Keep Your Developers Around Without Resorting to Golden Handcuffs

It’s hard to lose an employee.

Employees leave jobs. Software developers typically leave jobs every 2-3 years, if not more frequently.

When an employee leaves, they take years of accumulated knowledge and productivity with them. Team morale drops when top performers decide the grass is greener elsewhere, particularly if this becomes a recurring pattern.

Losing a developer from your team is also extremely expensive! Recruiters can charge 30% of first year salary. Filling an opening can take months, if not years.

Developers leave even very good jobs for a variety of reasons: higher compensation, more interesting or challenging work, a chance to use different technology, or just a change of pace. That a developer will eventually leave (for a new job, to retire, or other reasons) is inevitable over a long enough period of time.

But developers also stay in jobs (even if they can make more money elsewhere) for a variety of reasons:

Developers will leave. But while they're here, we can maximize value and engagement for both the employer and the employee. We can help our best employees keep learning and stay engaged. We can help our middling employees grow their skills and become excellent at their work. We can make sure our employees share knowledge and wisdom by working in community. We can make it possible for the company to take meaningful risks without fear of failure. We can enlist developers in building (and increasing!) the company's competitive advantages, and we can do it all in a way that feels good and satisfying.

So how do we do it?

Employees, particularly Millennials, want to learn and grow on the job. Per Gallup, 59% of Millennials say opportunities to learn and grow are important to them when applying for job, as do 44% of Gen-X and 41% of Baby Boomer employees. Additionally (per the same source), 87% of Millennials rate professional or career growth and development opportunities as "important to them in a job", as do 69% of non-millennials.

Members of all generations (and especially Millennials) want to do good work, want to learn and grow, want to make a meaningful impact on the companies they work for, and generally prioritize those factors above salary and most perks (Source)

A bored employee will not be an engaged employee. An employee who feels they're no longer learning or growing or helping the organization grow will not be an engaged employee. An employee who cannot clearly articulate where they're going or what they're contributing will not be an engaged employee.

All employees eventually leave. But disengaged employees leave a lot faster, and even before they leave, contribute quite a bit less than they (or you!) would prefer.

Our, aim, then, is to boost employee engagement. But how do we do this?

Unabridged Software helps companies hire talented developers (in addition to having our own staff of talented developers). We also work in close coordination to support the development teams of our clients with additional developers of our own.

What we've observed lines up closely with what Daniel Pink describes in Drive, namely, that people crave autonomy, mastery, and purpose (we'll add community and relationships to this list).

So we asked the question: How do we help our employees build community and attain mastery? How do we give our employees more autonomy, knowing that (as a consultancy that provides line-level developers) we usually have to align our work with our clients' priorities and practices? How do we help our employees to do more meaningful and impactful work?

If we could answer those questions, we could also build a company where employees would stay longer and do better work. This would mean we would get to spend more time doing the work and less time hiring (or shifting staff around to account for developers who leave).

One thread that kept appearing, both within our company and in the companies we work with, was teaching; the best developers on staff usually sought out opportunities to teach and share knowledge (even if they were never formally "teaching" in a classroom). It wasn't enough to simply do excellent work - these developers sought opportunities to help their coworkers also do excellent work.

Similarly, the healthiest teams we saw usually had a few developers who embraced the teaching role, and made space for more junior developers to practice solving problems and sharing knowledge. These teams were very engaged, committed to doing excellent work, and moving with purpose. They had the skill necessary to make sound decisions and then see them to fruition, and trust in each other. It's unclear whether the shared ethos of teaching was a source of this positive momentum or simply a consequence, but we suspected (and have come to strongly believe) that it plays a central role.

Professional Learning Communities

Unabridged Software’s Professional Learning Community (PLC) system uses the latest research in psychology, learning, education, and organizational management to create an environment where software developers (and developer-adjacent staff) are:

Not only that, but Professional Learning Communities are driven by a system that reinforces a virtuous cycle of improvement.

What benefits can we expect?

As we work through the PLC process with new groups, we see employees activating their curiosity and asking questions. We see employees building connections between what they learn and what they do day-to-day and applying that knowledge, sometimes in unexpected ways. We see employees becoming more confident and competent problem solvers, and more technically literate. We see employees collaborating outside of their usual channels and anticipating needs and challenges before they become problems. We see employees building relationships centered around learning and excellence.

We see these results consistently. You can too. And we have more than a decade of experience supporting teaching and learning to let us help you.

How does it work?

A group of 3-6 developers come together to systematically try to answer a Big Question over 4-6 weeks by meeting 60-90 minutes per week. Group members take turns leading sessions, which usually entails presenting some material and guiding the group through a hands-on exercise to practice what they just learned. At the end, the group prepares some resource, project, and/or presentation around their findings so the knowledge lives on.

A big question can be immediately relevant to work, such as "How do we make sense of WCAG Accessibility guidelines and measure (and improve) our applications' compliance with those guidelines?" It can be a chance to try something new, such as "What advantages does the Rust programming language offer over our current toolsets, and is it worth seriously evaluating it as a tool we can use in our work?"

Tight Scope

Groups are limited in number of participants, length of sessions, and breadth of topic. This narrowness keeps efforts focused and averts distraction.

Collaborative Learning

By sharing the learning, groups can cover more ground more quickly than if they were working independently and in isolation. Group members can check each other’s assumptions and act as resources for each other. This makes it much more likely that groups will achieve their goals.

Company Sponsored

Group members meet during the workday, on company time. This creates accountability and opportunity by removing obstacles and keeping outside factors from intruding. If group members see the company buy in, they are more likely to buy in. If they buy in, they (and the company) are much more likely to see the desired results.

Personal Autonomy

Participants gain valuable leadership practice through group decision making. Groups define the scope and nature of their investigation. They own the process. This autonomy boosts engagement and buy-in.

Expert Facilitation

We have well over a decade of experience facilitating teaching and learning, and a proven method. A group on their own might founder, but a group with an expert guide who knows the process, knows the pitfalls, and can help groups hone in on their focus will succeed.

Experimentation Without Fear of Failure

PLCs, by nature, involve learning something new. Group members practice experimenting and testing assumptions. Failures are opportunities to learn (and exciting!), and are, at worst, temporary setbacks.

Expanded Toolbox

When you free your team to learn on topics tangentially or wholly unrelated to core company work, you get developers who can better solve problems. This cross-pollination of ideas helps you better respond to market changes and use the right tools for the job.

We want our employees to enjoy their work. We want them to do good and satisfying work. We want employees to take calculated risks in pursuit of excellence, and we want them to gracefully recover from failure. We want our employees to be learning and growing, and we want them to be excited to be in community with their coworkers.

Your employees want this, too. Your employees want to do work that is interesting, challenging, and satisfying. Your employees want to work with people they like collaborating with. Your employees want to keep learning and growing. Your employees want to enjoy working for you, and they want to feel secure that other professional opportunities simply aren’t worth considering.

Our PLC process takes what your best employees already do on their own and makes it more systematic and more supported. By doing so, we also make it easier for your employees to say “yes” to staying with you.

Q & A

But what about the cost?

Compared to what it costs to have to replace a developer who’s left, this program is a bargain. If you can extend the average tenure of an employee by even a year, this program pays for itself very quickly. We feel confident we can help you keep your employees around longer.

How do we find the time?

Ultimately, it’s a matter of making the time. Consider the amount of time lost when an employee leaves. Or the amount of time lost when employees don’t ask each other for help. PLCs will build a framework for your team to solve problems together. The relationships built and knowledge accrued absolutely do return in time and money saved later.

Can we really see results in the amount of time you list?

Absolutely. Even though individual sessions are fairly short, the cumulative effect of those sessions adds up quickly. And because sessions are spread out instead of all in a day, we can make better use of cognitive loading and cover more ground than we would in a one-day workshop. Employees retain information better, learn more, and are less rushed.

Can’t my people just share interesting things on Slack?

It just doesn’t stick. The point of PLCs is that you have an opportunity to practice and not just read. Further, there’s no systematic way to ensure your team is really learning anything from all those shared tidbits. Teams still should share interesting articles and resources across appropriate company channels, but reading (or watching) without practicing does not lead to meaningful improvements.

Shouldn’t my employees just do this on their own time?

Sure, and your best ones do. But there’s no guarantee your company benefits from any of that work, and there’s no cross-pollination or team-building. Your best employees are constantly seeking out new challenges and new information, and when they can’t find it anymore at your company, they leave. The PLC process keeps your best employees engaged, and gives everyone else a chance to learn from and build patterns like your best employees. This keeps the growth within the company, spreads the benefits, and ensures that, even if people leave, the knowledge is retained.

Why PLCs instead of something like 20% time or hackathons?

Those are great practices, and not mutually exclusive. But 20% time and hackathons are often just fun diversions for employees rather than systematically supported processes that benefit the company. It is our observation that practices like 20% time or company hackathons occasionally produce meaningful results, but those results largely depend on the quality of relationships between employees, the ability of team members to properly scope their work, and the ability of management to identify and articulate the value of those projects and follow through appropriately. PLCs build those skills and create an environment where practices like hackathons and 20% time are much more likely to be successful and rewarding.

Why not just get my employees the books and courses they want?

You should definitely do that! But without accountability and structure, it is on the employees to follow through, usually on their own time (which means that many simply won’t -- not even out of lack of desire, but lack of time). Similarly, without the group environment, that knowledge is locked to just the employee who requests the book or course.

That said, a particularly effective strategy for a PLC group is to work through a book or course together.

Why not just send employees to a conference of their choosing?

Great idea! But conferences are expensive, and there are so many sessions that you see diminishing returns (in terms of learning) as the conference progresses. Moreover, simply attending a conference does not produce the type of systemically supported perpetual growth and learning the PLC process produces.

(One bonus to the PLC process, though, is that the findings of individual groups can often become interesting conference talk topics!)

So why this product?

Bottom line: professional development keeps your employees satisfied and productive.

To our knowledge, our PLC program is the only program that systematically supports learning in a way that’s informed by actual classroom practice and current research on learning, teaching, and team-building. Even if similar programs exist, none can match both our education and learning background and our software background.

When it comes to employee retention, you can pay employees more. You can offer nicer perks. You can promise a steady chain of promotions. But you still have to find a way to align the goals of your best performers, who usually want interesting and challenging work that helps them to learn and pursue excellence, with the company. And you have to have some way to help your middling performers keep learning and progressing in their skills so they stay both engaged and relevant. The PLC process is backed by the latest research and presents to you a system for boosting engagement, keeping your employees learning and growing in ways that matter to the business, and keeps them around for longer.

You want to keep your employees around, and you want your employees to want to be around. You want them to be doing good work and meaningfully collaborating with each other. We want to help you get there, and for less than the cost of replacing an employee who leaves because they’re bored or disengaged.

What's next?

Click the "I want to learn more!" link below to download our PLC Playbook -- this is the definitive resource, and free to read. We'll follow up with you at the email address you provide. Alternatively, you can contact us or schedule a free consultation.