How to Keep Your Top Developers Happy

(Hint: You Do Not Need to Raise Their Paychecks)

Let’s admit: great developers are hard to find.

But what if your top-performing developers were to walk up to you today and say that he or she has decided to move on? You'd feel terrible, right?

Now it’s natural for you to think that perhaps your star developer got a better paying job elsewhere and that’s why he or she is leaving. But what if I’ll tell you that you can prevent this and not by paying him or her more?

How? Learn how to motivate them.

Focus on Your Top Performers (they’re the Most Vulnerable)

So the first step to retaining your top developers is to focus on them. Find ways to make them happy and satisfied with their work. Now you’re probably thinking about pay increases, bonuses, and stock options, right? I know a pay hike looks like the obvious solution to get your top developers to stay, but it’s not.

Bruce Webster explains in his article ‘The Wetware Crisis: the Dead Sea Effectthat most technology companies that focus on retention end up indeed retaining more – but more often than not, the people whom they retain successfully aren’t their top performers. In addition, studies have shown (again and again) that the age-old management adage ‘MORE MONEY — BETTER PERFORMANCE’ won’t work when it comes to complicated, creative, or conceptual tasks. Actually, the reward-based incentive actually creates a poorer performance in any group of workers for cognitive tasks.

Since the answer to the problem is not as plain as you thought, let’s dig deeper and see how you can keep your developers happy and productive.

What’s the Motivation Trifecta and How to Apply It

Before you start investing in retaining your developers, take a good look at all the developers in your team.

When you do, you will realize that some of them are your typical 9-5 employees who work, collect their pay, and they’re set. There’s nothing wrong with these developers. But chances are that they’re just “good enough” for the job. These developers will be more likely to stay anyway as they aren’t ambitious enough to make a move as long as they can manage and their pay is decent.

Now look at the second type – the fiery ones. These are the developers who’re always trying to innovate and bring about changes. The ones who’re ambitious and passionate about what they do. Essentially, these developers don’t look at development as their “job”. They pursue it as a “passion”. The quality of work that they produce is also great. These are the developers that you want to RETAIN, because they’re the most likely to move on.

In his seminal book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel H. Pink lays down 3 factors that motivate people. They are: Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.

You too should use these factors and keep your best developers motivated all the time and thus get them to stay with you. Let’s see a few ways you can use Pink’s motivational factors to retain your best talents:

#1 Autonomy — Give Your Developers Control over What They Do

What developer out there doesn’t like to be given the freedom to do their own thing and on their terms? Like using their preferred tools, environment, IDE, language, operating system and a favorite t-shirt? Find me a single developer who doesn’t crave for this kind of freedom and I’ll show you an outlier.

However, most of us can't really let their developer pick and choose their tasks. So what can you do? Share goals, not specs. Developers are professional problem-solvers, not just solution implementers. Bring them into the problem-solving process. Time spent debating solutions will be insignificant compared to the time saved by increasing productivity.

You should also try to avoid rigid requirements and fixed timelines. Open it to discussion and let your developers share their opinion. You’ll also find that developers tend to meet timelines they have set up for themselves, more than timelines set by management.

#2 Mastery – Help Your Developers Improve Their Skills

For a lot of people, gaining mastery in a subject is a great matter of pride. They feel happy and productive as they slowly become perfect in an area of their interest. Developers are no different. Maybe even more so than others.

Developers love testing new tools, trying new frameworks and exploring their ideas. While time away from primary work might seem counterproductive, it actually encourages better work when developers are on the job. Just learn from Google 20/80 rule or Atlassian’s quarterly FedEx challenges.

If you’ll give your developers a chance to learn new things and provide them with opportunities to exercise creativity, they will appreciate it much more than bonuses and stock options.

#3 Purpose – Provide an Opportunity to Build Something That Matters

Nothing is more tiresome or uninspiring to developers than to work on projects that lack any substantial need from the company or any real direction. You must know that your top developers are the first ones to know when a system or process is not working.

Join these 2 facts together and you have a solution to both problems.

Listen to your developers and let them build something that improves the daily processes they use, that improves their work environment or better yet contribute to others.

Although many people think that you can gain a sense of purpose only by ‘making the world a better place’, you’d be surprised how many employees can get a sense of purpose from their daily job just by getting more Involved with leadership, marketing, product strategy and other departments that show them the bigger picture. Making them part of the discussion will give them a sense of purpose.

If you too can give your best developers a sense of purpose, you will see that they’re more motivated to do their work and more productive.

Here Are Some Examples You Can Use

  • “We recognize that you have a lot of respect for Tom’s work, so we’re putting you on a project with him to serve as your mentor so that you can learn from him.”
  • “With the work that we’re giving you over the next few months, you’re going to become the foremost Spring expert in our organization.”
  • “We’re building an accounting package that’s critical to our business, and you are going to be solely responsible for the security and logging portions of it.”

Open Source is the Best Example

A great example that shows us these three motivational factors in action is open source.

According to stack overflow user survey, the average developer spends more than 7 hours per week coding on the side, either as a hobby or working on open source projects. This shows us that programming is a labor of love.

Have you ever asked yourself why developers are contributing so many hours to open source? What motivates them to do so? Well, it meets all 3 needs.

  • Autonomy – they choose which open source projects to contribute and how to contribute.
  • Mastery – they will almost always learn new things by working with other developers. Surveys also show that the majority of developers are choosing to work on open source projects that are not relevant to their works, in order to learn new languages, environments, architectures etc.
  • Purpose – the net result is that your choice for a better way of doing things becomes even better, constantly. Many developers also view open source as a way to pay it forward.

No matter what niche you’re in, the above psychological hacks will keep your developers motivated all the time. And the more motivated they feel working with you, the better they’ll stick with you. Don’t commit the mistake that most companies make — dangling the money carrot doesn’t work always. You need to do better than that. You can do better. Give your top developers what they’re seeking: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Motivate them.

Are you already implementing any of these tricks? If so, how are your developers responding to it?