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How to Win and Retain Developer Talent

November 17, 2022 Talent Management
David Roe
By David Roe

Mental health in the digital workplace has received a lot of attention in recent years, with numerous research showing the risks of stress and burnout increasing over time. The issue is now a critical component of talent management strategies, but should different groups of workers be approached differently?

While most studies survey broad samples of the workforce, research by Hystack Analytics focused on software developers. It found that 83% suffer from workplace burnout due primarily to high workloads. That is an overwhelming proportion with severe repercussions, not just for workers' wellbeing but also on companies' retention and turnover rates.

For instance, a March 2022 study by Stack Overflow found 25% of developers are actively seeking a new job opportunity, while another 54% said that while they aren't actively looking, they are open to new opportunities.

Then last month, Uniting Clouds' Software Engineer and DevOps Industry Report 2022 showed that 50% of developers and DevOps professionals have already changed roles this past year. Of those who had not, 71% had at least considered doing so.

Things aren't looking up either. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 1.4 million open software development jobs — much more than there are applicants that can fill them. 

Companies and their leaders can't afford to ignore the data. So, how do leaders keep developer talent happy?

Unlocking Developer Happiness

Zenhub's 2022 Developer Happiness Report surveyed 380 developers worldwide to explore the situation further. Among the findings:

  • Most developers don't know how long they will stay in their current role.
  • The biggest attraction to move to a different job was better work-life balance.
  • What developers do at work has a major impact on their happiness.
  • The location of work was a key issue among developers, with only 51% saying they are happy with their work location.

With developer talent shortages, growing workloads and an increasing risk of burnout and disengagement, enterprise leaders have a herculean task ahead of them to create workplaces that can attract, retain and please these workers.

Andrew Lau, co-founder and CEO at Boston-based Jellyfish, said one of the best ways to identify and relieve burnout among developers is to implement data-driven management strategies.

“Too many organizations falsely proclaim that every task is important and must be done now. Rather than improving performance, this approach leads to frequent shifts and undue stress for developers,” he said.

Companies will always seek to achieve more and more; it's the nature of business. "But engineering leaders should be able to prioritize what’s important to the bottom line — especially during this uncertain economy — and empower developers to work on what matters most,” Lau said.

This means that managers should pay very close attention to workloads to pinpoint when their developers are stretched thin and working on too many things at the same time. Lau said it's important for leaders to align developers’ time with the true needs of the business in order to support the health and growth of the organization while protecting developers’ mental health. 

“Leaders with insights and visibility into where developers are investing their time can make the structural changes necessary to ease bottlenecks and prevent burnout,” he said.

Related Article: What Is Really Hurting Employee Mental Health

The Freedom to Create and Innovate

Part of the appeal of a career as a developer is the ability to create and innovate. From the start, development and engineering are fundamentally creative roles, said Tony Lee, CTO at New York City-based Hyperscience.

These employees typically expect to be tasked with building projects from scratch and finding solutions that provide value. “Retaining talent in today’s competitive landscape requires us to let individuals push the envelope and explore through innovation with minimal boundaries,” Lee said.

But doing so with strict parameters can backfire. When developers are tasked with building things that have no value or impact on business, workflows or society, they are more likely to become disengaged and view their work as meaningless and empty, "which are not feelings we want to spark as burnout continues to rise," Lee said. “We don’t want development teams to feel they are doing busy work."

To help, Lee suggests leaders ask their development teams to participate in projecting the business value of the project they will accomplish if successful. Getting them to understand the value of their work, while also providing them with the space they need and seek to innovate will make the overall job — even the sometimes-needed repetitive and mundane tasks — more engaging.

It will also afford teams more time to focus on projects that flex their creativity and move the needle for what’s possible, he said.

Related Article: Is Your Technology Fueling or Foiling the Digital Employee Experience?

Tech Strategy = Business Strategy

The tech strategy has become the business strategy, Marcus Torres, GM and VP of app engine business at ServiceNow, said.

In the face of a looming recession, organizations began sprinting to develop and implement new technologies and create digital-first business models that deliver outcomes, fast. The result, Torres said, is that developers are experiencing the brunt of this pressure, with increased workloads and burnout compounded by an ongoing technical talent shortage.

In his view, "as-code” and “everything as-code” are worthy solutions to this situation. He believes that IT and the broader organization must look at automation to reduce the burden on developers from both a demand perspective as well as to reduce the number of trivial tasks.

“Low-code is a powerful tool for scaling automation across the entire organization,” Torres said. "By empowering the organization to 'self-serve' automation, the demand on developers is reduced, which alleviates burnout, retains talent and helps developers work faster, smarter and more strategically on complex issues they are uniquely positioned to solve.”

There is another advantage too, he said. Low-code exponentially expands the pool of developer resources and frees them from the perfunctory, repetitive tasks that keep them from the unique, expressive problem-solving most of them would prefer to be doing.

Anindeep Kar, principal consultant with global technology research and advisory firm ISG, said using code to manage resources and processes (otherwise known as the everything-as-code approach) can, indeed, drive significant gains for business. Areas of applicability may include infrastructure operations, software code testing and observability of cloud security with fine-grained entitlement management.

He said doing so, organizations can tackle the problem of eroding their developer talent base. And from a wider perspective, they would also be promoting work-life balance. “Employee-focused leadership and people management practices should be encouraged top-down to bring about a symbiotic relationship for developers and management to thrive and grow in an environment where demand is fast outstripping talent supply,” he said.

Related Article: The Real Benefits of Low Code Aren't What You Think They Are

Don't Forget HR in the Talent Management Equation

From an HR perspective, Archie Payne, president of recruitment firm CalTek Staffing, said there are three non-technical solutions that organizations can implement to retain developer staff:

1. Give developers full agency over where, when and how they work. A 60+ hour week is much more bearable when you get to choose when and where you work than when you are stuck in the same office day-in and day-out, Payne said. Flexibility can help prevent burnout because it allows employees with very full work schedules to still maintain some kind of life outside of the workplace.

2. Acknowledge the value of developers and their contribution to the workplace. This starts by paying them what their skills and time are worth. If you're not sure whether current salaries are competitive, Payne suggests conducting benchmarking to find out. On a day-to-day level, make sure that developers do not hear from their managers only when they made a mistake; calling out good behavior is just as important for employee growth.

3. Provide a clear path to advance within the company. You never want your strongest talent to feel like they have to leave to further their careers — and that's true of any field. Promote from within as much as possible to show employees they can build a career working for the organization. Offer mentorship and professional development, and enlist the help of strong individual contributors to train others.

There are many things a company can do to take care of its developer talent (or any talent for that matter), but it starts by acknowledging there is a problem, and then finding out what the people directly affected by it see as a sustainable solution. Without two-way communications and a willingness to help, even the best talent management plans can fail.

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