Why Software Developers Leave (And The Best Ways to Retain Them)

Written by Sean McCosh on February 14, 2018

Finding the right developer for a team or software project should be a major cause of celebration. Selecting a candidate that has the right experience, genuine interest in the role, and is a good cultural fit is no small task! However, finding developer talent is only half the battle. Now, the work of engaging and retaining your new hire begins.

The cost of losing a skilled developer can be enormous. The gap of knowledge and hit in productivity from losing an employee can majorly disrupt project timelines and budget, and can also take a toll on organizational culture. In addition, countless hours are then required to spend vetting new candidates and getting them up to speed with your digital product. Further, according to Recruiting Developers in 2017, 59 percent of developers are “open to new job opportunities,” which means this threat is not far off.

With such fierce competition for talent in the marketplace, retaining quality software developers has never been more important. Here are some of the top reasons developers leave and some changes you can implement to keep them around.

“I feel unchallenged in my work.”

As new technologies are released at an increasingly fast pace, good developers will seek to keep up with the latest software updates and language. If a developer foresees the remainder of her career at a company locked in an antiquated technology, she will likely look for new work.

If your developers want to be challenged in their work, that’s a sign you made a good hiring decision. This is not a trait you want to stamp out, but one you should foster! Providing frequent opportunities for developers to learn and share skills is critical for keeping good talent. “Lunch and Learns,” Training days, hackathons, and Google’s “20% time” policy are examples, ranging from small to dramatic, of steps a company can take to better challenge and engage developers.

“Lack of autonomy.”

Autonomy is frequently cited as a top desire for developers. Now, there may be a temptation to see this plea as yet another example of how the millennial generation can’t follow authority. While I’m sure there is some of that somewhere, in most cases, this wish comes from a healthy and beneficial desire to increase efficiency and leverage creativity. As an article from TechBeacon notes, "Developer autonomy" can refer to a number of freedoms, such as:

  • The freedom to use a wide range of tools and open source software
  • Minimal to no barriers or bureaucracy that prevent shipping code
  • Substantial flexibility in when and how the work is actually performed

Granting these freedoms not only means happier employees, but more efficient, innovative work as well. We believe the people that we trust with building digital products for our clients can also be trusted with autonomy at their work. We have a very thoughtful and thorough hiring process to ensure we only take on exceptional and trustworthy people. Finding and hiring trustworthy people means we can optimize for a free & flexible culture which includes flexible hours, remote work, and our employees working on stuff they’re excited about. Bottom line: if you’re hiring passionate professionals, treat them accordingly.

“Pay/benefits not competitive.”

While several reports have noted that money is not the most important factor for developers, it would be plain silly to act like it didn’t play a role. It’s important to get a sense of the perks and opportunities your competitors are offering in regard to pay, benefits, and culture. While it may not always be possible to match your competitors’ pay, there are several ways you can still compete. Granting broader responsibilities, greater autonomy, more vacation days, and the ability to work remote and flexible hours are a few ways to keep your developers happy, maybe despite a lower paycheck.

In addition, providing a clear path to promotions and more responsibility is necessary to retain the ambitious talent you want to keep in your company. A promotion does not have to mean moving into a managerial position, as to many developers, that may not be a desirable position, but it should mean a recognition and reward of their hard work.

“It’s time for something new.”

Over that last couple of decades, expectations for what is considered an acceptable job tenure has changed. According to CNN, millennials average four job changes by the age of 32. It is a reality that this generation is far more likely to explore multiple career paths. Before Differential was even a company, the partners asked, “How can we build the last company we would ever want to work for?” While building a company that our employees never want to leave is still our goal, we also believe people are intricate, multi-faceted, passion-filled individuals with their own dreams, challenges, and families, and that this means they may want to take on ventures outside of Differential’s wheelhouse.

Though it’s difficult to lose talent for any reason, even if the move is not “personal,” the loss of a developer doesn’t have to blindside your team. At Differential, we’ve sought to address the sociological shift of more frequent job changes through a framework called The Alliance. The premise of The Alliance is that an employee is not a free agent or a family member, but an ally of the company on a tour of duty. This framework allows for honest and productive conversations between employees and managers, where employees can express their personal and career goals, managers can layout their needs and expectations, and common goals can be found.

These proactive, frequent, and frank meetings help us see where an employee’s goals and the company’s goals might diverge far in advance. This grants us greater predictability, so if transitions are to happen, we can see them coming, make sure knowledge transfer happens efficiently, and ensure our client work is not disrupted.

Before partnering with Differential, several of our clients had experienced unexpected talent loss on their teams, causing them to fall behind in their schedules. Too much knowledge consolidated in one person or a small team can be very risky. While not the solution for every organization, partnering with a digital product agency that can keep consistent expertise on a project lends enormous stability, security and diversity of talent when you need it.

Finding highly-skilled, reliable, and dedicated developers can be incredibly challenging. Retaining them over the course of a multi-year software project can be even harder. If you’re interested in potentially tapping into our team of dedicated digital product experts,  strategists and user experience designers, check out what some of our clients have thought about working with us. We’d love the chance for you to get to know our crew. Feel free to contact us.