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How to reduce Software Engineering turnover in one hour per week

cathyreisenwitz profile image Cathy Reisenwitz🗽🌐🥑 ・6 min read

Software has the highest turnover rate of all industries. In a given year, 21.7% of embedded software engineers will leave their organization, usually for another software engineering job.

There are many reasons for this, from the high demand and compensation to the nature of the work. Turnover costs companies billions per year in lost work, missed deadlines, and time to replace the developer.

So if there’s something your company can do to reduce software engineering turnover, it would behoove you to do it.

Luckily, in as little as one hour, you can do something empirically demonstrated to reduce engineering turnover.

Enter - the one-on-one

There aren’t many things about doing business that leaders across nearly every industry in nearly every location across decades have agreed upon. But the importance of regular one-on-one meetings is one of those things.

Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel and author of business Bible High Output Management, set aside an entire section of his book to talk about one-on-ones.

SaaStr Founder Jason Lemkin said, “There isn’t a better investment you can make in your VPs than meeting either once a week, or at least, once every 2 weeks.”

Engineering Manager Marco Rogers agrees, “I think of 1-on-1s as my primary tools for connecting with an individual and working on their morale, engagement, productivity and growth.”

And when Michael Lopp, who has grown engineering teams at Netscape, Apple, Pinterest, and Slack was asked for his best advice for being an effective Engineering Manager, he began his answer, “Number one, with any team, is hold one-on-ones.”

So we know one-on-ones are helpful. But now let’s look at what causes turnover, and how one-on-ones can alleviate these problems at your organization.

Why Software Engineers quit

According to a Glassdoor survey of 1,400 Software Engineers, the top five responses to the question “What are the top reasons you would leave your job?” were:

  1. Compensation: 78% (though it should be noted that more than half of the engineers said they would take less money to work in a great culture or for a great brand)
  2. Career growth opportunities: 76%
  3. Type of work: 58%
  4. Company culture: 53%
  5. Location and commute: 41%

While one-on-ones can’t solve the compensation or commute questions, they can help with career growth opportunities, type of work, and company culture concerns. And this can make a big difference in your retention rates.

How money influences where Software Engineers work

image source

Let’s look at how.

Career growth opportunities

“Developers care about learning and growing,” wrote Stack Overflow COO Jeff Szczepanskibut. But most hot new startups don’t put much thought into training and professional development.

The average worker values opportunities for career growth more than any other workplace perk according to Gallup, Deloitte, and Google.

Smart Engineering Managers can use their one-on-ones to head this problem off at the pass. Try asking your engineers, “If you had to pick one skill you want to level up -- be it technical skills, leadership skills, speaking skills, soft skills — what would it be?” Another way to ask this question is, “How can I create opportunities for your growth?” If that doesn’t yield much, try “What are your long term goals? Have you thought about them?” If your Engineer hasn’t been thinking about career advancement or life goals, this may be a good nudge/reminder to reconnect with their ambition and think a little more long-term.

Type of work

Many Engineers start looking at the door when their work stops challenging them. “If you have someone saying, ‘I’m bored’ and you don’t do something about it, expect them to leave for a place where they won’t be bored,” Engineering technology consultant Jason Cole told Fast Company.

Similarly, many organizations put every competent Engineer who seems to like teaching or mentoring on a path to management. Engineering has more die-hard individual contributors than many other functions, plus, not everyone is always climbing the corporate ladder. Flexibility, autonomy, or other perks matter more than career advancement opportunities to some people at certain times.

And for those workers who do want to advance, make sure you’ve built out a career path for ICs.

Sample career path for software engineering individual contributors

image source

In both instances, the key is to recognize that the Engineer isn’t happy with the type of work they’re doing before they hand in their notice. One-on-ones are a great way to gather intel on how happy your Engineer is with their projects and scope of responsibility.

Try asking a question like, “What would make you not just willing but excited to stay with us for the next two years.” Find out where your Engineer sees themselves going so you can help them get there.

Company culture

The authors of Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations found that company culture predicted software delivery performance, organizational performance, and job satisfaction for Engineers.

Specifically, the high-performing teams displayed traits of Generative cultures, as described in Westrum’s Typology of Organizational Culture.

Westrum’s Typology of Organizational Culture

Image source: Accelerate: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations

In Generative teams, managers:

  • Actively seek information
  • Don’t punish reports for delivering bad news
  • Share responsibilities
  • Reward cross-functional collaboration
  • Meet failure with inquiry instead of punishment
  • Welcome new ideas
  • Treat failures as opportunities to learn and grow

One-on-ones can do a lot to help facilitate a more Generative culture. First, they boost employee engagement and mutual trust. HBR found that individual contributors who don’t have regular one-on-ones are four times as likely to be disengaged, and are two times as likely to view leadership more unfavorably compared to those who meet with their managers regularly.

Software Engineering Manager and Manager's Coach Ling Abson emphasizes the importance of building trust in software engineering. “Having a trusting relationship is important as it allows your team to surface any issues that may be preventing them from delivering and trusting that there’s safety in bringing those issues to you.”

One question that can prompt Engineers to bring their issues to you is “What are you struggling with lately?” You might learn your report needs additional training (harkening back to career growth opportunities). Maybe they’re getting interrupted too often and need more Focus Time. Another way to ask this is "What are we struggling with lately?" This makes it clear that the employee’s struggle is the employer’s struggle and we’re all in this together.

Going forward

Turnover in software engineering is high, and expensive. While one-on-ones do take up a good bit of time, they’re more than worth it because they help keep your engineers happy, productive, and around for a long time.

One-on-ones help you identify ways to help your engineers grow in their skills, find the right roles for them, and create a culture that breeds success.

To make the most out of your time, check out 7 Grove-inspired questions Engineering Managers should ask in their one-on-ones.

If holding regular one-on-ones is cutting too much into your Focus Time, try Clockwise. We move your meetings to the least-disruptive time for you and your reports, automatically. And we’re free.

P.S. At Clockwise, we have a performance-oriented culture and we have one-on-ones weekly. We'd love to talk if you're looking!

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