January 1, 2008

Five Management Strategies to Hire and Retain Great Programmers

Filed under: Programming Professionally — bnsmith @ 3:55 am

And they won’t cost you a dime…

DISCLAIMER: I’m still an underling, and so I haven’t actually had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice. I base my theories on experiences that I’ve had working on various teams over the course of my career, and how these experiences affected my own decisions. Although I’m convinced that the ideas are sound, I can’t offer any proof. Use at your own risk!

1.) Cultivate a Casual Work Environment

I love throwing on jeans and a T-shirt in the morning. It’s not just the convenience though; it’s all part of the uber-geek ego-trip. If you try to make developers wear shirt-and-tie to sit in their cubicle and code, don’t expect to retain anyone besides those that aren’t good enough to get hired anywhere else.

This assertion probably seems a tad extreme, given that all we’re talking about is a useless flap of cloth wrapped around the neck. Still, I think of it this way: managers who enforce a dress code are forcing needless, arbitrary complexity on their developers. Dressing up in a special costume doesn’t make developers more productive or NP-complete problems less difficult. So what’s the point? Even worse, managers who make bad decisions about clothing are equally likely to make bad decisions about technology and architecture, and these decisions would be vastly more painful to a great programmer.

The only possible exception that I can see to this rule would be for organizations with fat, bloated, governmental bureaucracies that force the dress code, but also incredibly cool technologies that a geek can’t play with anywhere else. I think that the best example of this would be NASA. Of course, once commercial space companies really start to take off, this situation won’t last for long.

2.) Let Your Developers Choose Their Tools

Have you just read the most fascinating article/advertisement in your favorite management magazine about the amazing new integrated version control system that will double the productivity of any developer? Stop right there. If you haven’t committed any changes in the last six months, then you are not in a position to make an informed decision. Try to realize this fact, and listen to what your developers tell you.

This doesn’t only apply to version control. The more control that you give your developers, the better.

If you’re hiring Java programmers, then let them develop on a Linux or BSD box instead of Windows, if that’s what they want. Java is multi-platform anyway, right? You might have to tell them to test on Windows extensively, if that’s your primary market, but your programmers would still be grateful to be able to work on the desktop OS of their choice. Perhaps the IT department might not like it, but are you going to let them stop you from building a first rate development team and thus creating fabulously successful software? This important benefit will help you attract and keep more talented programmers than you might otherwise get, and it costs nothing.

3.) Allow Your Developers to Connect with your Clients

I bet this is another controversial suggestion. Do you really want your shabbily-dressed (see point #1), Unix-hippie (see point #2) developers to be talking to your valued clients?

I would say yes.

Think of it like this. Your developers are smart people, and as long as you express your needs, you should be able to trust them to behave properly. If the customer has a particular dress-code, tell your developers what it is, and tell them that they will need to follow it in order to go there. In this case, it isn’t an arbitrary decision. You don’t have any control over your client’s rules, and so your developers won’t resent it.

But would developers actually want to see the clients? I think that most would, as long as you are careful not to take it too far, and make your developers feel like they are first-line tech support. Developers appreciate being able to see how real-life customers use the software, and how it helps to make their lives easier. If you have some people working for you who have never once seen a client-site, spare them a thought and ask them if they would like to tag along and see the sights. If you’re going to be driving over there anyway, why not? This is especially important if the client-site is something that a geek might find interesting.

4.) Offer Benefits Like Flex-Hours and Telecommuting

I don’t use an alarm clock. I wake up in the morning, generally about 8:00 am, roll out of bed, get dressed and go to work. But if I wake up at 8:30 or 9:00, I don’t have to worry about it. Nobody is keeping track of exactly the hours I work, as long as I get things done. If I was forced awake at 7:00 am every morning, I’d probably be an unproductive, coffee-chugging zombie for the first couple hours of each day. Is that really a worthwhile price to pay to maintain the same nice, rigid schedule for everyone?

Why even show up at all? If there are no meetings scheduled and a lot of solitary development to be done, there’s no reason that a developer can’t be equally productive from home. And of course, nothing makes me appreciate telecommuting like waiting at home for the FedEx guy to deliver a new tech toy.

Also keep in mind that telecommuting shouldn’t cost anything to implement — at least for programmers. If we were talking about marketing or sales people, then you would need to buy an expensive VPN appliance to give them access, but for any programmer worth their salt, all they should need is SSH. A little port forwarding magic is all it takes.

5.) Promote Ceaseless Learning and Discovery

Next Monday morning, as your developers arrive at work, hand them each an envelope containing a first-class ticket to Chicago and vouchers for a penthouse suite at the Drake Hotel so that they can attend PyCon 2008. Oh, wait… I promised that these strategies wouldn’t cost you a dime, didn’t I? Well, in that case, try this on for size.

Ask your developers what technologies they’re interested in. Ask them what they’re learning about in their spare time. Ask them how the technological landscape will shift in the next five years. Listen to their answers, and suggest that they each plan a short seminar on their favorite subject, so that they can share it with everyone. Friday lunch is an ideal time for such an activity. If you decide that you might be willing to part with a few dimes for this exercise, then perhaps you could even offer to order pizza for your crew. Who knows? You might even learn something.


Offering a high salary is a good start for finding top talent, but you will eventually run up against the law of diminishing returns. An extra thousand dollars added to the salary likely won’t be as big of a draw as a thousand dollars of well-thought-out perks. And when it comes right down to it, sometimes the best perks in life are free.


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