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Strong opinions, weakly held

Buy your developers nice hardware

Not buying nice computers for software developers is a mistake. I put this so bluntly because I think it’s an easy mistake to make if you don’t really understand developers. I’m not going to make an argument based on the productivity gains to be had through the use of more powerful computers and bigger monitors. Those are good reasons to make sure people have the tools that make them most effective, but the reasoning behind making sure developers have nice computers goes beyond that.

First of all, it should be noted that many developers are computer enthusiasts. The developers you most want to hire fall into this category. They know the difference between the laptops Dell sells for $600 and the Lenovo ThinkPads that sell for $2,000. They can tell the difference between the nice 20″ LCD monitor and the crappy one. And in most cases, they care about those differences. So when they get a hand me down laptop or a new computer that’s substandard when they start a job, most developers find it a little disheartening. They know they could have something better, and in many cases they do have something better sitting at home on their desk. Ideally, when you’re looking to save money, it should be in an area where people won’t notice. When it comes to their tools, people notice.

The second point is that providing developers with top of the line tools lets them know that the company takes their work seriously. It almost doesn’t matter what someone gets paid — if they are given substandard equipment, it makes them feel like the company doesn’t really value their work, probably because whoever is making the decision doesn’t understand their work. Going all out on equipment is a strong signal to prospective employees that you have a clue.

And third, it’s not that expensive. Software developers tend to be pretty well compensated, and when you add on the amount of money it costs to provide benefits, a work space, and everything else, the difference between a cheap computer and a nice computer is really small. The most expensive laptop in the Apple Store is $2,500. The cheapest is $1,000.

To make my point, I’m collecting job ads that promise nice computer hardware to developers. Here’s a job posting from Tumblr:

You’ll get to work in a nice office in New York City on a Mac Pro with giant monitors on something you actually care about that’s used by well over a million people.

And here’s what Mint.com offers:

Engineers get their own top-of-the-line laptop with 4GB RAM and a docking station, and flat LCD monitor for their desk. Built-in unlimited mobile broadband is a company-sponsored option. Having the right tools is important.

I worry more about equipment purchases as someone who’s gone out and hired developers than as an end user. Finding good developers is really, really difficult, and companies should give themselves every advantage that they can. Having an equipment policy you can brag about is a tangible advantage, and I’m always amazed when companies forgo that advantage.

6 Comments

  1. I couldn’t agree more. I had a previous job where I got to pick out my computer – Mac or PC, laptop or desktop and got to customize it and buy any additional software I needed. I went with a Mac Pro and the exact video editing software I knew I needed. It was so liberating to have a boss that understood that the tools were more than important.

    A great example of this is Fog Creek software. Everything about the developer’s setup from the workstations to the offices is brilliant!

  2. In an industry that pays well such as IT there appears to be an “entitlement” attitude, and often those who can most afford it have the greatest resentment that employers don’t provide them a gold-plated desktop supercomputer.

    Why not invest in your tools, just as you should be investing in professional development? This argument is even more powerfully true if the investment is as little as mentioned in this piece?

    A top of the line Apple laptop at $2500 amortized over a few years runs to “less than lunch money” – a small price to pay to have the system you feel your god-like abilities in software development so justly deserve.

    As an employer this sort of “can do” attitude and initiative is far more value to the team. As an individual this attitude leads to a far more positive experience in the workforce.

  3. In retrospect, the impression I got at my last job when I got a desktop which was underspeced compared to my then-two-year-old personal MacBook Pro turned out to be a very reliable indicator of management quality. The most bizarre aspect were the excessive minor economies there while poor software decisions cost more than upgrading everyone in the office would have.

  4. When I was writing the piece, I did think about whether programmers should be like chefs, who do bring their own tools to the job (at least when it comes to knives — pots and pans are pots and pans). This is how it usually works for some kinds of contractors, in fact. But corporations usually don’t want their employees to bring their own computers to work, for a variety of sensible reasons.

    In a larger sense, DB, I think you’d be better served spending less time psychoanalyzing your colleagues.

  5. DB:

    It sounds like you are saying that developers should buy their own equipment, but many companies have IT policies where this is not allowed. IT may not support or install company owned software (required to do your job and not available to you via other channels) on non-company owned machines, or even allow them to be connected to the network.

    Although the idea of being like a chef and bringing my own equipment is appealing, for an employee, I feel it’s up to the employer to supply the appropriate tools. Having good equipment is not just nice for the employee, but it often makes them more efficient. The efficiency gain can be hard to quantify, but in my experience it more than makes up for the “extra” cost.

  6. This reminds me of the frustration I had at my first job, at an online ad agency, where they had designers (making $50k+, back in ’99) using cheap 17″ curved monitors and mice. I remember a meeting of top staff where they were discussing morale and attrition problems – this was just before I left! – where I had to point out that the cost of buying all the designers 20″+ FD Trinitrons and graphics pads amounted to about 2 weeks salary for each of them, or a fraction of the cost of HR & recruiting costs for hiring their replacement. (Not to mention lost productivity!)

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