9 Ways to Incentivize Bug-Fix Teams

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Dedicated bug-fix teams are quite common in software organizations and are formed for many reasons. Key drivers include a major product release, an influx of new customer sign-ups, or event-based usage spikes that may generate higher volumes of customer issues that subsequently need to be remediated.

Of course, most talented engineers & product people tend not to want to join dedicated bug-fix teams or stay on them for long periods of time.

It might be helpful if we look at some of the typical reasons why this might be the case, in order to develop a competent and effective bug-fix team that people would like to join:

  • First, there is the psychological aspect. Bugs are never a great thing for a software platform. So when a developer is working on an issue it usually means customers are unhappy. That can create a stressful environment over an extended period of time if not managed properly.
  • Resolving bugs is usually not the most innovative kind of work. While one can be clever in the way a defect is fixed, most of the time one is not breaking new programmatic or computational ground. Relatively speaking the work can be somewhat mundane in nature.
  • Bug fixing can sometimes be tedious. You’re often working with someone else’s code in trying to unravel the deep mysteries of a problem in a short period of time (need to get the fix out the door), and doing that repeatedly (for each new bug that comes in.) Often this can be tiresome and mentally taxing.
  • Often, and for good reason, bug-fix teams develop a kind of tunnel vision. This is because velocity is paramount on a team like this and the focus is heavily weighted towards “hitting the numbers.” This can sometimes impact the creativity of resources who are hyper-focused on a single objective over a long period of time.
  • Finally, bug-fixing may not be considered a very glamorous assignment. The work is likely not generating additional revenue since it is in response to addressing existing customer complaints. Therefore it can take a backseat at times to new feature releases.

In spite of these challenges, SaaS businesses utilize bug-fix teams to great effect either to maintain existing quality standards or to achieve new levels of quality on their platforms, but only when they properly incentivize the team.

By establishing the right set of incentives a high-quality team culture can be developed that ensures the best engineering and product talent will be retained. As well, the overall impact of the team will be maximized.

Before we dive into the list of incentives there is one aspect that many organizations fail to consider before launching a bug-fix team.

This simple yet common mistake is important to avoid to ensure that the bug-fix team will be effective: explaining why the team is being formed in the first place.

This can easily be overlooked but provides necessary context to the team and can serve as a vital initial motivator. In my experience the best developers and product people are eager to make sure customers have a high-quality experience on their platforms.

Thus, it is best to make clear the reasons why the bug-fix team is being formed, how it will benefit customers, the platform, and the business, as well the particular parameters of the teams formation (size, focus area, timeline, etc).

Additionally, encouraging the team to provide feedback and ask questions about the objectives of the bug-fix team will ensure a certain level of buy-in at the early stages.

By being transparent about the objectives of the bug-fix initiative, and giving the team the opportunity to give feedback on such an endeavor, one will build the much needed trust to sustain such an initiative over the long-term.

With that said, let’s dive into the incentives. The following are 9 approaches that I’ve tested in the past and tend to work with most teams.

9 Incentives for Bug-Fix Teams

1. Keep it Temporary
The key incentive for a talented engineer or product contributor to remain on a bug fix team is that the assignment will be temporary in nature with a clear end in sight. A rule of thumb is to time-limit the assignment to 3 to 4 months at most. Anything more than that and you risk losing your most valuable talent. One way to operationalize this incentive is to have periodic rotations between feature and bug-fix teams, if possible.

2. Gamification
Since bug fixing work can at times be a tedious affair it is wise to make the work as enjoyable as possible for the team by using a bit of gamification. There are many approaches to how this can be implemented, of course. One example is creating a simple point-based scoring system with a leader board which serves to foster competition between individuals on the team. You can even offer nominal prizes to the winners. The idea is to create consistent engagement, collaboration & participation in the work by creating a game-like structure around the daily activities of the team.

3. Choice of Work
If possible it’s best to give the team some choice in what type of bug-fix work they’ll tackle. Given that the bug-fix demand side is often generated by pressing customer needs this isn’t always easy. That’s why its a good idea to connect with the client-facing teams and understand the drivers from the customer-base very clearly. If you do this early on you may find some areas where there will be optionality in terms of what to work on. It’s important for leaders to look for options to give to the team. By giving them some amount of choice the team will feel more in control.

4. Extra Compensation
If the bug-fix team is critical to delivering on customer retention or platform quality objectives, extra compensation for the team may be warranted. This compensation can take various forms. For example, offering extra paid time off or a bonus. Whatever the form of compensation, the idea is to offer a tangible reward at the end of the effort or after reaching some critical milestone. This incentive might be especially useful if the bug-fix team is tackling a highly complicated issue that is extremely meaningful to the business such as retaining a critical customer.

5. Show & Tell
Bug-fix teams often work deep in the bowels of the product with few chances to show others in the organization the clever fixes they are putting in place. Thus, it’s a good idea to allow the team to showcase their work to external stakeholders on a periodic basis. Select a few tickets that highlight a critical fix that made a big difference to one or more customers. Let the developer discuss and show the before and after of the behavior being addressed. This opportunity will let the team know their work is meanfingful to the business.

6. Executive Access
Many individuals on the team are likely to appreciate a short sit-down or virtual coffee with the CEO. It’s a good way for developers to understand the big picture of where the organization is headed and how the bug-fix team is helping the company get there. It also helps take the developer out of the daily more mundane task of chasing bugs, and for 15 mins enables them see their work from leaderships vantage point. I’ve found it also helps people feel that their work is meaningful and important. A 15 minute coffee with the CEO may sound simplistic but it can make a big difference to someone on the ground doing the hard work day-in, day-out.

7. Professional Development & Learning Opportunities
A good way to reward bug-fix teams after the grueling slog of a 3-month debugging marathon, and get them refreshed and inspired again is through professional development events. Examples include conferences, hackathons (internal or external), classes and seminars. If funding this is difficult for your organization then allocate a set period of time each week to allow for self-driven learning via webinars, free online courses, and so forth. This can serve as an excellent transitionary mechanism to shift the mindset of the team from investigating issues deep in the bowels of the system and back to creative thinking and exciting areas of innovation.

8. Post-Tour Project Assignments
Factoring in the various constraints of your organization, it helps tremendously if you’re able to offer members of the bug-fix team a choice of projects once the initiative is complete. This can be highly motivating for developers who have wanted to work on a specific technology or project and would be willing to put in a few months of debugging work in order to join a project they are highly interested in.

9. Other Recognition
In the best of times, when features are rolling off the assembly line at a fast clip and customers are loving the product, the typical engineer or product owner craves recognition (as they should) for delivering value to the market. But when there are defects for the team to deal with and platform health is at stake, recognition for getting back to healthy quality levels is even more important. Again there are many forms this can take. A go-to favorite is to do a Zoom call with the entire organization wherein a person is recognized for their great work at the end of their bug-fix tour of duty. Another is to call out the teams great work as part of a monthly leadership newsletter.

Keeping talented bug-fix teams highly focused & delivering on the sometimes difficult task of resolving software defects over an extended period of time while also preventing burnout and talent attrition is the primary challenge.

The place to start when launching such a team is to walk through the reasons behind the effort in the first place. This is highly meaningful to most talented people joining the effort.

It should be made clear the pain that customers are experiencing, its impact on the business, and how precisely the work of the bug-fix team will solve for that pain and help the organization.

Providing this kind of context, both in the beginning and multiple times throughout the effort, combined with the incentives outlined above will ensure that dedicated bug-fix teams are embraced by the organization as an effective means to ensuring the quality of your software platform and ultimately customer retention and happiness.

And, by taking into account the nature of debugging work itself, its various pitfalls and obstacles, and putting in place a proper incentive structure to mitigate against these challenges, you will also increase the happiness for the teams doing the work.

Ultimately, the difference in impact between hoping it all works out when it comes to bug-fix efforts versus being deliberate about how you plan and incentive the project is night and day.

Technology leader scaling software, teams & business. Amateur mechanic. Book junkie. Enthusiastic garage gym owner. Connect with me on Twitter @bscalable