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4 ways to recruit and retain software engineers

Robert L. Scheier Principal, Bob Scheier Associates

Shipping a continuous stream of great software requires more than just hiring top software engineers. You need to recruit and keep them for the long haul, as well as motivate them to solve new problems in creative and efficient ways.

"Catered lunch and free drinks and snacks are almost a requirement in the startup world today," says Tonya Shtarkman, lead technical recruiter at Riviera Partners, a San Francisco-based recruiting firm. So are other perks such as areas for employees to socialize, quiet rooms for focus, toys and games, showers, and exercise equipment.

Assuming that you've met such "checklist" items and are paying market wages, here are four less tangible ways to recruit, motivate, and retain your best software engineers.

1. Offer a great culture and vision

Think of "culture" as the values, processes, and priorities that drive your company, says Andrey Akselrod, CTO and cofounder of Smartling, a 160-person company that provides an online platform for managing translation projects.

Smartling was founded on core values that include:

  • A belief that "every problem has a solution," avoiding blame in favor of acknowledging what went wrong and fixing it
  • Expecting software engineers to argue passionately for their views but support decisions once they're made
  • Taking care of its employees when they encounter personal or professional challenges

As a result of living up to those principles, Askelrod says, "less than a handful" of employees have left since Smartling's founding six years ago, and it has maintained this high talent retention without paying above market wages or getting into bidding wars for talent.

Software engineers will stay with a company not just for pay but for "the opportunity to work on an important, believable vision they see progress towards," says Ari Weil, vice president of products at Yottaa, an adaptive content delivery network provider. "Just as with a sports team, it's about identity and success and achievement," he says. Updating software engineers on your progress toward that vision and the benefits of your unique corporate culture are important retention tools.

"Many developers I work with are motivated to work for mission-driven and/or socially impactful companies," says Doug Schade, a partner and recruiter in the software technology search division of recruitment firm WinterWyman. If your corporate mission doesn't let developers do this, he says, consider allowing them to work on such projects on the side.

2. Room to grow

At technology-driven companies in areas such as Silicon Valley, a software engineer's growth opportunities are among the highest drivers of engagement for technical talent, says Jim Barnett, CEO and cofounder of Glint, an online platform for measuring employee engagement.

To meet this need, employers should not only make professional development available but also encourage it, says John Reed, senior executive director at technology staffing firm Robert Half Technology. This includes reimbursement for training and certification and trips to seminars and trade events. He recommends that managers proactively talk with employees to "make sure you understand what is important to them and what their concerns are" to ensure they get the growth opportunities they need to stay on board.

Earning more money is always an important growth objective, but most of those interviewed discouraged getting into bidding wars to recruit or retain staff. While earning market-rate wages is a top retention factor, an "endless back and forth" over pay can lead developers and employers to question the other's interest, and it creates tension that can make a long-term good fit less likely, Reed says.

3. Autonomy and flexibility

As creative, passionate people, software engineers won't do their best work—or stick around in a hot job market—if they're being micromanaged and second-guessed too often.

That's why Smartling, for example, gives its engineers the freedom to choose their own approaches to solving problems, measuring them on their results rather than how they achieved them. "We never suggest a particular architecture for a team," says Akselrod. "All we do is give people a challenge. It's up to the team to come up with the right solution."

Several recruiters suggested following Google's famous strategy (which has reportedly been discontinued) of giving developers a certain amount of time each week to pursue pet projects. "The benefits of allowing developers to explore their ideas will not only attract and retain top talent but also will have an impact on your bottom line" by speeding better products to market, says Schade.

Software engineers also want to feel they can "take as much time off as they need as long as they accomplish their goals," says Shtarkman. "I'm seeing more and more startups offer unlimited vacation days to their employees." Smartling provides those with common-sense limits, such as not taking more than two weeks at a time and coordinating with peers to make sure an entire team isn't out at the same time.

4. Cool technology

"Developers always like the latest version of anything," says Luca Bonmassar, cofounder and CTO of Gild, a SaaS platform for finding, evaluating, and recruiting technical talent.

Having the latest and greatest tools to play with isn't only fun and interesting but also gives developers bragging rights with their peers and keeps them current in a fast-changing technical world. Give them "the best toys," such as fast computers, multiple large-screen monitors, and standing desks, says James Brown, chief architect at directory-as-a-service provider JumpCloud. And don't forget a fast Internet connection, which is "critical" these days, he says.

The latest tools and processes can have even more immediate retention benefits. Smartling has found the use of continuous deployment techniques for new software "addictive" for its software engineers, says Akselrod, because it provides the instant gratification of seeing their work in production without waiting for a monthly release cycle. "Once you work in a company that does continuous deployment, there's no way you would go back to a company that doesn't."

Assuming your pay is competitive, it's the intangibles that will keep the best software engineers around. They can even make up for a lousy boss, says Barnett. "If a developer has confidence in the prospects for their organization, feel they are learning, like the culture, and have a high degree of meaning and purpose," he says, "they will suffer through not so great a manager."

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