Over the last few years, I've studied what makes people happy at work. Most want very similar things--stable relationships with colleagues, engaging and challenging work, progress toward goals, and a sense of control in meeting those goals. For most people, happiness at work has little to do with a paycheck.

As soon as I packaged my insights into a theory I could stand behind, I read Michael Halligan's post "Benefits Matter, or Why I Won't Work for Your YCombinator Company." Halligan states that not only do benefits matter when hiring top tech talent, but so does commensurate pay. The problem is, commensurate pay for someone with 20+ years of engineering experience may not be commensurate with what a fledgling start-up can pay--even if it wanted to.

What Engineers Really Want

Surely my theory wasn't that off the grid? So I went back to my engineer comrades and asked them, what do you really, really want? Money and benefits, or happiness and meaning?

They didn't rattle off a list of health benefits, high salaries, or paid time off. The refrain was the same among just about every single one I talked with. What they want is freedom.

One path to freedom is money. Another path to freedom is time.

The Problem

To keep your tech talent, you have to give them one or the other--time or money. To recruit and retain the best tech talent, you have to give them both.

But what's really happening in many start-ups is that engineers are squeezed from two ends--both their salary and their life (i.e. freedom) leaves a lot to be desired.

They're necessarily paid a smaller wage than they could garner elsewhere (usually off set by an equity stake that may or may not pay off) and they're pressured to work longer hours, leaving little time for a life outside of work.

If they're not building their own product or working for a company they really believe in, then this two-ended squeezing takes an unwelcome toll, which is when most of the good ones walk away. It's just not worth it.

However, Halligan's compensation ($18,000/year toward conference attendance,  $2,500/year FSA, full health insurance with paid premiums, 30 days of PTO, to name a few) sounds more like magical thinking than solutions that could actually work in start-ups. Most large corporations can't afford these benefits.

The Reality

Start-ups are not meant for everyone. If you want the high salary, a month of PTO, and full paid health insurance, perhaps the start-up gig isn't for you.

I see more tech talent leave, not because they aren't paid well, but because the financial sacrifice they're making to stay isn't offset by some other tangible work-balancing activities--weekends off to travel, meaningful side projects, positive company culture, flexible schedules, healthy relationships, or building something with the potential to make a real impact.

Without these humanizing activities outside of work and time to focus on them, engineers are little more than hired guns used to propel other people's dreams. Most of us won't stick around for someone else's dream. We will work, sweat, and bleed to be a part of something we believe in. Engineers are no different.

Want to keep your tech talent? Pay them well (enough). Treat them better. Empower them to dig deep creatively. Make sure they believe in what they're building, and get the hell out of their way.