How to Attract and Retain Great Developers

In an innovation-driven economy, where new companies are constantly being born and a great number of those companies are centered around a software product, tech talent can be very hard to come by. Exacerbating the problem, once you’ve managed to find and hire a developer, you’re in constant danger of another company poaching your new employee. A recent study found that tech companies in the Fortune 500 have the highest turnover, thanks in part to poaching. Here’s how you can attract (and retain) great developers.

First, let’s take a look at what it takes to attract tech developers.


Tech SalariesThink beyond salary.

With giants like Google, Microsoft, and Juniper offering engineers hundreds of thousands a year, and Facebook offering new hires up to $100,000 as a signing bonus, money probably isn’t where you’ll be able to outcompete the big dogs, especially if you’re a small business. Instead, offer an at market or slightly above market salary and focus on what else can set you apart.

No amount of free snacks, ping pong tables, and kegs of beer will allow you to sign and, equally importantly, retain top talent if you’re paying bottom dollar. Once you pass candidates’ threshold salary requirements, however, shift focus to non-monetary offerings.

Be wary of assuming that being unable to compete in compensation means you should compete in perks. “In addition to simple cash and equity differences, the big guns also have amazing benefits and perks like free food, on-site chefs, state-of-the art workout facilities, fancy buses to San Francisco, and then some” says Cadigan. Yikes. Offer your employees free food and fitness, but competing in perks alone is unlikely to pay off.

So what can you compete with? “How you determine things such as time-off programs, work hours, work environment, philanthropy commitments, and how people are assigned to projects matters and is how you can distinguish your company to become more appealing to the people you want in your workforce” says Steve Cadigan, founder of Cadigan Talent Ventures. Big companies with big budgets can offer cushy compensation and perks, but small businesses with less bureaucracy can offer more flexibility and tailor jobs, within reason, to employee desires.

Tech RecruitingTailor the job.

To know how to best tailor the job, you have to understand the sort of developer that you want to attract. “The most important thing to understand is what motivates programmers” says Chris Dixon, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. “This is where having been a programmer yourself can be very helpful. In my experience programmers care about 1) working on interesting technical problems, 2) working with other talented people, 3) working in a friendly, creative environment, 4) working on software that ends up getting used by lots of people.”

Make it clear what sort of work new hires can expect to do if they join your company, as well as what sort of impact their work, and your product overall, will have. Invite candidates in to your office, or along on a team lunch, to show off your corporate culture and the great people already working on your team!


For startups, attract with equity and title.Startup Equity

The problem with recruiting top tech talent for cash-strapped startups is two-fold. First, startups don’t have the resources to offer the sort of compensation and perks that big companies can and thus lose out on candidates who are primarily motivated by short-term income and comfort. Second, for candidates who are motivated more by long-term gain, there’s no competing with the equity and ownership advantages they would have from starting their own startup.

As a startup, the more entrepreneurial candidates are the ones that you have the best chance with and the key to winning them away from branching out on their own is offering some of the perks of starting something new along with the stability of taking a salaried position at a company that already exists. “Making those first engineers ‘late cofounders’ will dramatically increase your chances of recruiting great people” says Dixon. It’s worth giving up a piece of the ownership pie if you’re able to bring on great talent that will help you grow the pie.

RelocationLook for out-of-staters who are willing to relocate.

NYC and Silicon Valley have a lot of developers, but they’re also very developer-hungry markets that are saturated with tech companies trying to outcompete each other for new talent. There’s nothing stopping you from expanding your pool. There are software engineers all over the country, many of whom would be willing, or even excited, to leave their comparatively small towns for NYC or San Francisco.

To attract out-of-state talent, make it clear in your job description that you are willing to assist with relocation. If you make a job offer, include relocation reimbursement. To ease the anxiety around leaving a familiar home, friends, and family, contract potential new hires to work remotely for a few weeks and then fly them in to work for a week in your office. “This tryout before commitment creates goodwill with your future employees, and reassurance that the relocation is a good move,” says Shane Snow, co-founder of Contently.

Don’t limit yourself to local talent, who likely already have many options if they’re worth their salt as coders. By opening the geographic bounds of your search, you’re more likely to find the developer you want at the price you can afford.

Tech RecruitingHave an attractive interview process.

Don’t put candidates off before you’ve even extended an offer. Instead, use the opportunity to make a positive impression. According to Stack Overflow Careers’ Developer Hiring Landscape report, which includes the opinions of 26,000 developers in over 150 countries, the number one change that developers want to the interview process is that they would like to get to know their potential future colleagues. Invite your favorite candidates to a team lunch and perhaps your current talent will win over your future talent for you.

After the team lunch, take potential hires back to the office. 37% of developers surveyed said they wanted to see the exact space where they would work if hired. Make it easy for tech talent to imagine themselves working for your company.

The third most desired change was having a heads up about the process. 35% of developers surveyed said that they want to know who they would be speaking to and what would be on the agenda ahead of time. After you’ve scheduled an interview, send candidates a quick email outlining the next step(s) in the interview process, including what their day will look like when they come in to meet with you.


Developer MentorshipOffer mentorship.

Assume the interview went well, they hit it off with the team at the team lunch, and now you’re extending an offer. Emphasize that a position with your company is an opportunity to learn and grow by offering a mentorship program to new hires. If you already have some senior programmers, pairing those with junior programmers is a great way to attract and retain junior talent. If not, there are third party platforms that can pair your junior talent with more senior developers elsewhere.  

This is a particularly effective strategy for recruiting elusive female tech talent and improving the gender diversity of your team. Jessamyn Smith, a female developer at Codementor, has led over 600 mentorship sessions and says about 20% of her clients are women. Have gender diversity on your team can do more than just make you look good.

Adding even one female developer to your team can improve your bottom line. A 2012 Credit Suisse Research Institute study, examining 2,360 companies globally from 2005-2011, found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing (net debt to equity), and better average growth than companies with all male boards. Mentorship programs not only improve employee performance and satisfaction, but also improve your odds of having innovation-driving diversity on your team.

Mentorship programs are where attraction and retention meet. They shouldn’t be the end of your retention efforts, however, because tech talent is in high demand and millennials, more than any generation before, are infamous for low company loyalty. If you don’t give your developers a reason to stay, or several, they will go.

Creative TechGive your developers creative freedom.

“Micromanaging folks doesn’t get you anywhere” says Mike Kappel, founder and CEO of Patriot Software Inc. “It eats up your time, and it frustrates your workforce.” Developers are highly educated and all about solving complex problems. Guiding them through the beginning of their time working for you is extremely valuable, but there should always be an understanding that they will work autonomously once they are able to do so.

While it is tempting to think developers work like machines, it’s important to remember that good developers are more like artists. In the words of legendary Dutch computer scientist Edsger Wybe Dijkstra Dijkstra, “Computer science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.” Developers have trained for a long time to be ready to do what they do, and giving them the space to do it as they are inclined to gives them the room they need to come up with truly innovative solutions.

Continuing EducationProvide continuing education opportunities.

Technology is a quickly and constantly changing field and making sure that your developers are always on top of the newest developments and latest changes to coding languages is in your company’s best interest. Further, developers who feel like they’ve fallen behind the curve and are no longer well-equipped to do their job are not happy developers.

“We know that true mastery of a software language looks more like planned, continuous development than it does a static skill set” says Kappel. “With this in mind, we set up continual education opportunities for our team to grow closer to mastery and learn about new and evolving software developments before we run into a project that might require these skills and overwhelm our developers.” Offering your developers the opportunity to study what’s new in their field is proactive problem solving and important for keeping them satisfied with working at your company.

Meritocratic PromotionsAward promotions based on merit.

A June 2011 Dice survey found that more advancement opportunities was the number one most desired retention benefit by tech professionals. If you don’t give your employees the opportunity to work their way up to better titles, more responsibility, and higher salaries, they will leave for a company that will. But it is not only whether your company offers advancement opportunities, but also how they are awarded that matters.

Talented developers will be bored by a set advancement schedule, where they know they will advance to X position if they stick around for Y years. While you may be able to recruit less motivated developers, who are happy to know that they have an effectively guaranteed promotion if they just put in the time, no company has become great by focusing on building an unmotivated taskforce.

Awarding promotions based on exceptional performance, instead, will challenge developers and keep them engaged in one-upping themselves. “The developers’ employment is a constant journey that’s going somewhere, rather than a Sisyphean situation where they’re running out the clock until retirement” says Erik Dietrich, founder of DaedTech LLC.

Red Tape in TechMinimize red tape.

Good developers are passionate about their work and would much rather spend their hours coding than sitting in meetings or applying for permission to install new tools. “If you want to kill the motivation and engagement of your developers, simply smother them in bureaucracy, meetings, rules, regulations and administrivia” says Cadigan.

Sometimes meetings and rules are necessary, but don’t have them for their own sake. When they’re unavoidable, be transparent about why they are necessary and allow your developers the opportunity to give their input, even if that doesn’t ultimately change the outcome. Making it clear that you respect your developers’ time and opinions is important for keeping them satisfied.

Developer BurnoutKeep an eye out for burnout.

The tech industry is infamous for long hours, and it’s not without cause that the stereotype of a software developer is a bleary eyed, sleep-deprived zombie running on a mix of caffeine and desk-friendly snack foods. Overworking your developers might seem like a good way to get the most out of your money, especially given how expensive they are, but losing a great developer to burnout is even more expensive.

A June 2011 Dice survey found that the second most desired retention benefit by tech employees was flexible scheduling and/or the ability to telecommute. Employers can be afraid to allow telecommuting, worrying that it will drive down worker productivity, but numerous studies have proven the opposite to be true. Telecommuting increases productivity, makes managing a work-life balance easier, and helps protect against burnout. Offer your developers the option to telecommute a few days each week.

When it comes down to it, attracting and retaining great developers comes down to understanding them, listening to them, providing them with interesting work and opportunities to grow both in their abilities and in their careers, and remembering that they, too, are humans and deserve the right to lives outside of coding. With communication and respect, building a loyal team of talented developers is not as hard as it may seem.

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Danai Kadzere

Danai Kadzere

Danai is a Content Marketer at Happie. Before Happie, she worked as a freelance writer, ghostwriter, and children's book author, after graduating from Harvard University with a BS in Human Evolutionary Biology. If she's not working, she's probably reading, baking, or getting lost.