image for The transfer window is still open - hide your developers!

The transfer window is still open - hide your developers!

Published on Tuesday, 3rd September 2013
Can you keep your squad together? In this final part of Ad Lib's blogs on talent retention, Mike Harley, Principal Consultant looks at how the most successful businesses hold on to their most gifted and innovative developers.

Can you keep your squad together?

So the Premier League transfer window has finally shut until January.  Some teams will be waking up this morning to survey the damage that has been done by the ‘bigger clubs’ who have ruthlessly snatched their prized assets away for promises of better times.  As with football, many digital agencies and software houses face the threat of losing their best talent not at organised regular intervals but constantly throughout the year.

How do the most successful companies retain their most gifted and innovative developers with so much competition in a market with a major skills shortage?  Big question and one which could fill several books.

From our own experience of talking to top developers here at ADLIB over the last 12 years we summarise below some of the most popular risks that could push your star striker to put in that transfer request:

Lack of a challenge: "Your biggest retention risk is a bored developer," says Luke Melia, co-founder of mobile technology startup Yapp Inc. "The thing that drives software developers is picking up new skills and proving themselves on a bigger and bigger scale.”  Maybe it’s time to be more selective in picking projects to work on which excite a developer and where they are given the chance to research a technology and implement it into a live environment?  “Train, train and train some more” says InfoSec Consultant & Professional Speaker Kevin Beaver, “Periodic and consistent training will educate, motivate and give your staff the mental breaks they need and deserve.”

Responsibility and autonomy:  Johanna Rothman, author of ‘Hiring Geeks That Fit’ maintains that hiring managers always think salary is the key to retaining software developers, "But what people really want is responsibility, mastery over their work and some autonomy to do a great job."  Succession planning, empowering with project leadership, mentoring juniors and involving developers at all levels with the selection of technology, project ideas and plans are the suggested ways of increasing engagement.

Salary:  Despite what many think, this isn’t the main driver for developers to move jobs. John Shiple from FreelanceCTO explains that for developers, worth is never expressed in terms of what they earn, "It's 'who is working on the hardest problem? Who is working with the cool technologies?' There is a meritocracy built in to the developer mindset.  They were raised differently." Part of that mindset is that they don't focus on money.  That said, we see plenty of evidence out there of businesses who fail to assess the true value of a superstar developer, cut corners now and you could be faced with a big headache and worse still, a domino falling full scale programmer exodus.

Communication: Developers have a social contract with people at work, not just a financial contract with the organizations they work for, says Rothman. "The social contract is what keeps us going. That's why a good relationship with our managers is key to keeping us at our jobs.”  Lack of praise for a good piece of work or a disengagement between management and tech can lead to one highly disgruntled and demotivated developer.

How to create this championship winning team with low attrition is a major topic that can’t be covered in a small blog piece and it could just be that no matter how hard you try it may just be the right time for your best developer to move on.  From our research and experience though thinking about how to create the right working/learning environment, promoting autonomy and engaging staff with genuinely interesting project work that will have them bragging to their mates for a fair salary are the main steps to consider that could help stave off their temptation to jump ship.