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Retaining the Best Talent for Software Development

Now that you've selected the right candidates, how can you make sure that you snatch them away from your competition, and hang onto them once they're onboard? This article discusses some of the most important steps in acquiring and retaining software development professionals.
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Successful software development organizations recognize the importance of retaining their best talent and continuously look for creative ways to do so. Long gone are the days when you could hire a COBOL programmer and expect him or her to stay on board until retirement. Retaining key employees is important in any technical field. In addition to lost productivity while you look for a replacement candidate, there are intangible costs. How quickly can a new employee come up to speed on a project? The bigger the project, the longer it takes.


The best way to improve retention at your organization is to improve recruitment and hiring. If you hire the right individual initially, he or she is more likely to stay around and turn into a valuable long-term employee.

Compensation Philosophy

Since compensation is an important retention criterion, it's good to start by defining and understanding the compensation philosophy you want to pursue. Most development organizations feel they need to pay in the top 25% of what similar companies pay to attract and retain the top talent. This is probably a good starting point, although there are certainly counter examples:

  • The IT department of a large upstart movie studio targets pay at the bottom 50% of industry rates. It's still able to attract and retain good candidates because of the glamour associated with working for the upstart company, and because many employees believe the experience will qualify them for much higher-paying positions later in their career.

  • One large software company is known for offering low base pay, which employees accept because of historic gains from the company's stock plan.

  • Government agencies such as NASA that continually push the edge of technical possibilities attract developers for lower than industry salaries, simply for the chance to work on exciting projects.

Total Compensation Strategy

Most large companies emphasize their total compensation strategy. Base pay and traditional medical or dental benefits are just part of what many companies provide. Helping employees identify the value of 401K plans, employee stock purchase plans, or even such things as discounted childcare are important retention factors. This assures that an employee will consider all these factors should they ever look at opportunities elsewhere.

Base Pay

An employee's base pay typically represents the largest part of his or her total compensation. For developers, typical base pay is 80–90% of total target compensation, with the remainder being performance-based. As a senior developer or architect starts to have a larger impact on project success, some pay plans put more base pay at risk (for example, base pay drops to 70% of total) in return for higher target income.

Traditional Benefits

Most organizations today provide medical and dental benefits, life insurance, and disability insurance. The real area to differentiate an organization is through creative benefits.

Creative Benefits

Creative benefits include anything that doesn't fall into the traditional benefits category. This is an area where companies may provide significant retention incentives, often at a lower cost than more traditional benefits. Six-digit salaries and lucrative stock options are not the only things software development team members want. Following are some strategies used by various large software development organizations:

  • A large aerospace company built an onsite child care facility for its employee. Rather than directly subsidizing childcare rates, the company simply provided the land and buildings for the facility and outsourced its operation. Childcare rates were fixed at local averages, but because the childcare provider didn't pay any facility costs, they could provide a much higher adult-to-child ratio and thus provide better care for the children. This was perceived as a major value to employees and undoubtedly helped keep many from considering other companies.

  • A Hollywood computer game development company allows staffers to bring their dogs to work. Not stopping at that, the computer company even supplies unlimited Milk-Bones‰ dog biscuits in their offices for all canine coworkers.

  • Onsite or nearby subsidized health clubs is a common benefit at many Silicon Valley software development companies. Besides simply a retention aid, the side effects of better employee health, lower stress, and reduced medical costs commonly associated with individuals who exercise regularly greatly benefit the company.

  • A Midwest life insurance company that worried about losing Y2K specialists offered bonuses totaling up to 20% of annual base pay to software developers who stayed on board through January 2000. Rather than offer the bonus in cash, choices included home computers, trips to Disney World, or a year's supply of pizza.

Short-Term Incentives

Short-term incentives are typically bonuses tied to meeting project or group-specific milestones. Such incentives help motivate employees to do "the best thing" for the current project.

Long-Term Incentives

The most common long-term incentive in most software development organizations is stock options that vest over multiple years. Here's an example of how stock options work. Rather than give an employee a cash bonus, a grant of stock options might be given instead. There are many types of stock options programs, but consider the simple example in which the stock options vest at 20% a year for five years. Using this example, an employee granted 1,000 options in January 2002 could exercise 200 options in January of 2003, and 200 options each subsequent year until January 2007. Typically all unexercised options would carry over until the end of the option period. The grant price of the stock is typically the selling price of the stock when it was issued, or some discount thereof. Here's how an employee would benefit from stock options, given this simplified scenario.

In January 2002, the stock price, which in this case was used as the grant price, was $100. Here is how the employee exercised her options.

Table 1-Long-Term Options


Options Exercised

Selling Price


























The total gain to the employee was thus $52,000, given this scenario. Until the options are fully vested, they have a potential value to the employee that will most likely be weighted before any decision to leave is made. Of course, this value is based on the stock's appreciation. If the stock price were to drop below the initial grant price of $100 per share, the options would be worthless to the employee until the stock once again rose above the grant price.

Besides the potential for stock prices to drop, there are other possible retention implications behind stock options in certain scenarios. Consider the case of the network switch startup that gave all employees who joined the company during its first year a large number of stock options vested on a monthly basis. The company was very successful and its stock appreciated to several times its original value. What the company didn't anticipate, however, was the effect this would have when the company turned five years old. Many of the original employees felt that their base salaries had not kept pace with outside competitors; however, the hefty monthly stock option cash-outs more than made up for the difference. Once the stock options stopped at the five-year mark, the company suddenly found itself at risk of losing many of its most experienced software developers. The moral of the story is that long-term stock options are only a retention aid until they're fully vested.


Competitive compensation is certainly one part of the retention picture, but it's only a starting point. Software developers are valuable for their technical knowledge, which quickly goes out of date. Developers thus tend to value positions that provide ample opportunities for training.

Job Rotation

Many companies have found that job rotations significantly improve retention within their software development organizations. The most successful type of job rotation is approximately eight weeks in length, with software engineers typically rotating out to a non-development organization, such as sales, marketing, IT operations, or finance. Rotation to another development organization is possible, but typically this is useful only if there's a prototyping or other short-term development opportunity available. Transferring into the middle of a large project may take a software engineer the bulk of eight weeks just to come up to speed on the project.

The downside to job rotation is that there is always a short-term cost to the hiring manager who must do without the rotating engineer. When implemented correctly, however, the retention, cross-training, and other benefits of a job rotation program far outweigh these short-term costs. To make job rotation programs more successful, many corporations have structured programs built around some basic guidelines. Here's how a sample job rotation program might work:

  1. For starters, since job rotation programs are by nature cross-organizational, the support of the president or other executives whom all the organizations report to is needed to ensure success of the program. This executive should be responsible for assuring that each organization's VP or director also supports the goals of the program. If it's impossible to obtain this support, it may be possible to start a smaller, more grassroots job rotation program by coordinating between different line managers, but the long-term success of such a program is unlikely to be as great.

  2. One manager is placed in charge of the job rotation program. That manager is responsible for administering the program, collecting requests for job rotations from across the corporation, and soliciting line managers for volunteers. Typically, this manager resides with the software development organization.

  3. On a regular basis, the job rotation program manager solicits requests for job rotations and publicizes the program to all the target organizations—for example, by documenting previously successful job rotations and publishing this information on an internal "job rotation" web page.

  4. Managers in the target organizations who believe they have a job rotation opportunity document their request and present it to the rotation program manager. The request typically includes types of skills required, length of rotation, location of the rotation opportunity, and a description of tasks to be completed.

    Job rotation seems to work best when the work is done at the target organization's work location. If work is done at the employee's home work location, it's easy to be distracted by daily tasks. On the flip side, some employees might make excellent rotation candidates, but personal constraints may prevent them from working in a different geographic location for the time required. For a home location rotation, the rotation manager and the regular manager must make an extra effort to make sure that the employee isn't interrupted in the rotation by his or her regular job duties.

  5. The job rotation program manager reviews all job rotation requests and determines which are appropriate to pursue. When the program is properly implemented, most companies find that very few inappropriate rotation requests are presented. In most cases, the job rotation program manager can work with the requesting manager to modify the rotation request to best assure finding the right rotation candidate.

  6. Approved job rotation opportunities are forwarded to all line managers. The line managers then forward requests that they feel are appropriate and timely to appropriate members of their staff.

    Once line managers are properly educated on the benefits of job rotation, they become some of the biggest supporters of the program. Still, most companies find that giving the line manager final choice as to how and when to publicize opportunities is appropriate. If a project is in its final month of development before a major deadline, a manager may not want to lose any of his or her staff to a job rotation. Given that the job rotation program as a whole is well publicized, it will become rapidly apparent if a line manager never forwards any job rotation opportunities.

  7. Software engineers who want to apply for a job rotation discuss the opportunity with their manager. If the manager approves, the engineer responds to the job rotation program manager and the target manager, expressing their interest and qualifications for the rotation opportunity. The target manager selects the candidate most appropriate for the rotation and then works out details with the hiring manager as to timing of the rotation.

Some companies fund the payroll and travel expenses of the rotating engineer from a separate job rotation program budget. This has two advantages. First, it removes possible budget objections from the employee's line manager. Second, it encourages target organizations to submit meaningful and relevant rotation requests, since accepted requests in effect are extra budget for the project.

While a job rotation program may seem like a lot of work to implement, the rewards, especially in terms of retention, can be great. Here are some of the many benefits companies have attributed to job rotation programs:

  • Avoiding "the grass is always greener" syndrome. Many software engineers may have interests in other opportunities in sales, marketing, IT operations, or some other part of the company. Job rotations give those engineers a low-risk way to investigate these types of jobs. If the interest is still real after an eight-week rotation, then perhaps it really is better for the company for that individual to consider a job transfer. More often, however, the software engineer learns that every job has its pluses and minuses, and that he or she really does want to remain in a software development organization. In either case, it's better than having the engineer leave the company just to pursue another job opportunity.

  • Reduced "burnout." Like all high-tech jobs, software development organizations tend to be high-stress places to work. A job rotation gives an employee needed time off from the day-to-day job while continuing to provide value to the company.

  • Cross-training leads to better software design. A few weeks in the field in a sales or marketing rotation can give software engineers more hands-on customer feedback about their products than they would normally receive in several years. A rotation in IT operations can give software engineers a realistic look at what's necessary to support their software projects after they're fielded. Much positive feedback can also be received when software engineers see end users actually using their products to run a company. All these types of experiences tend to be channeled back into better design choices by the software engineers on the future projects after they've completed the rotation.

  • After completing a rotation, many employees have a newfound respect for their line manager. They realize that it was a hardship for their manager to sponsor the rotation and feel that their manager must really value their importance to the organization for supporting the program.


Mentoring programs are a useful retention aid for many reasons. As mentioned previously, one of the best retention tools is good hiring. Some software development organizations now assign a mentor to all job applicants who are being seriously considered for a position. Job applicants are matched with an employee who performs similar job skills, if possible within the same development organization. This gives the applicant a chance to talk to a peer and get honest feedback on what it's really like to work for the company. Most applicants are more likely to trust the opinion of an individual contributor on this type of topic than they are a manager.

The next important time to have a mentor assigned is in the first several months after a new hire joins a company. Every company has its own culture, and software development organizations are no exception. During the first several months, the mentor is an invaluable aid for everything from helping the employee with paperwork issues (How do I get my payroll check direct deposited?) to helping come up to speed on the software design. A software engineer could spend a month reading over design documentation and actual code and not learn as much as by spending a day sitting down with a mentor who knows the software design inside-out. The new hire's mentor may or may not be the mentor from the hiring process. Many times it helps to make these positions separate, giving the new employee more than a single person to turn to for advice.

In the long run, it's also a good practice to encourage every engineer to have one or two trusted mentors to help guide his or her career. This type of mentor need not be in the same organization. Also, this mentor can't be assigned to someone as an applicant or new hire. These types of relationships need to develop mutual trust. The manager should explain the value of having a career mentor and encourage new employees to seek out individuals they believe would make good mentors. In the end, it's each engineer's responsibility to select his or her own mentor(s).

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