Engineering Talent Retention

Published  December 1st, 2015

Retaining engineering talent has become an increasingly challenging task for any engineering manager in the Bay Area. Engineers have a lot of power in the current market and, as a result, it’s easy for engineers to leave and find a new position elsewhere. Hiring and onboarding new engineers are time consuming and expensive. A team that can mitigate turnover is a more productive and efficient team.

thredUP has been very fortunate regarding engineering retention. Our largest team, Web Engineering, has twelve engineers. In the past 3.5 years only one person has left in order to pursue a passion project after working with us for over five years. While luck may play a role, much of the credit for our great retention goes to the team. The culture they have built, the thoughtfulness that goes into the hiring process, and an emphasis on peer mentoring has helped keep engineers at thredUP. Even so, retention is still something I have to constantly focus on as an engineering manager.

For me, the first step in retention is identifying the motivating factors for every engineer. Is the engineer someone who loves the company and our mission? Is the engineer motivated by what they do professionally and the projects they work on? Is the engineer primarily motivated by money? These motivators are not mutually exclusive and therefore every engineer should be managed in a way that is tailored to their specific mix of motivators.

Next, I try to develop a mutually beneficial relationship that aligns the company’s objectives with the engineer’s desired career path. At thredUP we call this relationship "professional development", and it has been a big priority for us as a company. It’s the reason why I’m in the position I’m in today and it plays an important role in our ability to retain talent.

As my manager does with me, I meet with my engineers frequently to discuss professional development. To facilitate opportunities for personal and professional growth for engineers while delivering on the company’s objectives requires a thorough understanding of every engineer's desired career path. This is why communication is key to retention because it ensures that the needs of both the engineer and the company are met.

Once I know what kind of opportunities will motivate engineers, we work together to build a roadmap. This step can be a challenging endeavor and it requires thoughtful planning, but thankfully there's a great book, The Alliance, that provides a framework for how to structure these professional development roadmaps.

The Alliance identifies different "tours of duty" an employee/employer can embark on based on the motivators of the employee. For example, an early employee or engineer that identifies personally with the company's mission will be well suited for a "foundational tour". This is a long-term tour focused on improving an employee's ability to provide maximum value for the company.

If an engineer is more motivated by following a desired career path, for example becoming an engineering manager or a technical lead, then they would be more suited to the "transformational tour". In these cases, developing a roadmap is as simple as determining where the engineer is now, where they want to go, and what milestones lie in between. Once you attach timelines to each milestone, the relationship for this tour becomes a transparent series of check-ins discussing where they are at in the current milestone and how I can help them get to the next one.

Of all of the tours listed in The Alliance, the "rotational tour" is the one I use most often. Engineers looking to learn new technologies, solve difficult problems, and deepen their technical skillsets tend to thrive when they’re able to rotate through big projects that expose them to the technical opportunities they’re looking for. The hardest part of this type of tour is aligning projects that serve both the company's objectives and engineer's professional desires. I work very closely with our product team (feature roadmap) and our CTO (technical roadmap) to discover and align these opportunities as early in the process as possible.

Sometimes opportunities for engineers fall into place effortlessly and other times you have to work hard to facilitate the opportunities engineers are looking for. At the end of the day, the more effort and energy you invest in professional development, the more the team will yield in terms of retention, motivation, and job satisfaction.