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Are Your Developers Thinking About Quitting?

Ashley Swanson

Retention is vital to a technical team’s success, but engineering managers often don’t have the tools or training needed to identify and mitigate retention risk.

People who feel estranged from their work may slowly start to drift away, becoming disconnected from the organization, their peers, and their work, until they rapidly arrive at the decision to quit. Recognizing these signs and intervening early prevents turnover. Managers are the first line of defense in anticipating if a developer is at the crossroads of quitting.

Here’s how to discover if your developers are thinking about leaving, plus simple acts you can do now to impact your engineering team’s retention.

Look For Low Engagement And Behavior Changes

Noticing changes in behavior for your engineers can be the first sign that something is disrupting their job. Using metrics from your collaboration tools can help you to find patterns in engagement and identify changes that can provide early indication of temporary stress, a setback in a project, or an emerging retention risk.

Understanding the flow of employee performance in tools like Slack can make it easier to spot someone floundering. Look at your team’s Slack channels, and make note of who’s over-participating and who’s under-participating. Are these engineers also stepping back from other forms of collaboration, maybe in their comments on the code repos or on JIRA boards? Are they reluctantly participating in the weekly stand-ups or team building events?

If you're seeing a developer who is suddenly distancing themselves, that can be a sign that they are no longer engaged. The same goes for the managers themselves, see if your own engagement with the team has changed or been lacking. Studies have shown that managers often set the tone for their teams, influencing how engineers approach and engage with their work.

Collect Better Feedback

Companies often stop doing employee surveys because they take up too much time or have low engagement. Surveys become ineffective when they require long answers, feature questions disconnected from the day-to-day challenges, or are conducted in an organization short on trust or transparency. 

When developers do complete surveys, the answers can be superficial or focused on small symptoms instead of the larger flaws. The data from these surveys isn’t very useful to engineering managers, especially if there’s no follow-up strategy.

Engineering teams need a more effective survey methodology. Pulse surveys - 1-2 questions, asked more frequently - help leaders to see patterns and align to current projects providing more meaningful insights. Build a database of stand-alone questions that fit into a simple measurement scale for easier analysis. These questions can even become part of the regular check-ins with engineering managers.

Create Opportunities To Talk

Managers can be reluctant to talk with engineers who appear to be struggling, but watching from the sidelines can reinforce an employee’s sense of disengagement at work. A developer’s likelihood to churn is directly related to their ability to thrive in the organization.

It’s important for managers to create the opportunity to talk openly about struggles and frustrations. By sharing concerns focused on an engineer’s well-being and satisfaction, not just performance, it can empower a developer to share what they’re struggling with, explain the frustration they’re encountering, or communicate their needs and wants.

Ask questions that explore the way the individual feels more engaged, and most successful. Build a more open connection. If they are considering leaving, give the developer a promise for improvement and follow up. Even if your assessment about an individual contributor quitting is way off, making the effort to chat about their work and their ambitions builds more engagement, transparency, and trust with your engineers. 

Conduct Exit Interviews

Managers often don't know that someone's intending to leave until they've put in their notice. The first step in any retention strategy should be to start conducting exit interviews with departing engineers. Getting feedback from someone leaving can provide better data than a survey, because quitting gives a sense of safety – an invincibility shield – to be honest about the real problems that drove them to leave.

Conducting exit interviews can help you piece together the common problems disrupting your engineering teams. Use the exit interview to understand how employees viewed their workplace and role. Ask them to be honest critics of a company’s mission, team structure and the management styles. Learning why people leave, why they stay, and how organizations can change is the truly important feedback that affects retention.

Start Building Deeper Awareness

Don’t wait for engineers to quit. Managers can have a meaningful impact on developer retention right now by building their awareness, connection, and transparency with their teams.

These immediate actions can also be the starting point for a conversation about retention strategy. The key to reducing turnover and retaining technical talent is creating a good engineering culture, a strong technical onboarding program, and a philosophy of onboarding and management.

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