CXO

How to keep top developers from leaving your company

Developers are always passively looking for new jobs, with open source and online courses giving them the keys to leave. Here's how to ensure they stay with you.

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Image: iStockphoto/YakobchukOlena

According to new Stack Overflow survey data, developers are mostly content with their current jobs. Before employers start patting themselves on the back, however, 75% of those same developers are at least "open to new opportunities," and could be lured by better working conditions.

Like, for example, never having to look at the four walls of the corporate headquarters.

As enterprises seek to better understand their developer communities, and thereby put themselves in a position to harness their creativity, it's worth digging into the data to gauge how best to accomplish this.

You need us more than we need you

Ask a developer how she feels about her current job, and she's at least 78% likely to be better than neutral on her current employer, according to the Stack Overflow data. That's pretty good.

It's not quite as good as overall career satisfaction (85% are positive about their choice of vocation), but it signals relative happiness despite 57% of developers reporting that they are at least "somewhat underpaid."

And yet...these same developers aren't tying themselves to the corporate mast. Ask them if they're open to job opportunities elsewhere, and the answer is nearly always "Yes."

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Stack Overflow

It's an obvious truism, but as much as the internet has empowered enterprises to do business in fundamentally different ways, it has also set employees free, particularly developers. For example, while just 33% of developers say they contribute to open source projects, a full 81% either program as a hobby, contribute to open source, or both. These are developers who aren't particularly dependent on some IT department training program to level up and improve their visibility into what's going on outside the four walls of their firewall.

SEE: Why every developer is an open source developer now (TechRepublic)

Indeed, if they need training, that same internet increasingly provides it. Sixty-five percent of developers recommend online training courses to improve their skills, while 32% point to open source as a means to do the same. Just 41% of respondents even call out on-the-job training as a significant factor in their learning process throughout their career, well behind self-teaching (90%) and even a bit behind online courses (45%).

In short, developers are a relatively happy bunch, but when they're not, they have plenty of options for leaving, starting with the open source projects they tinker with. So, what should employers be doing to retain them?

How to engage your developers

If 75% of the developer population would stray to better options, and if we acknowledge that the future is being built with software, then a major corporate focus needs to be keeping developers happy and productive.

Perhaps not so ironically, a significant component in this happiness calculus is to not make them come to the office. Fortunately, most developers (64%) already get to work remotely at least one day each month, with 11% remote full-time or nearly so.

And yet, this isn't the primary driver of developer happiness, though it contributes to several (office environment, commute time, etc.):

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Stack Overflow

Yes, that's right: Developers want to do meaningful work that will stretch them, teach them, and help them to grow as developers. Given that an employer is always competing with what a developer can achieve in her spare cycles on open source projects, not to mention quitting for a different employer, this is a big deal.

SEE: Telecommuting policy template (Tech Pro Research)

In terms of other things developers value, well, the top response was...not work. Or, rather, they voted vacation days highest (57%), followed by the opportunity to work remote (53%), health benefits (47%), work hours (43%), and the equipment they'd be using (40%). They don't care much for private offices (12%) because, well, they'd rather be working from home.

Back to the job searching. Even those developers who said they weren't actively looking for jobs acknowledged that they spend a median of one hour per week checking on potential jobs. Given how much time they spend engaging with other developers in open source or Q&A communities (like Stack Overflow), enterprises need to assume employees are always a click away from a new job, and act accordingly.

Also see

About Matt Asay

Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.

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