Rewarding your heroes

Olivier Koch
Aug 22, 2017 · 2 min read
The MIT Team at the Darpa Urban Challenge 2007

Many years ago, I was part of a team that built one of the first autonomous cars in the world.

The team was created to enter the now famous DARPA Urban Challenge.

We worked like crazy for 18 months in a row. Night and days. Week-ends included. We didn’t care. We were so passionate about what we were building that we did not suffer from it. We loved it.

At the end of the event came the time to give prizes to the finalist teams. We were one of them.

All teams were happy, but exhausted. These past 18 months had been a real drain on all of us.

Do you know what the prize was? A coin. Yep, you are reading this right. Of course, there was an impressive cash prize for the teams that made it to the podium. But the fourth team (out of roughly 30 participating teams) received nothing more than a coin.

That coin, however, was given to us in person by the director of the project at DARPA. I will remember that day my whole life.

Most companies care about rewarding those who take risks and go the extra mile. Yet many of them fall short of providing rewards that their heroes will remember their whole life.

The most common mistake I have seen is giving heroes a few hundred bucks in cash or gift vouchers.

What a terrible idea.

If you’re going to give cash to people who make a change in your company, then play it fair and square, and be ready to shell out an amount that is comparable with the business impact they have. This will typically be a 5- or 6-digit number.

If you are not willing to spend that amount, then forget about money altogether and go for a coin. Or for any gift that carries a symbolic meaning and will last forever. If you are a startup, this could be a lunch with the founders.

But giving a few hundred bucks is useless. Just don’t do that.

Olivier Koch

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machine learning / computer vision engineer & tech lead