5 mins

Use these three tips to foster the right environment for your engineering team and lower the rate of attrition.

Back in 2017, I started my first role as the head of engineering at a cybersecurity startup. At the time, there were 50 people working at the company. About half of the company fell into the engineering category, spread across one quality assurance (QA) team and three dev teams. During that time, I learned a very valuable lesson about employee satisfaction and retention.

I wanted to create and onboard a new automation framework to quickly increase our testing coverage to 80% to help build confidence for our new Deceptions product.

As I wasn’t able to hire a new engineer for that task, I had what I thought was a perfect idea. I was going to take one of my top developers and assign them the job. Not only this, but I also decided to grant them the QA team leader title.

Putting such an important project in the hands of a super-strong developer seemed like a promising decision. Not only were they fluent in multiple coding languages and testing methodologies, but they also knew the product inside-out, including how to design and execute a new framework within our stack. 

What happened next made me feel a combination of surprise and frustration.

After just a couple of months, when the job was a third done, the newly promoted QA team lead said they no longer wanted to work on the project. They felt that the project still had a long way to go because we needed to write hundreds of tests to reach 80% coverage. Outside this fact, there wasn’t much else left to do. The framework was nearly done and this was a job that could be easily completed by other QA teammates.

More importantly, they confessed to having issues with their new title and wanted to become an individual contributor again.

I refused. Because I wanted them to complete what they had started. I insisted on seeing them bring the new framework into production, provide the necessary maintenance, and support for at least one whole year. At the time, I was neither empathetic nor open to seeing their exact needs.

They left the company. We lost a talented developer and a core member of our initial founding team who contributed to our positive and excellence-driven culture.

Do not lose your talent

For small to medium sized startups (up to 200 employees), it is critical to retain the first five developers that joined the company. These developers are typically the heavy lifters of the most critical components built into the first few products your company ever had. In most cases, they share the founder’s outlook and have a great deal of influence over any developers that joined the company as it started to expand. 

With this in mind, it is important to build and successfully execute a growth and retention plan for your developers.

Below are some things I have found effective in maintaining high retention rates.

Tip 1: Show care and make periodic touchpoints

  • Make sure to set up frequent 1:1s with your developers. Hear what they have to say and be flexible to accommodate, even if they slightly deviate from your original plans.
  • Make sure you keep them motivated by sharing context and giving praise (a ratio of 5.6:1 is proven to be optimal for keeping high-performing teams).  
  • Make sure to resist the urge to provide negative feedback in these meetings. Constructive criticism should always be given in real-time and not held for 1:1s.

Tip 2: Be proactive and create a plan 

  • Open a one-pager document for each engineer on your team and build a five-element plan for them. Create these plans in a way that’s conducive to optimal execution and follow-up.
  • Try to balance the urge to push these members outside of their comfort zone. If you’re dealing with a member of the team that has been a part of the company since the very beginning, you may find that they tend to be reluctant in straying from their normal routine. From my personal experience, keeping an 80:20 ratio (with 80% of tasks being those that they wish to pursue and 20% those that are required of them) is ideal.
  • Focus on impact on the company but don’t forget to also nurture the individual by providing advice on growth, learning, customer focus, and personal branding. Examples of this may be attending speaking events or writing blogs.

Tip 3: Foster a high-ownership culture where ICs lead large projects without micromanagement

  • The best ideas come from your engineers. If you let them lead, their engagement will rise significantly.
  • Connect the team with product managers to accelerate business understanding and impact. Encourage your engineers to gain more industry context through, perhaps, asking them to join a PM on a field week or meetings with customers.  
  • Avoid the desire to know all the details and micromanage every feature or project. Use tools and status meetings to gather information and steer these projects forward.

Ultimately, it is always important to be flexible, attentive, proactive, and forward-looking. Make sure you are receptive to the specific needs of each individual and their situation to ensure they have a positive future at the company and do what you can to provide them with that path.