Helping Your Best Developers Leave

It’s my job to help my team members find better jobs. I know that sounds a little counter-intuitive, but stick with me for this one – I hope I can convince you.

There are two types of software developers: wanderers and lifers. Wanderers drift from job to job. They may stick around at a job for a year, or five, or even ten, but the one constant throughout their career is that they don’t intend to stay in their current job forever. The reasons change from person to person, and from job to job: sometimes they just hate their job; sometimes they’re in over their head; some people just love variety. Whatever the reason, they know that their next job won’t be the one they stay in any more than the last one was.

Then, there are the lifers. They may not stay in any one job for good either – people get made redundant, companies go broke, and changing circumstances force lifers to change jobs, but their goal is to find a team they like (or can tolerate) and stay in it as long as they can. The motivations for lifers vary, too, and it’s not just being scared of change: they may enjoy developing a deep knowledge of the business domain, the company culture, or the niche industry they’re in, and prefer leveraging that knowledge to starting fresh somewhere new.

Lifers can become a problem, though: if you’re a good environment for lifers, you will tend to collect them. Even if you’re a bad environment for lifers, you will tend to collect them. Every time you replace someone, they probably left because they were a wanderer – and some of the time, you’ll end up replacing them with a lifer. The reverse almost never happens: your lifers aren’t leaving (if they are, you might have bigger problems), so you can’t replace them with wanderers.

Before we get too far into this, I want to clarify something: I don’t buy into the stereotype that lifers are bad developers, and wanderers are good ones. There’s a bit of an attitude that anyone who stays in one place for too long “got stuck there”, while people who move from job to job are “in demand”. I’ve had plenty of recruiters talk to me in these terms. Too-frequent job hopping is bad (“they can’t hold down a job”), but staying in one place for too long is considered bad too. To speak frankly: this stereotype is rubbish. There are plenty of smart, productive developers who find themselves great jobs – which let them do interesting, intellectually-challenging computer science or engineering – and stay in them. Conversely, there are plenty of developers who drift from job to job, never really contributing much, but neither being quite bad enough to be worth firing.

But that’s an aside: I’m not writing this to tell you how to hire and retain good developers (I’ve written plenty of other articles about that). This time, I’m telling you how to get rid of your good developers! But first, more about why.

Remember how I told you that teams naturally accumulate lifers? Well, if you’re too complacent, you’ll also accumulate bad developers who have discovered your team is a safe place to hide. Wanderers who are just not much good (and don’t want to improve) will latch onto a team which tolerates them, and will milk it for all it’s worth.

There’s another big problem: market rates for developers have consistently risen faster than inflation, while salary increases almost never keep up. That means that the intermediate developer you hire today is probably getting paid more than the junior you hired five years ago – even though the ex-junior may well be worth more by now. Worse: if the junior hangs around to become a senior, they may well be one of your most valuable team members – and one of your lowest-paid ones. Why is this a problem? Well, aside from it being really unfair, it also sets them up to be poached. Even the staunchest lifer will eventually be tempted away by market rates, and if they’re even a little good at math, when they do the calculus, they’ll resent you for all the missed income over the years.

It gets worse: the longer they hang around before being poached, the more reliant on them you become. You may well be incurring some really significant business risks by hanging onto your developers for too long.

You could solve all of these problems by aggressively monitoring productivity and performance, firing the under-performers, and rewarding the achievers – and if you try this approach, you won’t be alone: software giants (and many other major employers) have dubbed this the “up or out” system (it was originally termed the “Cravath System”), and it kind of works OK – for them. Unless you’re Cisco or Google, I bet you can’t make it work at all: measuring developer effectiveness is famously difficult and error-prone. You might just find you end up promoting the networkers, self-promoters, and empire-builders, and firing your good engineers. In fact, even the software giants probably do this more than they’d like to admit.

What is a CTO, team lead, or development manager to do? Easy. Help prepare your developers to get better jobs elsewhere. One of my favourite software quotes came in response to a question about funding developer training: “What if we pay for all this training, and they leave?” The response: “What if we don’t, and they stay?” (I’m not certain of the origin of the quote, but Martin Risgaard tweeted something similar back in 2012). I think every good software team needs to double down on this idea. Don’t just pay for PluralSight accounts. Don’t just send your developers to a token conference every year. Really invest in turning your team members into people who are just too good to stay. If someone hangs around for six or eight years, you’re failing – or perhaps they will just never become the sort of developer teams want to hire. Perhaps you will eventually need to force them out – but now you will know it’s not just because of some silly “up-or-out” rule, but because you’ve done everything you can to help them thrive, and it hasn’t worked. This is good for you, and it’s good for them: you’re not dooming them to a career as one of the “got stuck there” brigade, and you’re also not letting them hang around in a job which just isn’t succeeding at building their career. Let’s face it: it’s entirely possible that their lack of success is as much your fault as it is theirs.

So, is there room in this philosophy for the genuine, high-achieving lifer? That rare individual who develops a deep understanding of your industry, continually improves themselves, boosts their team performance, and has a track record of innovation, year in and year out, for five, ten, or more years? Yes, absolutely. The best-laid plans rarely survive first contact, and you will absolutely run into people throughout your career who buck this trend, and should definitely be allowed to hang around for decades.

If this sounds like I’m back-tracking on everything I’ve said, you’re right – sometimes, there’s just no alternative but to have experienced and knowledgeable team leads, managers, and company officers who know when to exercise discretion and ignore all the rules. My central message here is not that you should fire anyone who makes it to their 10-year anniversary: rather, you should focus on doing your very best to turn your developers into the sorts of professionals who are in-demand and will definitely be hired away. On the way through, you’ll build a more effective team. You’ll create an environment which will encourage past employees to return – and they’ll be developers you’ll want back. Your team reputation will spread, as past employees go out into the general software industry and talk about everything they learned, and everything they accomplished. It will cost you more per developer, but you will reap the rewards many times over – and please, never underestimate the enormous benefit of having a team which can easily attract high-quality developers when you need them.

Most software teams have a long way to go – so you need some first steps. Here they are:
1. Invest in your employees. Don’t just allocate budget to buy them a hotel and a conference ticket every year – find real ways to help them learn and grow.
2. Support your employees in finding the next step in their career once you’ve finished learning from each other.
3. Expect great things of genuinely outstanding long-term employees – and find ways to reward them commensurately.

Above all, don’t make the mistake so many employers do – the mistake of encouraging employees to stay too long.

One final note: if you haven’t been embracing these ideas, don’t try to implement things too quickly. If you’ve spent the past ten years not investing in your employees, trying to move senior talent out could well be disastrous: it takes time to build the right sort of turnover, and to decide to hang onto the rare lifer who you really want to keep around. If you’re not sure, it’s safer to err on the side of spending more time investing in your existing employees, and giving them more time to find their next career move (or proving that they’re genuinely worth keeping around, at above-market rates).