Imagine your agency just hired a key developer. They’ve got the right professional ideals and technical skills, the interview process went without a hitch, and they fit perfectly into your company and mission.
Things are going great — but that may not last forever. Your devs are always growing as people, and the Internet is always pulling them in different directions. Ads and listings on LinkedIn and Stack Overflow are always there to tell them their talents are needed elsewhere.
There may come a time when your company isn’t growing at the same pace as your developers, and they may look to continue their growth elsewhere. With greener pastures constantly calling them, how do you keep your technical employees satisfied and doing great work for you?
Once the ink is dry and you’ve onboarded your new developer, your commitment as an employer is only just beginning. As with the hiring process, certain well-known methods of employee retention — things like golden handcuffs, soda machines, and the like — may yield you positive results with your technical hires. However, achieving the best results will require focused efforts in a few important areas.
Before we dive into that, let’s reintroduce ourselves. We are Tony Santucci, lead full-stack engineer, and Courtney Freeland, associate front-end developer, both at Rocket Code. Not too long ago, in our article ‘What Brings all the Devs to the Yard?’, we explored how to hire key technical talents for your agency.
Now that you’ve brought on a few great developers, let’s dive into how to keep that talent and your business satisfied, growing, and doing stellar work together.
You might also like: How We're Scaling From 10 to 25 Employees in 7 Months
1. Help them to never stop learning
When humans are not continuously learning, they’re falling behind. This is especially important in technology, where the landscape can change dramatically over the course of a year. A successful developer must not only stay current on new technologies, but be unafraid to learn new technologies and integrate them into their current work. Staying current will ensure the developer has a chance to learn and grow, and to make sure your company’s products are as efficient and up to date as they can be.
Make sure you allocate resources and support to allow these team members to educate themselves. Ensure budgets allow for training or conferences; if funds are tight, ask employees to look locally or online for ways to enrich themselves. It’s your responsibility to make sure that your best employees are constantly learning. If you do, you’ll find that they will make it their responsibility to execute on it, and you will both reap the benefits.
At Rocket Code, we were lucky enough to attend the Internet Retailer Conference & Exhibition (IRCE) in Chicago last June, as well as local developers’ conference M3 in Columbus, last August.
Courtney attended both of these conferences and attributes a great deal of professional growth to them. Conferences like these are a chance to not only learn new technologies and meet prominent people in the field, but to represent one’s company. Letting your employees represent the company on a large stage instills a great deal of trust and pride. If an employee is given the opportunity to represent the agency as a whole, it will only strengthen the employee–employer bond.
2. Keep tabs on your young talent
In our first article, we advised readers not to be afraid to hire someone who is new to development. If your new employee is just beginning their technical career, it’s critical to allot time, for them to learn and grow into their role.
At Rocket Code, each associate developer is given a chunk of time each sprint to research and learn new technologies. Setting aside time just for learning will not only foster the growth of that developer, it will leave them itching to learn more with the company.
In a similar vein, it’s extremely important to be hands-on with the code an associate developer writes. In the agency world, it’s a given that projects will have bumps and blockers, and developing strategies on how to best deal with those problems, is what separates the good digital firms from the bad.
It’s very easy for an associate developer who is new to programming on a professional level to jump into a project, and without regular check-ins and meetings, fall behind very quickly. That shakes not only the developer’s self-confidence, but their confidence in your company.
If you invest in new talent, understand what you’re getting into. Have your managers lead employee check-ins regularly, and make sure the associate is on the right track. Hold code workshops and meetings to gauge their technical progress, and offer advice on how to write more efficient code. Investment in new talent requires more than the initial offer; to truly enable a developer to grow into their role, a hands-on approach is critical.
3. Make them (really) part of the team
Motivating tech people is paradoxically easier than it looks, and harder than it seems.
First and foremost, just because devs don’t always talk to many people, doesn’t mean we don’t enjoy talking to people we like. (Did we just give ourselves away there?) The best way to keep people around is to make sure they are treated like people.
Unfortunately, too many organizations try to firewall I.T. off from the rest of the company. This puts up too many artificial barriers, and impedes the human aspect of a well-run organization. Something as simple as situating your developers in the same area as employees on other teams can have an amazing effect. It can foster small talk, which helps technical and non-technical employees form healthy and beneficial relationships. It also makes it easier for devs to see the impact of their work.
In addition, you should allow your technical employees to shadow other departments or internal customers; let them visit, observe, and interact with actual users. This exercise will give them a new appreciation for how their work can have an impact — and keep them fresh, engaged, and constantly contributing. They may even surprise you with ideas and improvements you may not have yet considered.
4. Give them some freedom
This brings us to a central concept that’s important to remember:
Human beings, even technical employees, generally detest monotony.
One of the easiest ways to get any employee to check out, especially a technical one, is to ask them to solve the same problem repeatedly in the same way.
Web products can very easily fall into this pattern: there are only so many login pages or CRUD pages you can code until you exhaust the flexibility of the in-house standard solutions. When you ask your devs to work this way, you’re stifling creativity and impeding progress, both for the employee and within the organization.
Instead, embrace the concept of constrained freedom. Grant them the opportunity to solve the problems in whatever way works for them and their team, within given boundaries. These are your creative, cerebral problem solvers. So avoid spending time defining the precise steps for any given activity. Instead, give them the inputs and constraints — then let them amaze you. Let them break out of the bounds you’ve identified, the company and its customers will benefit.
5. Empower them to become cross-functional
We talked about the importance of allowing your devs to shadow other departments or customers. This, however, is just the first step in helping them fully understand their place in the vast system that is your business. Teach them that what they do, day-to-day, enables the organization to deliver the value that it does.
The more they understand about what happens before something hits their desk and after it leaves their desk, the more valuable they can be while solving a problem — and the less they’ll just be employees who sit in front of a monitor, churning out code. But you also need to push them to explore further on their own.
Give your employees the chance to explore outside the IT department. Give them the opportunity to not only participate in other job functions throughout the organization, but to provide feedback on improvements or efficiencies they discover. As your growth practice matures, your team members will have such a breadth of experience, they’ll be able to see interactions and dependencies that had gone previously undetected.
You may even have technical employees who wish to branch out and specialize in other areas of the business. If you are succeeding as an organization in creating a passion so infectious that a technical employee wishes to focus their efforts in that area, let them. The effect will be seen and felt on both sides of the table, and your employees will deliver results infused with a dedication and quality that could not be achieved through written specifications alone.
By being allowed to specialize and learn about non-technical aspects of your business, your devs will become subject matter experts, who are able to talk the same language as the tech team and business stakeholders. These subject matter experts will become liaisons between worlds. Not only will they be able to crank out solutions with an intimate understanding of what’s at stake — they’ll also be able to bridge the education gap and elevate the entire team. But they can't master that niche without the ability to explore and contribute outside their department.
Thankfully, the agency world is the perfect environment to put all of this advice into action. There’s always a new problem to be solved, and letting your developers try new things will keep them yearning for more. This practice is mutually beneficial — not only does it make the employee feel valued and important, it allows both the employee and company to see where an employee flourishes and where they don’t. Allowing your developers to try many things will result in them finding what they are really good at, which will only benefit your company.
You might also like: From Freelance to Agency: Advice for Growing Your Team
An ongoing journey
You took the time to share your passion with a candidate. You judged that candidate on the impact they could have on your organization. You engaged them as people. You motivated them to keep honing their skills and understanding. And you imbued them with the passion to elevate not only themselves, but their team and the organization as a whole.
Did it work? We’re certain it did — and it will continue to, as long as you remember that this work is never done. Motivations may change over time, but as long as both parties continue to put forth the effort, the outcomes will far exceed the inputs.
Now when you ask your people, “why are you still here?” the response you’ll hear is: “because I can still make a difference to the people who made a difference to me.”