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Meritocracy: Retaining software developers

Meritocracy -- not salary -- is the key to holding on to your best software developers, according to IT hiring experts.

Hiring and retaining software developers is a tall order. They command high salaries, they want to work with new technologies and as soon as you bring them on board, competitors court them with sweeter deals. So, how do you keep your top software development talent from walking out the door?

Retaining software developers is not about the money. "Your biggest retention risk is a bored developer," said Luke Melia, co-founder of mobile technology startup Yapp Inc. "The thing that drives software developers is picking up new skills and proving themselves on a bigger and bigger scale," he said. "And that has nothing to do with money."

Hiring managers always think salary is the key to retaining software developers, added Johanna Rothman, author of Hiring Geeks that Fit. "But what people really want is responsibility, mastery over their work and some autonomy to do a great job."

A recent TechTarget salary survey of IT professionals supported those views. The main reason (22%) survey respondents reported going elsewhere was a desire to be challenged intellectually. Money did play a part in dissatisfaction, but not as much as you might expect (only 10%).

In this article, experts on hiring crack the code on retaining software developers. They explain what keeps developers on the job and reveal what software developers really mean when they say, "Money doesn't matter."

How do developers measure their meritocracy?

A little known truth outside of software development is that software developers compete in a meritocracy in which they constantly evaluate their worth relative to their peers in this market, said John Shiple, whose company FreelanceCTO helps staff tech startups.

For software developers, worth is never expressed in terms of what they earn, Shiple said. "It's 'who is working on the hardest problem? Who is working with the cool technologies?' There is a meritocracy built in to the developer mindset. They were raised differently." Part of that mindset is that they don't focus on money.

What software developers do focus on is rising in this meritocracy, said Melia, who recently hired the software development team for Yapp. Software developers continually seek intellectual challenges. "If you ask developers to do the same thing they did last year, they won't be satisfied." He said that software developers are "standing on the shoulders of generations of developers" who made significant technology breakthroughs. "And if we are not improving on that, it's almost like we don't exist."

To keep developers engaged, you have to understand that they are internally motivated -- and that motivation is intrinsic, part of who they are, said Rothman. "We want mastery, autonomy and purpose. We want to know that we can master some piece of product or something. We want to know that we are doing something worthwhile."

What's more, like all employees, software developers have a social contract with people at work, not just a financial contract with the organizations they work for, said Rothman. "The social contract is what keeps us going. That's why a good relationship with our managers is key to keeping us at our jobs," she said. But if the work itself is not challenging, the social and relationship aspects of the job are not enough, she said.

Money doesn't matter?

Software developers have a complicated relationship with money, according to Shiple. "They love to say they don't care about money."

That is part of how they see themselves in relationship to their jobs, he said. "But the real reason software developers say they don't care about money is that they make a lot of it," said Shiple.

Rothman agreed. To reach that point where money does not matter, you have to get the salary issue off the table, said Rothman. "If you don't pay [software developers] enough, you are toast."

Software developers understand that salary is a function of their career choice and that enables them to be picky about whom they work for, added Shiple. "They say money doesn't matter. But that's because they come in the door at such high salaries."

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