How to recruit and retain developers

Developers are a smart, picky bunch. If you're hoping to attract and retain top engineering talent, here are key tips.

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Image: SolisImages, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Developers have never been more important to the success of organizations of all kinds, and yet most companies still don't seem to know how to keep them happy. As revealed in a Stack Overflow report, one of the most important requirements developers have for their employers is professional development. They're curious. They want to learn. They need the opportunity to expand and refine their skill set.

So how can employers effectively use professional development opportunities to attract and retain top engineering talent?

Understanding who developers are

To answer this question, it's helpful to understand developer demographics. According to Evans Data survey data, the median age of developers is 35, with most (65%) of developers having at least six years of development experience. While we like to celebrate the self-taught hacker, the reality is that developers tend to be highly educated, with 89% of the developer population earning at least a Bachelor's degree, and 49% earning a Master's. Throwaway degrees? Not really. According to the Evans Data survey, 80% of developers believe a Computer Science degree is at least somewhat important in their field.

SEE: How to build a successful developer career (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Perhaps counterintuitively, the younger the developer, the more she believes formal CompSci education is critical to her work. For example, developers that are 25 and under overwhelmingly (61.5%) strongly believe that a CompSci degree is important, whereas for middle-aged developers just 33% strongly believe it's important. While men mostly start their engineering careers in college, women are far more likely to get involved through vocational training (25.9% of women surveyed said vocational training was how they got involved, compared to just 8.6% of men, and compared to 25.9% of women getting introduced into the field through college coursework, compared to 44.7% of men).

This, however, is where the role of formal education starts to break down.

For example, the younger a developer is, the more she's interested in "learning something new" from her peers (41.9%). Indeed, of all the things developers hope to gain by working with a team, that chance to learn tops the list. Such learning, incidentally, is overwhelmingly preferred within the firewall of a stable, larger company, rather than a high-risk startup. While younger developers tend to skew toward riskier job opportunities, perhaps in search of chances to learn, over half of developers under the age of 30 (61%) want to be at a big company.

SEE: The No. 1 asset for job seekers of the future: The ability to learn (TechRepublic)

How developers prefer to learn about tech

Whether at a big or a small company, that developer curiosity persists as the top motivator. Companies that want to attract and retain their engineering talent need to take note. Money is a poor motivator (11% cited it), but 45% called out the desire to learn skills and to indulge their curiosity.

Which brings us to open source.

According to this same survey, developers are far more interested in time-bombed software or that which is limited to a specific number of uses than they are in crippled versions of software. While this practice is endemic in the software industry, it's particularly obnoxious in the open source world, where unfettered access to code is the norm.

For a company that hopes to build up a community around its software, filled with developers anxious to expand their skill sets by working with the software, presenting them with a dumbed-down "Community" version while locking up the best features in an "Enterprise" version is a good way to annoy developers. A full 84% of developers in the survey dislike crippleware.

SEE: IT Hiring Kit: Programmer (Tech Pro Research)

So developers want full-fat software whenever they can get it, but how do they prefer to learn about it? Not surprisingly, they want as few third parties involved as possible. When SlashData asked over 16,000 developers how they prefer to learn about technology, fewer than 10% identified trade shows and conferences as a preferred option (despite getting the bulk of company investments). Instead, the number one priority was for documentation, with tutorials/how-to videos coming in second, and answers in public forums coming in third (but at half as much as documentation). Everything else was a comparative rounding error.

So if you're trying to appeal to developers, you need to make your software as accessible as possible with rich information online to make it easy to grok how to use it.

And if you're an employer trying to attract and retain developers, you need to open up ways for developers to learn more on the job, which will often involve giving them greater access to open source software. Developers are looking for ways to learn as much as possible with as little friction as possible. Open source isn't the only answer to that need, but it's a big part of a compelling answer.

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By 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.