Vasyl Soloshchuk
19 March 2020

Dos and Don’ts of Engineering Team Motivation: CTO’s Guide

According to a survey, engineering team motivation is among the top five biggest challenges of CTOs. Here, team motivation was estimated to be 3.21 out of 5 points. Motivation helps to minimize employees’ work-related stress and burnout while keeping risks to your business low. This is also your baseline to their high performance, so it’s crucial to be able to choose the right strategy for motivating engineers. In this article, Fintech CTOs will offer their best advice on how to motivate them and, conversely, what can deflect the motivation to zero.

More responsibility vs. more money

Coming from the technical side, CTOs can easily make complex architectural decisions; however, applying human psychology, which is also in their line of duty, is usually more difficult for them.

David Wallace, CTO in Greenphire, assumes that his role should not include any development or architecting responsibilities:

“Part of my initiative has been to build a management team and empower them to take more ownership and responsibilities without me. That doesn’t mean I’m cutting the line and heading somewhere else. It just means a progression. Showing my management team that I have [confidence] in them and empowering them is a clear critical item for me.” – David Wallace, CTO Greenphire

This approach develops the team’s autonomy, raises their confidence, and gives Wallace more time to think over the company’s future strategic innovation and predict future challenges.

Rich Romano, CTO at FIDx, also empowers his team to be accountable and responsible for their own choices:

“I make sure that I do not get CC’d on every email around a bug that’s going back and forth. They only put me on when I need to be involved in those critical issues.” – Rich Romano, CTO FIDx

Fostering a highly responsible atmosphere around a project isn’t a quick and easy way to improve motivation, which is why companies often choose another approach—namely, money motivation. Although it seems quick and regular, the effect from this type of motivation is short term, says Radomir Mastalerz, CTO at WealthArc, a wealth management start-up.

“We are not able to beat the top market salaries. If you attract people only with money, usually it works only short-term. You need to have people that enjoy the fast-paced environment of a startup and like being challenged daily.” – Radomir Mastalerz, CTO WealthArc

Cohesiveness vs. consolidation

The most important thing about Agile delivery is maintaining the proactivity of engineers, says Malcolm Ross, VP of product at Appian. He compares engineering squads to human tribes, where each participant has his or her own role and contributes to the whole tribe’s prosperity. A CTO should make sure the overall tribe is cohesive and has all the necessary skills to achieve project goals. Small is better, so having five or seven engineers in a tribe ensures cohesiveness, rapid communication, and free knowledge exchange, says Ross.

Another great part of cohesiveness is shared knowledge and transparency across teams. According to Joseph Konrad, Head of Data Quality at AdvisorEngine, there are always commercial secrets or company-specific knowledge that has to stay privileged or confidential but, whether deliberate or not, well-intentioned or not, knowledge hoarding can seriously damage an organization’s efficiency, morale, or forward momentum. The symptoms aren’t hard to spot:

  • There is one person who everyone has to go to for the same vital information
  • Certain processes or data have to be reinvented again and again by different people
  • One particular person’s vacation or parental leave is dreaded because the place or the project will grind to a screeching halt

The opposite of knowledge hoarding is knowledge propagation, and its benefits include:

  • Handling a crisis or an unexpected departure well
  • Completing projects quickly and smoothly
  • Deepening team cohesion, commitment, and fulfillment by combining trust with the ongoing growth
  • Earning a positive personal reputation in an organization by sharing know-how and mentoring
  • Enhancing long-term career prospects and helping people add extra skills to their resumes

The problem with knowledge hoarding goes beyond just motivation. It causes slow adaptability to change and great risks when a person who has a bottleneck decides to leave. But most often, having reduced access to project knowledge demotivates team members and pushes them to look for other companies that don’t hoard the knowledge and don’t force them to take routine steps to achieve simple goal.

Impact vs. fear

What motivates better—an ability to influence the result or just fear of failure? Shane Higginbotham, CPO at BlazePortfolio, says that the most motivating part for him personally is making an impact on the product and the company. The most deflating thing for him is to realize that his real goal is not to lose money. This statement greatly illustrates how fear impedes motivation and the high performance of the team.

The most important thing for a startup is taking full responsibility for the task that you’re given, says Radomir Mastalerz, CTO in WealthArc. Startups usually cannot afford constant supervision and double checks of the work that someone is doing. Startups must focus on hiring self-motivated, responsible professionals.

The candidates who meet the criteria have plenty of other offers to choose from. That’s why startups should motivate the candidate to join the team by giving them something they cannot find in big corporates – challenging problems to solve, freedom, responsibility and growth opportunities. All these constituents allow them to make an impact and influence the success of the project as deeply as it’s possible.

“What we do to attract people is giving them a lot of freedom and very responsible tasks.” – Radomir Mastalerz, CTO WealthArc


On top of finding the best perspective and most viable solutions, the CTO must form a team, develop strong bonds among individuals, and help them to realize their potential. Motivating a team is highly important to ensure all these components are taken care of. To dive deeper into motivating a team, managing remotes, and ensuring high performance of employees, read our guide about human resources for distributed teams. In its pages you will find the best HR practices illustrated by real cases from FinTech companies and FinTech CTO Club members.