Software Development

10 reasons your star programmer may be looking to leave

Finding and hiring topnotch programmer talent can be time-consuming -- from reading resumes to interviewing candidates to making sure the ones you like don't decide to accept someone else's offer. Yet all too often, these hard-to-find (and hard-to-hire) employees are neglected once they come on board. Justin James looks at some reasons why your top programmers might be thinking about leaving -- and how you can persuade them to stay.

Top programmers are not easy to find. It takes time to cull through dozens, if not hundreds, of resumes to find the magic combination you want, and it takes hours to perform interviews. After all of that, you still need to jump through hoops to make sure that your best candidates accept your offer rather than someone else's.

Yet all too often, these hard-to-find (and hard-to-hire) employees are neglected once they come on board. While proper compensation is, of course, a large part of employee retention, the top programmers need more than a great pay check. Here are 10 reasons why your star programmer might be looking to leave, and what you can do to convince them to stick around.

Note: This information is also available as a PDF download.

#1: Poor pay

No one works purely out of a charitable nature. So when your best people feel like their pay is severely out of line with market standards, they may start to view other pastures as being much greener than yours. Your worst enemy in retaining the stars is the thought, "I am the worst paid senior developer in this town."

I see a lot of companies that look at what the market is like only when they hire someone. Meanwhile, your best people are often aware of what is happening in the market consistently. If you have not re-evaluated your pay packages in a while, you need to. While the package may have been competitive when you hired someone three years ago, your best employees may be able to get a substantial raise by making a lateral move (if not taking a higher level position) to another employer.

#2: An uncertain future

The best people often have no intention of leaving until something out of the ordinary prompts them to stick their toes in the job market waters. At one company where I worked, the trigger for a mass exodus was the sale of the building our employer was renting to a major company that obviously was not going to keep leasing to us. A lot of people panicked and wondered whether the loss of the office space would prompt a move of the operation to another city. Instead of sitting around waiting for the other shoe to drop, they left. At another company where I worked, a large layoff spooked those who survived, and they left as soon as they could.

There is little you can do to prevent these outside influences from occurring, but you can do a lot to reassure your people when they do happen. Your best programmers are not dumb; they know when you are trying to puff them up with hot air instead of being forthright. When these events happen, give your people the straight truth and show them what you and the company are doing to prevent the need for your stars to lose their jobs. It's a tough path to walk, but too many managers cave in to the temptation to cover up the problems -- and those cover-ups tend to drive people out even faster.

#3: A tyrannical manager

Some managers don't just think they need their finger on the pulse of the organization, they think they need their jackboot on the back of the organization pinning it to the floor. While micromanagement may be needed for entry level and junior employees to help guide them, senior programmers resent it. After all, if you don't trust them to make their own decisions, why did you hire them instead of junior people?

Other managers simply do not know how to overrule a decision made on technical grounds for business reasons in a way that shows respect for the technical people involved. When your superstars feel like they are always under the microscope and will be punished if they take independent action, they will leave. So lighten up and loosen up a bit. Remember, these people are the cream of the crop, and they can make technical decisions on their own. If you do need to override them for business reasons, make sure that they understand why it is happening, that their views were fully considered and noted, and that they will not be held responsible for the outcome.

#4: Office politics

Programmers, as a group, generally do not enjoy playing office politics. Most of them just want to come in to work, do a great job doing the things they love to do, and keep learning and doing new things in the process. Getting involved in budget squabbles, playing the "blame game" over project failures, and participating in turf wars over responsibilities and resources just are not on their agenda. Programmers in these kinds of environments usually want to get out. So don't involve them.

As a manager, part of your job is to shield your team from the office squabbles. Let your team know that they should refer these problems to you and show them that you're working hard to keep them out of the internal brawls. Your people will appreciate your taking the fire for them and allowing them to do their jobs in peace.

#5: Work/life balance

It is impossible to hammer on this point enough. Your best programmers work hard. Most of them work a lot more than 40 hours per week. This can and will cause severe burnout, especially after a long stretch, such as what usually happens at the end of a project. It is up to you to make sure that they don't burn out, even if they don't see it coming. Sometimes, employees hoard vacation time throughout the year, so that they can have a long vacation during the winter holidays. (Or they're saving it for another big event, like an upcoming childbirth.) Other times, employees feel guilty about asking for time off in the middle of a big project. And of course, in many organizations, taking time off is fairly irrelevant since people on vacation are constantly being called, and they return to a huge mountain of work.

It is possible, but not easy, to make sure that your people take time off and get to relax while away from the office. For starters, offer people a three-day paid weekend here and there (much easier for salaried employees) when it won't harm a project, without deducting it from their accrued vacation time. And when people are on vacation, get them to leave the laptop in the office and spread as much of their workload out to other people so they come back refreshed and don't have to burn themselves out again playing catch-up.

#6: Stale job

Your best programmers probably do not want to be doing work that they find unchallenging or that does not teach them anything new. They became really good by doing and learning new things, not by sitting around writing boring, easy applications. When you offer these high achievers nothing but busy work, they get restless -- and that restlessness can take them out the door. Periodically take the time to talk with your people and make sure that they're working on projects that are at an appropriate level of difficulty and that are holding their interest. It is usually better to transition bored employees to more interesting projects than to lose them altogether.

#7: Stalled projects

For many reasons, some projects just never seem to make progress. Customers are indecisive, requirements keep changing, there is a lack of resources... the list can go on forever. High achievers like to be successful, and top programmers are no different. When your best people are on projects that are going nowhere fast, they feel useless and get frustrated. Eventually, they leave. While no manager likes having these projects to begin with, recognize the fact that these kinds of projects kill morale. Take steps to keep the spirits up in the ranks.

#8: Lack of recognition

People who are among the best in any given field often expect to be treated as a cut above, and with good reason. It may not always be possible to treat your best people to bowls of M&M's with all of the brown ones removed, but it is quite within your power to treat them like they are topnotch people. One way of showing recognition is to defer to their judgment, as previously mentioned. You can also give them a bit of latitude to experiment and take risks. Your best people should have enough responsibility to do things like use some advanced techniques that you would not let a less experienced developer use. Giving them this chance shows them that you recognize their ability and that you trust them. You should never treat them like a junior or entry-level developer. That would make them think their years of experience are not valued or maybe not even noticed.

#9: Poor environment

Some environments just are not conducive to employee retention. In addition, your best people will probably have the most opportunities to leave, and they're less likely to need their current job as a resume builder. Put those things together, and you have a recipe for high desertion rates. So what can you do? Try to improve your environment. This covers a wide range of things, from the office furniture to the condition of the carpet to the difficulty in finding a parking spot to the attitudes of co-workers. Not everything is under your control, of course, and some people will never be happy no matter how great things are. But if you put some effort into improving the environment, your employees will notice.

#10: Things outside of your control

Many managers tend to assume that their employees' satisfaction is completely their responsibility. This is simply not the case. Just because your star is grumpy does not mean that it is your fault. His family might prefer it if they moved to another city, or her commute may be too long. You have no control over these things. While most employees will be reluctant to say, "I'm looking to leave" regardless of the reason, employees do verbalize unhappiness with non-work problems more than work-related issues. If you hear an employee mention a problem that a change in employers might correct, take heed.

About

Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

23 comments
ktmack
ktmack

I am also guilty of stereotyping women, and I am one.  My issue is I prefer direct honest communication and I feel women can be sensitive or be suspicious and this gets to me.  However, I recognize not all women are the same, just as not all men are, and I have in past jobs had good relationships with some women and have recognized they don't all share these characteristics.  I'm currently in the middle of a career change and I am excited to do something I love: programming.  I am concerned when I graduate that people like you will judge me.  All I can do is earn my colleague's respect by having them getting to know me.  I enjoy and wish more people would point out my mistakes because I feel it is the only way you can learn, and I also despise office politics and relate to this article.  So far as sexual tension, it is a part of life and IMO it is the more immature people who let this become an issue.  I don't see compliments or jokes as sexual  harassment unless they're severe to a point a normal man would even recognize as wrong.  Anyway, you need to try to not prejudge an  individual because we (women) are not all the same.  And this attitude can be a self fulfilling prophecy as you forget when men are jerks and see everything a woman does as a confirmation to your bias.  This will create a hostile environment for someone like me who just wants to do my job and learn.  I'm trying to be open minded myself but I am disturbed when I read comments such as women mess up a good workplace because it simply isn't always true and holding this belief is harmful.  I believe most guys do wish more women would be programmers and I know this is total necro but I wanted to comment in case any future people came across this article today like I did and possibly share the prior posters' opinions.

alan
alan

I am a man. Having women in the workplace causes complications often. It's not about which gender is better, its that perception, humor (or lack of) and sexual tension often get in the way of actual work. Many women will not accept anything other than praise about their work, taking any corrections or criticism as being about their dreaded "feelings". No Lisa, it was just about the missing semi-colon. I worked at a big catalog shop that was 60% women. Two days after the "Sexual Harassment Training" I got called to the carpet as a women had reported that I "looked at her". They wouldnt tell me who. Since this person could with anonymity just run her mouth about imaginary offenses, this created a hostile work environment for me. I just stopped going to work there.

highlander718
highlander718

Aren't these criterias valid for any other employee ? Aren't these really common sense criterias ?

cjchamberland
cjchamberland

Now I don't feel so bad about leaving I job I was at for just a little over a year, reasons #2,4,6,7,8 & 9 all applied. From what I've heard from the inside only three days after I left they are struggling. Karma Baby....

dkavraal
dkavraal

#1,#2 and #3 were good enough for me to leave where I worked for 2 years and loved so much.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

but I find nothing substantive to disagree with and potentially unfortunately with my current manangement much that resonates.

---TK---
---TK---

I really need to forward this to my former employer. They really should take notes about topics 1 - 10.

Kam Guerra
Kam Guerra

I had a team manager select a development language based on a blog. Guess what ??? 4 months later he decided to change development languages based on a different blog.

ssharkins
ssharkins

If you find a manager that practices just three of these techniques, will you give him/her my number. I'm available! ;) From personal experience, what always mattered to me was honesty and even in the best camps, that's inconsistent. No, not every employee needs to know every nuance of every decision, but when management sets out to "keep this secret" it just stirs up unrest and paranoia. I've never had a traditional job where that wasn't pretty rampant. Even a company that does a lot of things right can fall victim to the rumor mill.

erniegs
erniegs

I suffered the same situation. Women can and do use HR like their personal bat, they will never suffer consequence because she remains an unknown forever while the man gets hung. The main topic about losing one of their best, the manager, his manager and all above usually take their good ole time, updating the persons pay grade, title. NO BODY cares except the group he is working in...I used to think differently, however, now -- I hope he leaves - go for the bucks and some personal growth -- then continue to move on your own. All these companies are waiting to bring talent from India or China on an H-1B visa anyway.. ErnieGs

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I think 'star' was the key bit, ie an implication that employer values the person a bit more than the others with the same role.

dducharme
dducharme

I think they apply to anybody else but this is TechRepublic so you've got a certain type of reader being written too. Also, tech fields tend to be overlooked because they may not be in the same social circles as other parts of your business.

Justin James
Justin James

In a way, the items you cite there are often signs of a company that is struggling overall, too. Best of luck in your new position! J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

That's a good list, although I *am* a bit disturbed by the idea of morticians having fun at work... :) J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

I've personally left jobs for almost every item on the list, and I've watched good people leave jobs for every item on the list. J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

Tony, I think you just paid me the ultimate complement, I don't think you've ever not had anything to disagree with before! Thanks, and glad you like it! J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

Glad you liked it, but sorry that it sounds like your current employer needs a wakeup call. :( J.Ja

Realvdude
Realvdude

I've experienced the good and bad side of pretty much all of these reasons over the last 18 years with the same company. I think that I survived most of the bad, by evaluating what is that keeps me doing what I do. The things that come to mind are loyalty, stablity, contentment and comfort. That said, many of those have changed meaning over the years. When I started, I was loyal to the company, now my loyalty is to the other longtime employees that I work with. Comfort once meant I could afford a comfortable lifestyle on my income, now it means that I still have a job in Michigan. Stability was a character of my position, now it is something I watch in regards to my paycheck. Contentment is the factor that brought me to read this article. It once meant that was I happy with my job and salary, it now means am I happy with where I am at in life and is my job contributing to that in a positive or negative way. Unfortunately the only two good things my job contributes to my life is that I work from my home and I have a job in Michigan. The bad things are we've gone from a company of dozens of employees to a company of half a dozen, my non-wage compensation is woeful, I'm under staffed (I don't have a staff anymore), I'm under equipped, and my professional education has lapsed (I still support a DOS application alongside a ASP application). My plan is to freshen my education, establish some secondary income lifelines, then look for some ground that is more solid and leap in faith. It's just a little scary jumping from 50,000 feet.

Justin James
Justin James

Yes, the rumor mill can be deadly! It often fuels that #2 item "Uncertain future". In the situation I was in where the building was sold, it was made even worse by the fact that a few people found out about the sale before our employer addressed it, rumors got out of control (up to, "we're being kicked out next week"), and eventually a VP was flown in to hold a "town hall" to try to quiet the fears. By the time he arrived to point out the obvious ("we can't be kicked out until our lease is up, which is years away"), it was too late, people were running out the door. Ironically, their fears were justified, they ended up severely downsizing that office and it is now a fraction of its former size, about 3 years later. :) I've seen some places that did a good job regarding rumors, but it involved management being insanely pro-active. I worked for one Fortune 500 company (top 5 pharmecuetical) where I periodically saw the CEO eating lunch in the employee cafeteria. A lot of people talked to him because of that, and he did a very good job at handling rumors, despite the fact that we were currently facing a number of major scandals that devalued the company 40% nearly over night, and there were layoffs announced 18 months in advance. In fact, that was the smartest thing they did. They knew that a lot of people had settled into these fairly useless, "sit around and waste space jobs" and they gave people a full 18 months to find a way to make themselves useful. As a result, a scenario that could have been a giant rumor mess was put in the open and became an opportunity for people to save their jobs with retraining. Then again, the pharmecutical industry works on 5+ year timelines, like quarter-by-quarter like most companies, so they had that kind of latitude. J.Ja

Justin James
Justin James

... and let me tell you, it was INSANELY hard to leave them! It felt like breaking up with a girlfriend because you were moving to be with your family and she refused to move away from hers to be with you. Or something like that. In this particular case, I really wanted and needed an expansion in responsibilities to keep my career on track, and the company just was not growing like I thought it would when I took the position. Hard to step up the ladder when the company only had 6 or 7 employees, you know? And I was nearly in tears when I resigned, even though the new job paid 40% more and had everything I wanted (at the time). J.Ja

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

would mean that I wasn't on the receiving of of a lot of 'star' treatment.

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