Developer Differences: Makers vs Menders

AUG 14, 2015 • Written by Andrea Goulet

When you think of a developer what comes to mind? A brogrammer living in San Francisco working 23 hours a day on the next Facebook? If so, you wouldn’t be alone. Like so many industries, software development is rife with stereotypes. And one that is particularly pervasive is the idea that all developers, if given the chance, would opt for a complete rewrite of an application.

While it’s true that there are many software developers who do enjoy starting with a clean slate, there is also a group who loves working on making existing applications better. Rather than starting from scratch and building an 80% solution, these developers are ideal for taking over a project once it’s become stable, and nurturing it for a long time. Neither developer is better. Both are needed in the software world. You just need to understand when to use each one.

Makers Enjoy Initial Development & MVPs

To demonstrate how these developers are different, let’s look at the typical product lifecycle. When a project begins, there is a burst of development that must occur for a project to get off the ground. For developers that identify as “makers”, this is an ideal state. They love a blank canvas. So much so, that these types of projects, are often referred to as Greenfield projects. For developers who enjoy testing the viability of an idea, working on projects like these can feel like a little slice of heaven. Anything seems possible. The sky is blue, dotted with white puffy clouds, and the grass, in their mind, is always greener.

Once the project has the desired feature set, it’s time to introduce it to market. Often this is done as a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). The app is still small, and the mental model is generally not too complex. At this point, the market will decide what happens next. Either the app will gain traction, and grow its user base, or it will fade into obscurity.

Menders Prefer Working on Apps that Are Stable and Growing

At this point, the tasks for the developer shift. Instead of thinking big and implementing architecture, they’ll need to focus on things like security, scalability, performance, bug fixes, and feature enhancements. The work becomes more detailed than it was at the beginning of a project and to the frustration of many a product owner, the developer’s interest begins to wane. To makers, the fine details and craftsmanship required at this phase aren’t as fun.

But there is a group of developers whose talents and interests are well suited for these types of tasks. They haven’t had a name until now, but we like to call them “menders”. Menders love refactoring, or editing code to enhance clarity. Bug fixes genuinely excite them and they get a little giddy about testing. These are all qualities that may not be as useful at the beginning of a project, but as your app grows and becomes more complex, these are definitely traits that you’ll want on your team.

Makers : New Construction :: Menders : Remodeling

Another way to think of the maker mender difference, is to think about the difference between new construction and remodeling. With new construction, you’re often starting with a cleared piece of land, similar to that blank text editor that makers like so much. Mending, on the other hand, is more like the show “This Old House”. There’s often a very good reason that the existing structure should stay, but to update it requires digging in, knocking down walls, and sometimes dealing with the unexpected things you find.

Motivation Tactics for Makers and Menders

Like with any mix of personalities, diversity is typically a good thing. Most likely, you’ll want to have a mix of makers and menders on your team. The key is knowing how to motivate them so you’ll get the best performance. Makers are like rabbits — they burst with speed for a short period of time. Menders are more like the tortoise. In their world, slow and steady improvements wins the race.

Let Makers Experiment and Give them a Deadline

Nothing bores a maker more than repetition. So keep your makers engaged by tasking them with experiments. Allow them freedom to look into the future and employ design thinking. Need a prototype to prove a concept? Call on a maker. They’ll enjoy standing something up quickly. Makers are also likely to thrive at hackathons where there’s high energy for a short period of time. And if you’re in a crunch and on a deadline, makers will step up to the challenge as they are often motivated by time pressure. Crossing over a big deadline gives them a sense of accomplishment, so sprints are a good project management tool for these folks. Just don’t expect them to stay put on one project for too long. Makers love exploring new ideas and will get bored easily if their project is too tedious.

Give Menders a Series of Small Wins Throughout the Day

The blue-sky thinking and deadline driven project management that motivates a maker is often stress inducing for a mender. What they may lack in excitability, they make up for in consistency. A mender is an ideal person to tackle technical debt, fix bugs, fine tune features, create a style guide, and monitor support tickets. Unlike their maker friends, menders do best when their work is steady and relatively predictable. Have a problem that no one has been able to solve yet? Share it with a mender. They’ll enjoy the challenge of digging in really deep and figuring out what’s going on. Just be careful not to micromanage your menders, as that will annoy them to no end. Instead, develop a long backlog of tasks and give your menders autonomy as to what gets done and when. If there is a priority or deadline, communicate it well in advance to allow for unkown unknowns to surface.

So how about you? Are you a maker? Mender? Something in between? What motivates you to develop your best software?