1 - Concepts and their descriptors
Happiness is an external sign of job satisfaction, rather than work
motivation. Happiness was the label attributed to a list of positive
and negative emotions that occur as a result of one’sevaluationof
the action, namely: excited/bored, good mood/bad mood, upbeat,
resentful. Engagement and Concentration, on the other hand, are
compatible with the concept of work motivation provided in JCT,
because they comprise mainly attitudes toward the work that are
perceivable before the execution of an action.
Table 8 shows that some of the engineers have mentioned
hypothetical outcomes of job satisfaction or work motivation as
proxies to describe what they consider motivated and demotivated
behaviours, which explains why collaboration and
professionalism appear among the most frequent and consistent
categories. The Job Satisfaction Theory suggests that job
satisfaction influences attendance and organizational
commitment. The descriptors in our category Professionalism
represent exactly these attitudes of an individual toward the
organization. Furthermore, collaboration is an element of
performance, as well as productivity and creativity,
Finally, the low level of consistency described in Table 10 may
indicate that motivation and demotivation are two independent
behavioural states. Although the words “motivation” and
“demotivation” were used in the interview scripts in the case
studies, we could not find an explicit definition for the concept of
“demotivation”inourtheoreticalframework. The Job Satisfaction
theory describes Job Satisfaction and Job Dissatisfaction as two
co-existing states, rather than opposite forces. Thus, we follow a
similar rationale to suggest an interpretation for this concept,
based on our data, described below.
It is possible to observe in the data that the negative adjectives of
the category “focused”, in particular, described demotivated
engineers better than the positively-described motivated
engineers. Since the Job Characteristics Theory defines
motivation as the desire to work, the opposite of motivation would
rather be “no motivation” or “the lack of desire to work”. The
term‘demotivation’,incontrast, may have communicated the idea
of “the desire not to work” in our case studies. Thus, while
motivated engineers are engaged, demotivated engineers are
distracted. Both motivational and de-motivational forces co-exist
in the environment, so the combination of the engagement and
focused states reveals two other situations, illustrated in Figure 2.
“Not-engaged and focused” represents a state defined as
Homeostasis , or a state of balance that results in no action.
The opposite state, “engaged and distracted” (frenetic) indicates
the influence of non-hygienic forces on the ability of the
individual to maintain good performance, such as constant
interruptions, noise, discomfort, and health conditions, among
Figure 2 - Motivated behaviour quadrant
Whether a researcher or a practitioner is interested in solving a
they should be aware that the antecedents, behavioural signs, and
outcomes of work motivation and job satisfaction differ. This has
practical implications for work-based motivation programmes,
which may not be effectively designed to enhance performance
and productivity of software engineers.
The role of this paper is two-fold.
1. To highlight the distinction between these two concepts for
the software engineering research and practitioner
2. To present indicators of motivated behaviour in software
engineers based on empirical research, in a form of
descriptors that can be used to develop observational or
measurement instruments in the future
The evidence presented in this paper suggests that software
practitioners do not distinguish between work motivation and job
satisfaction. We would not expect software engineers to provide a
very precise definition for the term, since it is not necessarily part
of their technical curricula. However, this may challenge the
findings from past research that asked software engineers directly
for their perceptions about their own motivation.
Previous research suggests that satisfied behaviour is perceived in
terms of happiness at work. In this work, we suggest motivated
behaviour is perceived in terms of engagement and focus. In our
research, these two behavioural traits were the most consistently
mentioned to describe motivated behaviour by the interviewed
software engineering practitioners across the five studied
organisations. Knowing this will help to improve future empirical
research on motivation and support the effective management of
software engineers in the workplace.
All of the studies reported here were executed in Brazilian
companies. Since individual characteristics, values, knowledge
and perceptions vary between distinct cultures , the reader
should be careful in transferring these results to other contexts. It
opens, however, an opportunity of replicating this study in other
countries, to draw comparisons, and enhance the theory from
Future research should take a closer look at the antecedents of
engagement and concentration as a way of understanding how to
develop motivational programmes that are more focused on the
performance of software engineers.
Professor Fabio Q. B. da Silva holds a research grant from the
Brazilian National Research Council (CNPq), process
#314523/2009-0. The research that led to the results presented
here were conducted while César França was a PhD student at
UFPE, holding a CNPq grant process #141156/2010-4. We would
like to thank all participants in all phases of this research and the
organizations involved for granting access for data collection.
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