More than just a Joel Score: 5 Things Technical Employees Should Look for in an Employer

Joel Spolsky is one of the most influential developers around. If you haven’t already and you work in or with a software development team, I strongly encourage you to read his blog and/or books. One of his most enduring contributions to the world is his blog post from August 2000: Joel Test. This post describes 12 things that a highly effective software development team does. In Joel’s view, any software team with a score of less than 10 has “serious problems”. Spolsky’s immensely popular stackoverflow.com has a careers section where companies can advertise their Joel Score. Developers can use this to quickly evaluate the awesomeness of prospective employers, alongside company pages with icons of perks such as large screen displays and fully stocked fridges. We love careers.stackoverflow.com for hiring because we get awesome candidates, and in fact found our last developer from a posting there.

As a former developer I can appreciate the value of being able to quickly filter a list of job positions based on the Joel test, but I think it’s important to keep a balanced perspective on what actually matters to you as a prospective employee. The Internet is filled with posts on what employees actually value. We’ve compiled a list of five of recurring themes from these posts that you may want to consider alongside the Joel test score, along with some details on how we at Security Compass approach each one:

  1. Emphasis on continuous learning: When technical people are new to a job they usually have a lot to learn about the domain, the company, and technologies they are using. Over time, however, employees build expertise in these areas and the opportunity to learn decreases at the same time as they become more valuable to the company. To combat this at Security Compass, we have made continuous learning a key value. One of the explicit quarterly OKRs for most employees on the SD Elements team, for example, is to ensure they are learning or honing at least one new skill. Some of our employees are focusing on technical skills such as writing automated front-end tests, learning Puppet configuration, or honing their Python development skills. Other employees are focusing on management skills, such as conducting effective One on Ones and motivating employees.
  2. Sense of ownership: Many traditional management techniques simply don’t work in the knowledge economy. Somebody telling you to do something that you have no say over is not as motivating as having buy-in and at least some discretion on how to achieve a goal. We strongly feel that the latter is a major motivator for employees. Employees at Security Compass have a lot of input on many strategic and tactical decisions. More importantly, employees have discretion within resource and externally-imposed limits to achieve their goals. This instills a sense of ownership. For example, our marketing team takes pride in its website re-design projects, our training team takes pride in building beautifully designed and highly engaging training. Employees with a sense of ownership do amazing things, which is what lead us to being named a Cool Vendor in Application & Endpoint Security by Gartner.
  3. Having a voice: Closely related to the previous point, employees often have a lot of input on how to make their company better. Feeling under-appreciated and having poor managers are two common reasons people hate their jobs. Managers at Security Compass actively listen to employees in regular one on ones, and take action to improve the company based on regular input.
  4. Flexibility: Your employer should give you tools to help you meet both personal and professional objectives. At Security Compass we recognize employees’ personal lives impact their professional lives and vice versa. We accommodate this by having flexible work hours, an open personal day policy, and the ability to work from home two days a week.
  5. Appreciation: Feeling valued as an employee is not just about monetary compensation. Regular feedback, both positive and constructive, helps employees understand their value to the company. Apart from feedback in one on ones, we have built a peer recognition program so that employees can show appreciation to outstanding co-workers.

Every person has their own individual list of values to look for in an employer, but in my experience most technical employees look at all five of these. There is value in things like the Joel Score and a list of cool perks, yet they are no substitute for looking the the fundamentals that will make you enjoy your work.

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