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I've started a new position recently where I'm managing, orchestrating would be more the term, a wide range of software developers.

One of the guys, a 20 to 25-year-old, has seen his previous team decimated by resignations. He is now the oldest in terms of this workplace experience and technical know-how.

Because of his young age and despite his valuable experience, my direct line manager does not trust him with more powers. One of his weaknesses is that he is not great at explaining technical matters to people who are new to the technical know-how of the company.

I know he is thinking of resigning, as he is often taking calls from external employers (I caught a glimpse of his personal mailbox, which was full of LinkedIn requests asking him if he is considering, joining forces with another company.)

I would like him to stay. He is young, ambitious, he knows things and he has the potential to grow.

Other than raising his wages, which I doubt is a good strategy in the long run, what can I do to make him stay?

  • Provide him training?
  • Involve him more in the day to day of the decision making?

Thanks for any insights you will be able to provide as I wish to gain more skills in retaining people.


Update:

Thanks for all your precious advices. I will talk to him, I need to find the right time for that.

I've talked to my line manager also for some advice and without giving specific advices, he said if there was people who wanted to leave, I needed to talk to him as he values the current team.

11 Answers 11

62

Talk to him

Talk to him is absolutely true. You need to find out what he wants. You suggest

  • Provide him training?
  • Involve him more in the day to day of the decision making?

Maybe. But is this what he wants?

You say

One of his weakness is that he is not great in explaining technical matters to people who are new to the technical know-how of the company.

This sounds like something that you need to address. There are a couple ways:

  • Fix it. Teach him how to explain things to the necessary people.
  • Work around it. Rework the system so that he doesn't have to do it.

You should not try to make this decision for him. Ask him what he wants to do. If he wants to fix it, follow up later to see if it is still what he wants to do. Because fixing something like that is uncomfortable. It sounds better in theory than in actuality.

As this answer suggests, this process may be difficult. He may have trouble articulating what is making him unhappy or be reluctant to share his actual views. This may not be a single conversation but a process. Keep at it. A real diagnosis is necessary to address the underlying problem.

Ambitious developers

Your system seems to have developers at the leaves and managers at more senior positions. Such a system can be problematic. It pushes developers who want to be developers out of the company. A better system has both developers and managers in parallel. So a developer can become either a supervisor (manager) or a senior developer. Not everyone wants to be a manager. There should be ways for people to rise in responsibility without becoming managers.

If he leaves, how much will it cost to replace him? I don't mean just the obvious salary cost of a replacement. How much will it cost to rewrite your software so that the people who replace him understand how the existing software works? What will the maintenance cost be for that replacement, both in terms of bugs that won't get fixed because no one understands the software well enough and in terms of time spent maintaining software that people don't really understand?

You say you want to keep him because

he is young, ambitious, he knows things and he has potential to grow.

From the company's standpoint, the only part of that that really matters is that he knows things. Should you pay him more? Sure, if the things he knows are valuable to the company, he should get some of that value. That way, when he looks for other jobs, they offer him less financially because the things that he knows are more valuable to your company than to other companies. It increases your company's immediate costs to avoid the big cost of replacing him.

If he is ambitious but bad at required tasks like explaining things to people, that is a net negative. His ambition can't be satisfied. Also, how is he ambitious? Does he want more pay? More responsibility? A nicer title? What is it that would satisfy or feed his ambition? This is something that you'll have to talk to him to learn.

Young is irrelevant. In an industry where average tenure is years, not decades, a sixty year old developer is still more likely to move to another company than to retire from yours. If anything, young is again a net negative, as he doesn't have the experience to know that switching jobs will leave him in the same situation he has now.

Why do you think that he has potential to grow? You've given no signs of such potential. You've only listed things that might prevent such growth. Does potential to grow mean that he is bad at certain things and you're hoping he will improve? What if he doesn't?

Working around it

It may be that he would prefer to work around it to fixing it. It may not be clear what that means, so here is a concrete possibility. This is not the only possibility, but it is a possibility.

Let him hire a product manager. This person should be the one to whom people will go for explanations of technical matters. This person should be good at getting such information from the developer. For most of the company, this is the person considered responsible for the product. The developer may still get a chance to participate with that person behind the scenes, but this is the person who meets with higher management and other departments.

For the hiring process, let him do part of the vetting. That way, you don't stick him with someone he can't stand. But make sure that the candidates are good at the things that he doesn't do well. As part of the final interview, have the candidate talk to the developer to extract information and then have the candidate explain it to you or someone else. Only candidates who show that they can do this can be hired.

This

  • Gives him responsibility and control.
  • Addresses the problem of bad explanations.
  • Doesn't attempt to change him.

After this, you can build out a team to replace the one that he had previously. You can arrange for them to learn how the software works. Then if he wants to leave in a year, he can. You don't have to fight to retain him, because you have alternatives. And if he no longer wants to leave, maybe that's no longer a problem.

At this time, you can also let his salary settle back to being consistent with others. You don't have to overpay him to keep him from leaving. He goes from critically important to just another developer. This does not require cutting his salary. Just don't give raises until he's back to parity with others with similar value to the company.

This is not the only approach, but I think it highlights the requirements.

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    Hi @brythan, I really enjoy your detailed answer. Thank you – John Legas Oct 3 '18 at 5:20
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    Definitely a good answer. The not being able to explain things in a non-technical way will probably come with experience. Then again, some technical people never really learn that skill and will always need someone like a project manager to "translate" between them and the business units. Either way, it's a good idea to offer training in that area. – Omegacron Oct 4 '18 at 15:16
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Talk to him. Don't guess what you think he wants, get him in a one-to-one meeting and ask him about his career goals, about what he likes about the company, about what he dislikes. Then work to further those goals, keep the things he likes and deal with the things he doesn't like.

And while you're correct that pay rises may not be a sustainable long-term strategy for keeping staff, they can be pretty effective in the short term.

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    Incidentally, this kind of conversation should be a regular part of staff management, not just something that happens when an employee is already looking to leave. – Geoffrey Brent Oct 2 '18 at 6:47
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    I kind of disagree with the pay rises. While it's true that you can have some sort of "golden handcuffs", if that's the only reason why someone's staying, sooner or later you'll end up having someone unhappy, that does only an average job, but paid more than average. I myself left my previous job for another one where I'm paid less, but I like a lot more, and I'm not even that young while the guy in question is. – ChatterOne Oct 2 '18 at 7:36
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    @ChatterOne That's exactly what I've said: "pay rises may not be a sustainable long-term strategy for keeping staff". You've got to fix the underlying issues (which is what the first paragraph is about), but a pay rise can give you breathing space to make those fixes. – Philip Kendall Oct 2 '18 at 8:08
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    At the very least, a pay rise shows good faith on the part of the company if they're promising to make changes for the better. Otherwise all the employee has are vague promises which may or may not ever materialise (they still may not materialise of course, they also need a firm timeline of what should happen and when, this provides both the short term incentive to remain and a longer term indicator of the company's true desire to fix the issues). – delinear Oct 2 '18 at 9:28
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    Not giving pay raises to match your employees market value will cause you to lose the best people and retain the worst. – kevin cline Oct 3 '18 at 8:37
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Tell the truth - Tell him you've seen that he seems to be unhappy in his current role and that you don't want him to leave.

Let him know how valuable you think he is to the company, That you think he has a great potential to grow and you see him as an ambitious individual.

Then go through what he wants from the job, what he wants to get. If it's pay related then as Phillip has mentioned you want to consider it as a short term strategy as it may just be may. If it's job enrichment, maybe responsibility or even just difficulty of work he is receiving is not on a level in which he feels he can progress you want to be looking into ways you can potentially fulfil his job desires.

Sometimes you may not be able to satisfy these needs and you do what you can but at the end of the day you may just need to accept that he's going to leave and prepare to look for a new person (in the worst case scenario that he still wants to leave)

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    "he has a great potential to grow" OP would have to be very careful with this, considering upper management has given signals that this employee is not actually ready for promotion or growth in the short term at the very least. – Lilienthal Oct 2 '18 at 9:49
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    OP mentioned he has potential to grow and they won't give him more permission due to his age again according to OP @Lilienthal – Twyxz Oct 2 '18 at 9:52
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    That's precisely my point: you can't say to someone "I think you have a lot of potential" while you know that you can't actually help him grow to reach that potential. It would be completely dishonest to promise or allude to a growth track that the OP can't deliver on. If there's any morale left in the team, discovering that this happened in an effort to retain someone would probably kill it. – Lilienthal Oct 2 '18 at 9:58
  • @Lilienthal oh okay I understand your point but it's for OP to consider on what he wants to say in the end – Twyxz Oct 2 '18 at 10:00
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    @jpmc26 That's exactly what the conversation should be about: "You're strong in X, Y and Z and I want to give you more responsibility in that [...] but in order to promote you we need to make sure Mr. Manager sees you excel in A, B and C." Then be open about the timeline for a "real" promotion and what it will take to change the optics to senior management. – Lilienthal Oct 3 '18 at 10:06
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The LinkedIn mailbox full of such requests is an indicator of them being wanted elsewhere, not a proof of them wanting to work elsewhere.

For you and your superiors it is an indication that there is lower threshold for them to decide whether stay or leave.

If you want them to stay, ask them what they would appreciate so you can provide it. As all the others say and I have to copy: Do not guess, do ask.

If they wanted senior position and your superiors don't think they are ready, discuss with them how to improve their skills - in your case communication and "skilled-to-newbie knowledge transfer" and defend their expertise and seniority to the superiors.

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    To get requests you tend to have to have your "looking for work" as yes – Twyxz Oct 2 '18 at 9:46
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    @Twyxz that's not necessarily true, as I've turned off my "looking" flag at a number of job web sites, yet continue to get spammed by "recruiters" who send messages to any email address they can find (I don't recall what my status is on LinkedIn, in particular, but I continue to get opportunities presented there, too). Also, though this guy is still young and may not be in the boat yet, many people will never turn down the chance to look at/think about a different position where there may be a better opportunity. – FreeMan Oct 2 '18 at 12:22
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    @FreeMan OP mentions "Full of" as in there was loads of them at once. That doesn't happen if you are not labelled as actively looking. If you got loads over time then yeah people do that. But in LinkedIn this does not happen unless you're some sort of top programmer but at 25 with no privilege at work I doubt that – Twyxz Oct 2 '18 at 12:33
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    @Twyxz Believe me, it does happen. I'll get nothing for weeks and then a hand full of different recruiters within a day or two - and they each generate two emails, one for the friend request and one for the actual message. I even tried to make my profile less interesting, but it still happens some times ... – Sumyrda - Reinstate Monica Oct 2 '18 at 20:51
  • Agreed, I get tons of LinkedIn spam regardless of my settings or profile content. Most recruiters in the software world are desperate since demand far exceeds the supply for developers in general, nevermind actually good ones, and this is exacerbated by the fact that most recruiters resort to just blasting out the same message to everyone they can find instead of using an actual strategy. – Matthew Read Oct 4 '18 at 16:32
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When I was that age (sigh... 20+ years ago), my greatest joy was attending developer conferences. Preferably in the US. Partly because the best conferences were held in the US, and partly because travelling to another continent implied great fun. (if you're already located in the US, then there is always Las Vegas. If you are already located in Las Vegas, then think of something else)

So, when you do talk to him, discuss various places he would like to visit. Be flexible with the travel arrangements, i.e. you cover flights and hotel during the conference, and he will take care of himself if he stays for a vacation.

Another idea, when you have a new team assembled, send them off for a week to get cranking on a specific project (prepare for a new feature, prepare for some new technology, or similar). Make sure they are using state-of-the-art stuff, and not simply wasting their career on maintaining obsolete crapware. Unless there are personality clashes, you should see some team bonding and hopefully more enthusiasm when forging ahead with new stuff.

Finally, consider his everyday routine. E.g. maybe he will save himself a lot of time if somebody helps him clean his domicile? Hiring a cleaning company to pay him a visit every week might not hurt and he might feel extra special as a result (without this costing you too much). There are companies out there that offers their employees perks such as this and others (free cafeteria, free childcare services, limo service, etc) to encourage more loyalty. Depending on how taxation works, maybe it will be cheaper for the company to run its own day care facility rather than force those employees to scurry back and forth to deal with the child logistics (and perhaps pay them extra so that they can cope with this)?

The idea is that menial tasks can be largely eliminated, allowing the employee to work on more meaningful assignments.

  • Indeed, in my 20s, I also was sent to a lot of international training and conferences as they knew i would easily get a job elsewhere. – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 3 '18 at 15:06
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    That is actually a great answer, good one (however I fear the OP is in the USA). – Fattie Oct 4 '18 at 13:16
  • If my manager approached me and offered to hire a cleaning company for me I'd be both offended and creeped out. Worse, it would do absolutely nothing to fix the problems at work. This is terrible advice. – Matthew Read Oct 4 '18 at 16:34
  • @MatthewRead I have edited that section to make the intent of my idea clearer. – 9Rune5 Oct 4 '18 at 19:50
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As the other answers already say: talk to him.

At my first job, I also was in the position that all the experienced people left in a short amount of time. With barely one year of practical experience, I suddenly was the most experienced developer. At the time I didn't feel ready to be the "senior" developer without any sort of mentor to rely on.

So it might not be the problem that the managers don't trust him to take more responsibility. It might be that he himself is not ready for it.

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In addition to what others have said, and you should definitely talk to him to understand his career aspirations and satisfaction first, you can also structure pay in a more helpful way than simply a pay rise. You may want to save this for later rather than just offering it out of the blue.

You could, for example, offer a guaranteed bonus after a certain period of time if he chooses to stay with the company. If your company has any kind of share options / share incentive scheme those may also encourage him to stay.

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    "more helpful" in what way? – Erik Oct 2 '18 at 9:09
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    @Erik sorry, I thought that was clear from the rest of the post. "More helpful" to the OP in his effort to retain this employee, in the way that these structures add additional motivation for the employee to stay with the company than a simple pay rise would. – Phueal Oct 2 '18 at 15:46
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    If I had seen a lot of my coworkers leave recently and was looking myself, I'd have a hard time believing that a promised bonus some time in the future would ever happen. Things that would get me to stay would be immediate incentives, like a raise today, more interesting work/open-ended projects, or extra PTO. – user90809 Oct 2 '18 at 16:07
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    Promises in the future won't work....Been there, did not believe a single word. – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 3 '18 at 12:19
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    "contractual" LOL, In my experience it's contractual right up until the time you are due to receive it. – Buh Buh GoFundMonica Oct 3 '18 at 15:05
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People are leaving for some underlying reason. Whatever it is, I would worry more of trying to fix it - it is probably the very same reason this particular guy will be leaving too.

@Steve answers insinuates also an important point. As a manager, what bullshit you say to me won´t make me more happy, by the contrary, I might feel you are thinking I am dumb. On the other hand, if you do your job as a manager and take the brunt of office politics to leave me time to do my job, I will be more satisfied and productive.

Actions speak louder than words. You must give people what they need, money, training, space to work, flex hours, free them from office bureaucracy and politics, fight their fights for them. That is the most important work of a manager, freeing their subordinates of nonsense, internal politics or (made up) worries, to allow them to focus on their job. -- e.g. doing real stuff. Paying lunchs or freebies are nice for kids, not for grown men.

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After talking to him, giving him more money, and giving him more responsibility the only other things you can do are sweeten the deal.

Try giving him paid lunches or more paid time off. Doing something along those lines will help. Also, if you're in a position to tell the manager to knock their shit off, do so.

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    This raises an important point. As a manager, what bullshit you say to me won´t make me more happy, by the contrary, I might feel you are thinking I am dumb. On the other hand, if you do your job as a manager and take the brunt of office politics to leave me time to do my job... – Rui F Ribeiro Oct 3 '18 at 5:41
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    What does "knock their shit off" mean? – Peter Mortensen Oct 4 '18 at 5:40
  • @PeterMortensen management probably isn't doing it's job right. Telling them that something is wrong and that they should start doing it right is the first step in getting an effective management team together. Given the recent turnover I think it's safe to say that management is problematic. – user53651 Oct 4 '18 at 14:16
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From my standpoint, and as you are managing (or "orchestrating" to take back your word) there is something extremely important you need to find out:

Why is the previous team has been decimated by resignations

If you perform a 'mini' diagnosis on the turnover, you might find out what is the problem and why the employees were resigning.

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Talk to him; people don't just leave. You must find a way to convince him that he can tell you the real reason for wanting to leave (if you reach this point, there's chance for good/honest discussion where both of you can look at his case from different angles), otherwise, you can't.

Note, he also plans out his exit. It's good when you are planning to talk, know about him, things like his religion, interests, family issues, people that might belittle him in the same company (it happens), the relationship he has with the development team members, his personality (quiet, shy, coffee drinker, etc.), motivations, what he is working on is boring/not, etc. Things like that!

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