In Good to Great, Jim Collins cites “getting the right people on the bus” as one of the most important aspects of building a great company. He’s right, and this means not only hiring the best possible people but retaining them as well.
I often see hiring and candidate retention discussed separately, but I think it more useful to view them as facets of the same problem. This means every aspect of the developer hiring process should also consider the implications for long-term retention. Good candidates will often have multiple offers on the table and companies must compete with one another for their signature. Success will come down to many factors, but undoubtedly the company that sells itself the most effectively will have an advantage.
It would be tempting to focus predominantly on the prospective candidate’s role. Doing so helps the candidate start to visualise what moving to the company will be like and what they’ll be spending their time on. This approach is effective but creates a problem further down the line. What’s much more important is to sell the candidate on the company’s mission. The role can sometimes change into something unrecognisable. The mission, however, will stay the same.
Companies that focus on selling prospective candidates on the company mission will undoubtedly lose out occasionally, but by hiring staff who are first and foremost behind the company, they are much more likely to retain them through times of uncertainty.
For example, a few years ago I was working at a small early-stage startup where we were still very much searching for product market fit. I hired a Senior Web Developer (we’ll call her Sophie), who I anticipated working on the web front end. Six months later, and after much soul searching, we as a company decided to pivot entirely from being a website to becoming a mobile app. This was a big change for everyone, but especially for Sophie, since her original role no longer made sense.
Sophie had joined the company on the basis of its mission rather than for the specific role, and she agreed that the change in direction made sense. Rather than feel let down by the company, it became an opportunity for personal development, and Sophie transitioned into mobile development. This meant that the company retained a great employee and that Sophie had the opportunity to learn new skills. Six months later Sophie was leading mobile development, and the company had managed a successful pivot.
You might say that this is fine for startups, whose motto is often “work for us and change the world”, but what about larger companies? It is certainly harder to make mission-heavy pitches, but not impossible. Clearly, it helps to have a compelling mission in the first place. For instance, compare this attempt from the Dilbert mission statement generator: “It is our job to continually foster world-class infrastructures as well as to quickly create principle-centered sources to meet our customer’s needs” with Google’s “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Neither says what the company does, but Google’s certainly has greater resonance.
Another approach is to simply postpone choosing a candidate’s specific team until after the candidate has joined. Postponing the team decision can be controversial and may put some candidates off, but it certainly aids selling the company ahead of the role.
As a concrete example, Facebook sends all engineers on a six-week boot camp before the new recruit chooses their eventual team. This means that they join the company as a Software Engineer, but generally won’t choose which team, or even which problem area they will be working on until much later in the process.
Companies that care about retention should start considering it as early as the interview process. The candidate’s role will change over time, so it is vital to sell the candidate principally on the company, not the role. Doing so will put some candidates off, but staff who truly believe in the company’s mission are much more likely to stick around for the long haul.