10 Reasons Your DevOps Talent Will Leave

17/03/2017   Industry insights   Recruitment advice  

There’s apparently a huge skills shortage in the DevOps industry (there’s not, it’s actually a hiring mentality issue, but that’s another blog).

One thing is for certain however, there is a fundamental retention issue. Many companies are struggling to attract top DevOps talent to their business, but all companies are struggling to retain great people.

Once you've completed the arduous search and selection process, that’s where the hard work should begin. Trying to retain great engineers in a high demand industry (and no one is in more demand currently than people who understand DevOps), is incredibly tough and cannot be underestimated.

Here are my 10 reasons why your Engineers may be moving on.

1) You're not using enough cutting edge Technology

A huge percentage of Engineers working within the DevOps industry, do so for a deep lying love of the technology. They have been curiously tinkering with technology since they were old enough to move a mouse. Now incredibly they get paid, mostly very well, for their hobby. There are not too many industries that can genuinely say they are paid for what they love (I certainly wasn’t 'smashing placements' in my pinstripe suit at 6 years old). To retain your top talent, you therefore need to be adopting cutting edge technology, running cutting edge projects and structuring your tech stack in the right fashion.

You need to be satisfying the curiosity to improve, evolve and tinker. Technology moves quickly and you need to identify which technology will both advance your tech stack, as well as keeping your Engineers happy and engaged. If your tech stack isn’t attractive, people will get their head turned by where they can use the new shiny tool in production or companies who are consistently early movers on new technology. If there are no plans in place to adopt anything new, continually evolve and progress the technology, as well as the company potentially falling behind the curve, people within DevOps will move on.

2) You're using too much cutting-edge Technology

On the flip side, adopting new technology, for the sake of adopting new technology and without genuine preparation can also be detrimental. Most high calibre engineers will understand they need to use the right tool for the right job. If someone only wants to use the latest and greatest new tech that comes onto the market every 2 weeks, downing tools on the 'legacy' infrastructure still in production that's just 6 months old, I'd be inclined to suggest that's actually someone you might not want to keep, so let them move on.

To retain the right people you need a mix of new technology combined with existing, rather than following an 'everything under the sun' model. There needs to be a purpose in what they’re doing, rather than just changing the whole direction and using a certain tool because you saw Netflix/Etsy/Another Ltd mention it at a Meetup. New technology is great, but using the right technology and with the right purpose/objective is fundamental.

3) Your company culture is poor

By poor culture, I don't mean you don't have a shiny office with a cliched table tennis table, free beer tap and superhero dress up every last Friday (I have genuinely seen this, and cringe even writing about it). It's because you’re not compelling enough, you're not empowering people enough. You're not giving them the responsibility to genuinely be part of something special.

Some of the best teams I have had the pleasure of working with have worked in the dingiest offices in the worst locations, stuck in the basement with no windows. Yet morale is high because the challenge is great, the team get on, everyone is pushing towards a common goal and the product/service they create is great. Culture is very important and while superficial, aesthetically pleasing offices with free sweets and foosball tables can help, culture needs to be deeper. A fundamental part of DevOps is the culture. If you’re getting this wrong, your staff will walk.

4) You aren't paying enough

An obvious point, however when you consider we're in an industry where people aren't solely motivated by money perhaps it’s not. It’s an industry people didn't just fall into it, they have been playing with technology for free since they were children, therefore money is very rarely a core/sole motivator. People love the technology, the challenge, the excitement of doing the impossible using cutting edge technology. Having said this however, money is a motivating factor to a certain extent for anyone. Everyone has bills to pay, mouths to feed and a mortgage hanging over their head. While it's rare to see someone leave purely because of money, you should always be aware of how the market is moving financially.

It’s simple supply and demand, with a high demand for an intricate skill set and very short supply, this has led to a steep increase in salaries which will continue rising over the next few years within DevOps. If you haven't already, I would suggest doing an internal audit on your current team, what they're worth to you in the current market and what they would cost to replace. If they're way off market value, I would suggest realigning salaries, before they start to get their head turned elsewhere, it's too late and you have to pay £20k more for their replacement who probably isn’t as good.

5) You've hired the wrong person

A fundamental flaw we continually see in the DevOps industry is hiring style. I personally believe this to be one of the biggest causes of bad staff retention, mostly because companies hire for current Tools over Attitude/Character. They hire with a short-term mindset. If you’re hiring for a current required skill set rather than an ability to pick up new technology, desire for a challenge or overall attitude, as soon as the next technology comes along and the Tools you hired for becoming redundant or legacy (which can be quick), you will need to think about how this person will react? Will they be useful to you long-term, or just for a quick fix? My money is if they don’t have the right attitude, they’ll look for a new opportunity.

Companies are obsessed with hiring someone currently doing exactly the same job, for another company. Why not look at someone talented, for whom this will be a step up. Keep them motivated with progression, learning new technology and ways of working. Generally, you’ll receive a significantly higher output over a longer period of time and will improve retention of people you want to keep.

6) You’re not ‘Doing The DevOps’ properly!

So what is DevOps? Well, that could be another 1,000 blogs (and has been). A quick Google search will provide you with the raging online debate about what DevOps should be, how teams should be structured, and even an obsession with what they should be called.

If you have just rebranded your Operations team DevOps and let them use Puppet, you’re probably not working towards a pure DevOps culture, and the people you’ve hired expecting to be a pure DevOp, will leave. If your Dev team are still throwing code over the wall to you and heading to the pub, again you probably haven’t fully embraced DevOps.

Have you gone against calling an additional silo ‘DevOps’ because that is unfashionable and goes against what DevOps is? The problem is, you have still created an additional silo which goes against the purist definition of DevOps. If you’re claiming the team is something it’s not, to either attract individuals you think you need (you may not even need a super duper DevOperative), you’re likely to experience people leaving.

I’m not going to preach about how you should structure your teams, or what good DevOps looks like, there is plenty of additional reading by people far more qualified than me on this - however, it is something to seriously bear in mind.

7) There is a Glass Ceiling

Unfortunately, there are times where there is literally nothing you can do about this and actually, having a positive company staff turnover could be detrimental for the remainder of your team. If your company isn’t going through a growth stage, and people aren’t leaving, then there could be nowhere for your ambitious team members to go.

You’ve hired for Attitude and Character over skill, and now the ambitious engineer you hired is becoming stifled. Perhaps this is the trickiest of the points to overcome in this list. Offer them additional responsibility within the team, let them lead projects, give them decision-making responsibility. It’s a difficult one to manage and sometimes aside from giving them your own job, there might not be much you can do. With a stable current economy and most tech companies growing, thankfully it’s not one that comes into play very often.

8) “We don’t use Agencies”

If you can hire top talent consistently with a direct approach then that’s great. However it's important to bear in mind that if you have the right relationships with the right agencies, that’s one less group to be approaching your staff, for both ethical and professional reasons (yes, 95% of agencies are in fact ethical, regardless of the general LinkedIn rhetoric on the remaining 5%). Other companies are approaching your staff directly, on a regular basis, however, there isn’t much you can do to mitigate that, unfortunately. A good agency can also help retention by being a listening ear when someone they have placed 6/12/24 months ago isn't overly happy. It’s in an agency's best interest for someone they place to stick around for a long time (it’s easier to hire into a stable team than one with high turnover, and additionally provides a good client service helping them grow). They can have candid conversations and be a friendly ear for someone just purely venting.

Unfortunately, in addition to this, you need to consider that “you can be either a client or a resource” i.e. we can either hire for you, or hire from you for our other clients. Although that’s a very bullish way of delivering what used to be actually promoted/encouraged as a sales tactic (I've genuinely heard people say this to try and generate new business), the brutal reality is if you’re not a partner with the best market agencies, there is no reason why they wouldn’t approach your staff for their clients. If you’re covered on the other 9 points on this list, you should be absolutely fine, but if there is 1 out of sync that a good recruiter can exploit they will. Remember, they are paid by their clients to attract the best Engineers in the industry. If you employ some of the best Engineers, the reality is they will be getting approached on a daily basis. This is perhaps a controversial choice of point - and not one everyone may agree with, but in a busy industry like DevOps, it is the case.

9) There is no End Goal

If you’re keeping the lights on plodding away on dull boring BAU without any real challenge, vision or end goal, it might be detrimental to staff retention. You need to answer the question, why are we all here?

There needs to be a compelling reason why people want to come to work every day. Whether that is from a Technical perspective, or from a business perspective. You need to find the angle and motivate people with this. Are you first movers on the latest Orchestration technology? Are you making significant contributions to the Open Source world? Does what you’re doing have an impact on the world or the community? Is your project helping farmers in rural Wales manage their land? Does what you’re doing help advance technology for people with cognitive disorders? Is what you’re working on enabling children in the third world to be educated to a certain level? Is the work you’re doing enabling rich teenagers in Chelsea get quicker delivery of their luxury shoes? Whatever it is, you need to articulate what your end goal is. What are you looking to achieve in the short, medium and long term and how can you get your Engineers to buy into this being a serious and compelling end goal.

10) You're actually not such a good Manager...

The number one reason your DevOps people will leave is because actually deep down you're perhaps not such a great manager. Statistics tell us that one of the main reasons people leave a job in any industry is because of their direct Manager. If you've got a high turnover of staff, I would suggest the first place you should look is at yourself and your management style. It’s a harsh reality, but taking responsibility could actually empower you to become a better manager, and it is also the one thing you have the most control over. Are you actually compelling and empowering people, or are you stifling and frustrating?

If your staff turnover is low (I personally define as people you didn't want to leave, rather than everyone who leaves), chances are you're a competent manager. If it’s high, you could be one of the fundamental reasons why. It’s a tough school, but all is not lost and you can still turn things around, probably quite easily. You don’t need to be anyone's best friend by any means, but you need to set clear structure, visions, processes then try to hire great people and move out of their way as much as possible. Even the best need guidance, a pat on the back, a kick up the arse, clear process, procedure and strategic direction. They need to be compelled into making a difference. I’m not a management coach, but there are never ending improvements you can make to your management style to improve performance and reduce staff turnover.

Creating a fully encompassing list of the reasons someone might want to move on, would be pretty exhaustive, there are unquestionably more reasons why people may move on within the DevOps industry. It’s an incredibly competitive industry, which makes retention incredibly difficult.

In order to retain the talent you’ve worked so hard to hire, you need to ensure that you’re creating a fulfilling, challenging and compelling environment that meets the needs of your engineers. Otherwise, you’ll be constantly working hard to find great talent, not to grow but purely to stand still (or fall behind).

Thanks for reading,Tony Chapman

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