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Turnover: “It’s not me, it’s you”

Episode 28

​Turnover is a huge problem in our industry. There are many reasons people choose to leave their jobs and in this episode of Programming Leadership, Marcus dissects the top reasons software professional decide to seek other employment and ways to prevent future turnover from occurring.



Show Notes

  • Technology and software have the highest turnover rate of all industries
  • Managers can affect turnover
  • Reasons why people leave
    • Lack of opportunity for advancement
    • Unsatisfied with leadership of senior management
    • Unsatisfied with work environment and culture
    • Want more challenging work
    • Want to make more money
    • Unsatisfied with the rewards and recognition for contributions
  • Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture by Kim S. Cameron and Robert E. Quinn



Announcer:  Welcome to the Programming Leadership podcast where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high-performing software teams.

Marcus:  Hey, welcome to the Programming Leadership podcast. I’m Marcus. Let’s start off real quick and I just want to ask, if you haven’t done so yet and you enjoy the show, would you subscribe on iTunes and leave us a review? It doesn’t have to be iTunes, Google Play works too or wherever your fine podcasts are found, but that gives me feedback about your enjoyment, what you think about this. Leave a comment, that really makes my day. This is truly a labor of love for me.

Marcus:  Today, I want to talk about turnover. Do people quit where you work? Well, of course they do. In fact, LinkedIn’s 2017 survey about why people quit actually rank, and we’ll include this in the show notes, rank technology and software as having the highest turnover rate of all industries. That’s right. Higher than retail and consumer products on aggregate. Okay? And yeah, like some of them restaurants, as an individual part of retail, were a little higher, but 13.2% was the turnover rate in 2017 for software developers.

Marcus:  And if we break that down a little bit, computer games are at 15 and a half percent, internet work was at 14.9, and computer software was 13.3. I know this is killing you. Okay I know that you are suffering from this high turnover. Now, a lot of you might be sitting here listening thinking, “Well Marcus, there’s nothing we can do. That’s just how it is,” and that is not true. There is something you can do and today we’re going to dive into it.

Marcus:  All right, so in this survey, again it’s in the show notes, I want to walk through each of the six reasons why people leave and I want to tell you how you as a manager can absolutely affect that. And I think this is so important because when people leave, it’s frustrating, demoralizing. We get phrases like, ya know, “It’s like rats off a sinking ship,” and when one person leaves, I don’t have to tell you not only does it screw up all your schedules, everybody else starts going, “Oh, Oh, John left. Should I leave? Where’d John go? Is it better over there?” And you start to get the grass is always greener comparison.

Marcus:  So let’s just walk through this real quick. So first, this is the number one reason that software people, that professionals, left their job. Ready? 45% stated they were concerned about the lack of opportunities for advancement. Now, if we were really cynical and we imagined that our companies were giant, enormous companies where the only way to get promoted is for somebody to die, you as a manager might say, “There’s nothing I can do about that.” But I’m going to say that’s probably not the case where you work. If you imagine the people on your team and you think about this, somebody who wants an opportunity for advancement, I would challenge you by saying, what are you doing to help them get there? Do you know where they want to go? Are you giving them the formal training to prepare them to take that step? Are you looking for projects? Are you looking for opportunities of real work, whether or not you give them the title right away, opportunities to advance their skills?

Marcus:  For example, do they help you hire? Do they help you screen resumes? Do they listen in and help conduct interviews? Those are very important management tasks. Do they analyze problems in the system? Not the software system all the time, but how about the human system? Do you bring them in and say, “You know what, we’re not going fast enough,” if that’s a problem. Or, “Our quality is very spotty,” or, “Our velocity is thrashing up and down, like it’s oscillating.” Do you give them the opportunity to look at the problems that the organization has that you as the manager are always wrestling with?

Marcus:  See, I really believe that yes, people want to advance formally and they want to make more money, but there’s an undercurrent here and that is they want to prepare for advancement. Okay? They want to know that they are getting ready to move up and that you are helping them build practical skills to do that. I think as managers we have tremendous control in this one. Even if you might say, “Well I can’t promote someone,” there’s so much you can do.

Marcus:  Look at your own job. Do a quick inventory of the difference between your job and their job and start to imagine, “How can I expose them to how things work on my side of the curtain? How can they help me with budgeting, with estimation, with planning? How can they help me with deployments?” You know at Jeld-Wen, and if you’re a listener of the show you know I worked there for 14 years, one of the first opportunities I got to advance, and not to formerly advance but to understand what team leaders do, was to start to be very involved with deployments. And then I start to, I started to get to run all the support for deployments. And then I got to be the person who actually deployed while my boss sat there next to me, I got to push the buttons. And then I got to do deployments all by myself.

Marcus:  Now you might say, “Well, deployments take 15 minutes these days.” Yeah, that’s true. We did them quarterly and they took a whole day. You probably have some things at your work that you don’t do as often as maybe you’d like to, but that take a long time and have a lot of risk, and that’s exactly, for us, an example of what a deployment was. There was a lot of risk. And so I saw that me preparing to do that was my boss’s way of saying, “If you ever step into my role, you’ll need to know how to do this.” That is the mindset to give someone opportunities for advancement.

Marcus:  All right. The second reason why people left was they were unsatisfied with the leadership of senior management. Whew. Now, if you’re not a senior manager, you might be listening, thinking, “I’m glad that’s not me.” It doesn’t take too much squinting and sideways looking at this stat though to say maybe if this were like a chart, like if the person who took this survey wasn’t just typing it in, if they were actually, and I think they were just checking a list- clicking on a list in a poll, the idea here is they’re unsatisfied with the leadership and that probably includes you. And that, to me, means you haven’t built enough connection with them. It also means that your boss has not built enough connection with them. And it may mean that the executives in the company at this place don’t understand why connecting with their people is valuable. And by the way, their people is of course every person.

Marcus:  So this is where leader-member exchange theory and participatory leadership and relational leadership really come into play. This one is a golden example because we are loyal to people, not to companies. I think that we’ve all gotten past the idea that we don’t work for a railroad and the company that’s the railroad or the coal mine or whatever, the big company, will no longer be loyal to us. Okay? Maybe when my dad worked for a big company, he got a gold watch when he retired, maybe he felt like the company was loyal. But the truth is is that I don’t think so, and I think today it’s even more so. We are loyal to people. Your people want to be loyal to you. They are, in fact I think, literally begging for you to create those relationships with them such that they say, “Finally a boss that cares, a boss that asks about me, a boss that brings me close and who cares about me and gives me these opportunities. A boss I can trust and a boss worth my loyalty.” I think that’s what they’re looking for.

Marcus:  Now, the third point here, the third reason why professionals left their jobs, was they were unsatisfied with the work environment and culture. As you know, that is exactly in the bullseye of our work as managers and leaders. In fact, my favorite definition of leadership is, “Creating an environment where everyone can fully participate in solving the hardest problems at hand.” And that’s out of Gerry Weinberg’s book Becoming a Technical Leader, and it’s also reiterated on pages of people like Don Gray and Esther Derby and Johanna Rothman. You see, those people and I and Gerry did recognize that the environment has an enormous impact on people, and you as the manager are responsible at least somewhat for creating the environment people work in. You’re not all powerful, but the environment, if you’re not aware of it, if you’re not aware of their frustrations with it, if you’re not aware of the culture that’s really going on there, I think that, I think it’s time for you to kind of wake up and for you to start asking, “How can I find out about the environment? How can I find out what the culture is here?”

Marcus:  You could do something like the Competing Values Framework, the OCAI, I believe it is, framework. Kim Cameron’s work on positive leadership offers an … There’s a wonderful book called Diagnosing and, I’ll put the book in the show notes, Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture, I believe. You can just start to ask people, “What’s the environment like here? What gets in the way? What helps you do your work? What inhibits it? What’s the culture here really like? Not the culture on the wall, but how does the amount of workload here, how does the pace, how does the time pressure and the stress affect the culture? How do we really treat one another? How do we feel treated by management? How do we talk about and treat our customers? How do we treat our code base?”

Marcus:  All of this is just parts of culture because culture is generally how a group of people act and then the shared values and norms they carry. It’s not the sign on the wall that says, “We strive for excellence.” Or, “Hang on, it’s almost Friday.” Those are really just aspirational things. Culture is what’s actually happening and how people actually treat one another. As a friend of mine once told me, “It’s not so much what you preach, it’s what you tolerate,” and so if you look around and you’re wondering how things are going in that environment, ask yourself, “What am I tolerating? What is my culture tolerating? What are other people tolerating? Are we tolerating bosses that are unrealistic? Are we tolerating users that have an insatiable appetite for more? Are we tolerating internal people that are making things harder rather than easier, people that we just wish would quit, because frankly the idea of coming into an office with them sounds so toxic we are just seriously considering leaving ourselves.”

Marcus:  Number four, the survey of over 10,000 people who changed jobs, left because they wanted more challenging work. Wow. That is powerful for me. I was just talking with a CTO that was so frustrated. He said, “My team is almost always deadlocked. My team feels like we just, there’s like a log jam, we can’t get anything through. We miss our deadlines, we miss our sprint commitments. We do milestone planning for you know a quarter and we come in and we’ve only gotten half of the stuff done. We’re always playing catch up. It seems like we are pulling our hair out and the product people are blaming us and we’re blaming them and the executives are blaming everyone else.” And I asked him this one question. I said, “Do you think if you asked the people at the very bottom of your organization, the programmers and testers, if they were fully utilized, what do you think they would say?”

Marcus:  And he just looked at me and he says, “I know they’d say they weren’t because they come and ask me, ‘What should I work on? I don’t have enough right now.’ And I said, ‘How can it be that you want so much more, that there’s so much stress in one part of the system that we can’t get anything moving, and another part of the system at the individual contributor layer where people are saying, ‘I need more challenge. I need more to do. I need more meaningful work.'”

Marcus:  They were not complaining because they were sick of writing CSS. They were complaining because they said, “The work we have is like picking up the crumbs. We know there’s big problems here. We hear about it. There’s constant complaints. We know we need to make radical changes in our system. And yet day to day I feel like I can only sort of touch the very edges of this problem.” And so, “I want more challenging work,” oftentimes really means, “I just can’t get traction to do the work that’s really valuable.”

Marcus:  And I think as leaders, it’s our job to connect our peoples’ work with value and to make sure that every minute of their day, they have valuable work. And that when they don’t, they have a place to come and talk to us and help us to see that we need to advocate for getting them valuable work. And that we have to work to make sure that that system with the great ideas that product has, which comes from the great ideas that users have, flows all the way through the system such that your junior programmer can be extremely excited by the challenging work to accomplish great things in your organization, and that all the other programmers follow suit, and QA and UX and all the wonderful people you have working there.

Marcus:  There’s a phrase amongst people who go to church and are church leaders that says, “If you don’t use him, you’ll lose him.” And the idea is when you have a volunteer work force, unless you put them to work, they’re going to walk out the door and find someplace to go invest themselves. And even though my guess is you’re paying all of your people and it’s not a volunteer workforce, the fact is if you don’t use them, you’ll lose them, and they’ll go someplace where the work is more challenging, environment and culture allows them to do that work, and they have leadership and management that supports them and they trust. And finally going all the way back to the first one, that somebody is there looking out for their advancement and helping them build real world skills.

Marcus:  I want to take just a moment and thank my sponsor, Gitprime. Gitprime has sponsored the show, not just because they’re fantastic people, but because they really believe that leadership in engineering is about people, it’s about conversations, and Gitprime is a platform that allows you to have better conversations with people. Yes, it has lots of other benefits. You can probably plan better, you can see metrics about individual performance, but let’s just take that one idea about individual performance. Whenever I talk with a Gitprime user, and by the way lots of my clients are Gitprime users, they always tell me how surprised they were at what was really happening on the team. See, it’s really easy for you as a manager to observe, generally, how people are working. You can look at PRs, you can look at who’s assigned what tickets.

Marcus:  You as the CLM, the software engineering manager, you get a notion for what people are doing, but there’s always these beautiful surprises about who is really performing well and who’s secretly struggling, about who’s the person that’s saving everybody’s bacon through fixing a lot of stuff behind the scenes, and who is absolutely doing all the PRs. This kind of data lets you move from looking at people as just, “Well, they’re all engineers and they’re all kind of doing engineering work,” to seeing exactly where each one of them is strong and has opportunities to grow. And that’s why I love this tool so much. I believe that new and surprising conversations come out of data, that when you can sit down with somebody and start to understand and intuit why things are happening, you’re going to create even better quality of exchanges.

Marcus:  And by the way, you know here on this show we about the fact that leadership is what keeps people connected to their work and prevents turnover and keeps them motivated. It’s about the relationship. I like to say the Gitprime not only lets you build better software, it lets you build a better relationship with your team members. Start a free trial today at

Marcus:  All right, we’re almost done. The fifth item on the list here is one you might say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about this. This is the old tried and true. Why’d they quit? They wanted to make more money.” That’s right. “I was unsatisfied with the compensation and benefits,” comes in at 34% on this particular survey and you might say, “There’s nothing I can do about that, my hands are tied,” but I would question that. As a manager at Jeld-Wen, as an owner of a company, as a manager at other places, I had authority to write letters of recommendation to my boss, memos if you would be, proposing people get paid more. I had the responsibility to understand when people were getting job offers from different companies and what competitive pay actually was in my area and for the kind of work that we did. It was my responsibility to understand how matters of compensation and benefits impacted my team.

Marcus:  You might know from our talk about motivation and Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory of Motivation, that compensation is not a job satisfier, but it is a job dissatisfier. And if you look up Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory of Motivation, compensation is considered a hygiene factor, which means it falls onto the side of if it’s more than you need, great, but you’re not going to get a lot more motivation out of it. But if it’s less than you need, careful, because people are going to start to have the perception that they’re not very appreciated and it doesn’t hit the mark for the things they need to do in life and so they’ll start looking for something else. You as a manager are the first line of defense to be making sure that your people are being properly compensated.

Marcus:  All right, last one here. Why do professionals leave their jobs? They say, “I was unsatisfied with the rewards and recognition for my contributions.” That might sound like pay. It did to me at first until I dove in a little bit more. Let’s take out the word rewards. Well, let’s imagine that rewards come in many different ways. What about, “I was unsatisfied with recognition.” How much recognition do your people get when they do a good job? When they bring new ideas? If you’re recognizing them, that’s fantastic. I’m glad. I want you to recognize them. Does your boss know? Are you writing letters that could go in their file. Are you doing scorecards with the end customers where you get quotes about the work that they did? Are you ensuring that your team is receiving the kind of exposure to management through the most boring fundamental things like customer scorecards and status reports and quarterly updates? Whatever it is, it is your job to publicize the good work that your team is doing and that goes all the way down to an individual team member level.

Marcus:  The people on your team are doing good work, it’s when it gets passed over, when nobody thanks them for working the weekend, when you don’t show up with pizza and soda on a Friday night when they’re there late, when you don’t say, “You know what? Take Monday off. I can tell you worked hard this weekend.” When the boss really thinks, “You know what? Those people down there, the programmers, eh they’re not really pulling their weight.” When the boss starts to get frustrated, instead of feeling thankful, that’s when I think people start to leave.

Marcus:  And by the way, I’ll just own it. I mean, as a boss and I own my own company, the farther away I got from programming, the dimmer the struggles of software development were for me, and the dimmer the struggles became, the less I remembered how often I’d forgotten a semi-colon, how often I’d miswritten a query, deployed a wrong package, whatever, it’s hard work, and the farther we get, the more likely I was, and I’m sure this wouldn’t happen to anybody else, but the more likely I was to positively remember my own performance as a software engineer and overestimate my own abilities.

Marcus:  In fact, I was just talking to somebody the other day and they said the boss at their company said, “Hey, I used to code in Dreamweaver. I know this stuff’s not that hard.” Well, you might imagine the world of Dreamweaver and Cold Fusion and Perl PHP-CGI scripts have far been outpaced with the complexities of ECMAScript and React and trans piling from ES6 to, you know, I don’t even know all the phrases. All I know is it’s very easy to sort of take the stance that, “It wasn’t that hard when I did it and those people are just making it too hard.”

Marcus:  I got to say, that frame of mind led to some pretty negative comments that I made about people and about the teams that were below me. And that especially came out when I was under pressure and frustrated and my customer was yelling at me and it was just so much easier to imagine that back in the day when I did it, we did a great job, but these people today aren’t doing it … Well, like they’re just making it too hard. They’re over-complicating things. Can you hear the dissatisfaction in those statements? Can you imagine that if somebody heard that, they might not feel recognized for their contributions? It might be they might say, “Well, that guy’s just a clueless boss,” or, “That gal used to do things and things are a lot different now.” But at the end of the day, if we just consider our people the nerds and we don’t really respect and understand the work that they do and we don’t really value them in every situation, to me it’s about mutual respect and we should always be able to go to people and say, “Thank you.”

Marcus:  My boss at Jeld-Wen, a wonderful guy named Bren, and I remember this distinctly because he was the first boss I ever had that did it, he would come around, probably about three times a week and he would visit every cubicle, yeah, we were in cubicles, and he would say, “Thanks for all your hard work today, Marcus.” And at first I was like, “Oh, what did I do?” And he’s like, “I don’t know, but you were here all day. You were working hard. I saw you. Thank you for that.” And at first I was just kind of weirded out because I thought, “This has never happened. In all my years of working, no one has ever said thank you for showing up and working hard,” and then he did it again the next week.

Marcus:  And I started to realize that he really meant it and he was taking that extra time to show appreciation, recognition, that I had come in, worked hard, and that we were moving forward. Even if that day didn’t feel to me like there was anything to be thankful for, he had that attitude of gratitude. And I took that up with my people. That is a practice that I used with my team members when they worked for me and I found it to be very positive and beneficial.

Marcus:  Hey, thank you so much for listening today. I want to just wrap this up by saying that I think all six of these elements are things that you have levers to control. As Human Systems Dynamics reminds me, we need to look for the levers that are within reach. You may not be able to change everything, but there is, in each one of these six, a lever within reach that you could pull or push or nudge to make a difference in these areas for the people on your team. And if I were you, I would start talking to your team members about what do they perceive. Just take this one simple little bit of data, sit down with them and say, “Can you believe this? Look at this. Isn’t this interesting and surprising and yet I’ll bet people are leaving our organization because of it. Which ones do you think impact you?”

Marcus:  Hmm. I wonder what you’d hear. I wonder what kind of new possibilities would happen if you change the exchange of interaction and you started talking about why people leave their jobs, and you can both look at it from the same external perspective as though it’s as a third thing, and maybe create safety to talk about something that’s really hard to talk about.

Marcus:  Thanks for listening in on the show. Again, please leave us a review, share this with your friends, and I look forward to seeing you next time on the podcast.

Announcer:  Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at, and on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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