Expert Insight to An Industry-Wide Challenge
Frontend engineering talent is notoriously hard to retain. And despite drowning their employees in perks like free meals, childcare and transport, even the largest tech companies struggle to retain their best employees.
In a sector that is so tight on talent, an inability to retain frontend engineers is especially concerning for startups in San Francisco and New York. So, what is the real picture, the real challenges, and how can you do better to retain your best frontend engineers?
The Perfect Storm – A Skills Shortage and High Staff Turnover
If ever there was a perfect storm that spelt trouble for startups, it’s the skills shortage combined with high staff turnover. Reports and research that demonstrate this include:
• Technology (software) has the highest employee turnover rate at 13.2% (LinkedIn)
• Technology has one of the tightest labor markets in the United States (Federal Reserve Beige Book 2019)
This perfect storm has pushed up salaries in the sector. According to Salary.com, the average salary for frontend engineers in the United States is now $119,224 (July 2020). But if money was the only factor that contributed to employee turnover, why is retention still such a problem? Clearly, throwing money at the issue is not the silver bullet.
We asked a few of our contacts about their thoughts on employee retention and what strategies tech companies should be using to compel their most talented frontend engineers to stay. Here’s what they told us.
Create an Engaging Culture
Today’s employees want to work in an environment that is conducive to creativity and that is inclusive and diverse. They want to enjoy training and development opportunities, leaders who act as mentors, and autonomy of work. They don’t want to work in environments that are led by big egos and little substance.
Kevin Whitley, Team Lead and Technical Architect at Arundo Analytics told us: “Regarding freedom, this is more towards allowing/encouraging engineers to ‘own’ their work. A key pattern I’m seeing with high turnover teams is the tendency for functional silos to develop (e.g. design, engineering, product) along with turf wars along those lines.”
When we asked Kevin about what he has done (or observed others doing) to minimize turnover, one of the things that he told us was: “First of all, listen to your talent – if they don’t feel heard, they’ll stop talking. Like any relationship, when the other side stays quiet for too long, you know you’re in for a split. “I also actively mentor younger developers, both professionally (e.g. coaching regarding pay negotiations, team dynamics, design patterns, etc.), and personally (e.g. conflict resolutions, etc.), and this appears to help.”
Coach Leaders to Lead Positively
It’s often said that good employees don’t leave jobs, they leave bad managers. Mark Lancaster, Director of Development at Truss, agrees. Of the reasons for high turnover rates, he says: “Without a doubt, the biggest reason is poor leadership and management, especially from the product ownership side. Product deadlines should never push a scrum schedule, instead the result of good scrum planning should provide a reasonable deadline for the product team. Lack of alignment between the business side and developer side of a company will lead to a toxic environment in which both sides will blame each other when a deadline is missed. Alignment of expectations between teams is absolutely essential.”
Mark told us that his biggest trigger for leaving jobs in the past was “always due to the relationship with my manager. If I had a non-technical manager making unreasonable demands and requests without knowing the implications, it easily soured my attitude. However, a non-technical manager could be a blessing if they accurately convey their goals and let you autonomously create the product or feature that meets those needs.”
With tough employee/manager relationships behind him, Mark’s attitude to leading to retain employees is markedly different. In his routine, Mark includes:
• One-to-one meetings at the end of every sprint, in which he asks what worked well and what didn’t
• Encouraging openness and suggestions for improvement
• Acting on suggestions given and give credit where it is due
• Holding a quarterly ‘ideation’ meeting
• Giving people a sense of ownership
“Lastly,” he says, “I would make sure that everyone felt they could speak up during meetings. Of course, some people are reticent to do so, in which case I would invite their input and make sure they were not cut off or interrupted.”
Hire People Who Believe in Your Product, Let Them Take It to Its Potential
Your people must believe in your mission and your product. If they are engaged with these elements, they will become advocates for your products and you as an employer. Autonomy of work plays a part here. Especially at a startup, people join you for what they can achieve with you – and that includes helping take your product to its full potential.
Kevin told us: “Nothing is worse than spending an entire day on a piece of code only to have the product owner or feature requestor turn around and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t see it working like that’.
“For new product owners/managers (particularly those without a technical background) this will inevitably occur; but if there is ongoing, consistent miscommunication of the feature requirements then frustration turns to untenable levels.” Kevin believes that product vision is the hardest to tackle. Some, he tells us, find it impossible.
“Industrials need to understand they’re going to struggle to both attract AND retain Silicon Valley talent – simply from the nature of image. No developer fantasizes about working in a cube to help oil and gas giants drill more oil out of the earth. We almost have to apologize to our peers when even mentioning we work for industrials, oil and gas, etc. Millennials want to be a part of changing the world – of improving life – not just [helping someone else] turn a profit.”
But Don’t Ignore Compensation
While culture, quality of leadership, autonomy of work, and product belief are all important factors in your employee retention strategy, you must not ignore compensation. Kevin told us that pay was the fastest trigger in decisions to look for a new job.
“When expectations are set early and not delivered on in practice (e.g. low salary increases despite stellar reviews, lack of bonus, etc.), the hunt is on, and FAST. This has happened to me personally across several companies, and I quickly make my displeasure known, along with the expected outcome (my quick exit). Each and every time, the company has resisted at first, then quickly caved and thrown money at me to prevent my exit.
“The problem is, simply having to do that battle for myself tells me that the company is neglecting engineering talent across the board, and only paying out to the ones that fight. Unfortunately, most engineers DON’T fight (which enables this bad practice) – and simply start looking more seriously at those LinkedIn offers.”
In short, use average salary measures as a guide, but always pay your most talented people super competitively.
Best Practices for Frontend Engineering Managers to Improve Retention
When we asked Mark if he had any final words of advice to give frontend engineering managers, he had this to say:
“In some way, always spend time apart from work with your team. We had a ping pong table in the office (before COVID) and I would take a 10-minute break every day to play with someone on my team. If they weren’t keen on ping pong, I would take them out to lunch or offer to walk with them to get some air. Something that wasn’t work-related to develop a relationship. I’m not saying you have to become friends with your employees, but you need to have an active interest in their lives.”
We’ll leave the final comment to Kevin Whitley: “It boils down to simply finding the key positive influencers, and making it worth their while to stay. Give them higher pay, more freedom to explore what they like, steer the product, and also invest in them. Fly them to conferences. Frontend engineers have amazing conferences, and the velocity/excitement developers have coming out of those far exceeds the cost to send them in the first place.
“The average developer will stay simply for the paycheck. The ‘rockstar’ has LOTS of paychecks being offered to him/her, so you have to keep that noise to a minimum and bring the ‘ideal’ experience.”