The top priority for software developers across all experience levels is the ability to learn on the job.

That was the finding of a new survey by technical hiring specialist Triplebyte, which polled programmers at more than 450 tech companies about their biggest motivators at work.

“‘Opportunities for professional growth’ is the clear winner, appearing 13 percentage points above even ‘salary’,” writes the company about its findings.

“As we’ll see, this turns out to be a universal interest: in almost every cohort we looked at, professional growth was the most selected motivator.”

Follow-up interviews with those surveyed revealed this desire for “opportunities for professional growth” basically translated as a desire among developers to “develop their abilities as engineers”.

“This is probably rational. Software engineering is a fast-moving field, and to stay still is to be left behind,” Triplebyte writes.

“We’ve written before about how things like an engineer’s choice of language can affect their job prospects, and popular choices change quickly over time. In 2002, a very good COBOL or Fortran engineer was probably in a good place as far as their job search was concerned, but today they’re unlikely to get much attention from companies that have moved on to more modern languages.”

Triplebyte says it has seen developers sidelined for sticking with languages whose popularity is dwindling, such as Perl or PHP, stressing that “a smart and career-aware engineer knows that their long-term employability is more precarious than it might look at any given time”.

Beyond developers just being mindful of keeping their skills attractive to employers, learning new languages is also useful from a productivity standpoint, according to a recent talk at the QCon 2019 developer conference in London, which stressed how knowing a multitude of languages makes it easier to choose the best tool for the job.

That said, there is solace for the dwindling pool of COBOL developers who chose not to brush up on newer languages, with demand oustripping supply for devs to maintain ageing banking and other COBOL systems, to the extent that COBOL devs often report high earnings.

Returning to the Triplebyte report, the next highest workplace motivators for all developers are perhaps unsurprising, with salary at number two and work/life balance at number three.

The report also broke down priorities by gender, and found the same overall preference for professional growth, although women reported an “inclusive workplace” as being a priority far more often than men.

It was only among the great engineers, those who scored between the 95th and 98th percentile on the Triplebyte technical interview, that workplace priorities differed.

Among these skilled engineers, “opportunities for professional growth” was no longer the biggest workplace motivator, with salary being the most important factor and “impressive team members” the third-most important. Priorities shifted again among the best engineers, those who scored at the 98th percentile or higher in the technical interview, with work/life balance becoming overwhelmingly the most important factor for these engineers.

The report echoes the findings of an earlier survey of more than 10,000 developers by Dice, which said tech workers’ top priorities were salary, working conditions, training, remote and flexible working options, and being challenged at work.

The Dice report also identified a mismatch between the large proportion of tech workers who want training on the job, 71%, and the share of workers who say their company funds training, only 40%.

For more tips on the skills needed to succeed as a developer, check out the TechRepublic’s cheat sheet.