A systematic review of theory use in studies investigating the motivations of software engineers

Hall, Tracy; Baddoo, Nathan; Beecham, Sarah; Robinson, Hugh and Sharp, Helen (2009). A systematic review of theory use in studies investigating the motivations of software engineers. ACM Transactions on Software Engineering and Methodology, 18(3), article no. 10.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/1525880.1525883

Abstract

Motivated software engineers make a critical contribution to delivering successful software systems. Understanding the motivations of software engineers and the impact of motivation on software engineering outcomes could significantly affect the industry’s ability to deliver good quality software systems. Understanding the motivations of people generally in relation to their work is underpinned by 8 classic motivation theories from the social sciences. We would expect these classic motivation theories to play an important role in developing a rigorous understanding of the specific motivations of software engineers. In this paper we investigate how this theoretical basis has been exploited in previous studies of software engineering. We analysed 92 studies of motivation in software engineering that were published in the literature between 1980 and 2006. Our main findings are that many studies of software engineers’ motivations are not explicitly underpinned by reference to the classic motivation theories. Furthermore findings presented in these studies are often not explicitly interpreted in terms of those theories, despite the fact that in many cases there is a relationship between those findings and the theories. Our conclusion is that although there has been a great deal of previous work looking at motivation in software engineering, the lack of reference to classic theories of motivation means that the current body of work in the area is weakened and our understanding of motivation in software engineering is not as rigorous as it may at first appear. This weakness in the current state of knowledge highlights important areas for future researchers to contribute towards developing a rigorous and usable body of knowledge in motivating software engineers.

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