Reflections on Engineer Role Moves Within and Across Organisations
So someone has resigned. Read all about it! Suddenly the rumour mill is working overtime as the news of an individual’s impending departure starts to spread through the grapevine like pests hungrily searching for nourishment from this morsel of gossip. Many of us will have conflicting views on this depending on whether we are the recipient of news or the resignee.
I wouldn’t call myself an expert on developers resigning, but I do have a few thoughts on the resignation versus mobility debate. In my 10.6-year tenure, I’ve resigned twice, retracted a resignation once, moved teams twice, been promoted once, and moved roles several more times within teams. I’ve also seen the other side of the coin, being the manager or lead trying to grapple with the resignation fallout. Throughout my career, I’ve always had a gut feeling that it’s time to move on to something else to scratch the unfulfilled itch in my current role. Sadly I’ve not always acted on it as quickly as I should. But even that inactivity has helped me learn and grow.
This rich career tapestry has molded my opinions on whether a hop to another company is always the right call for your career. As I started my latest exciting chapter recently, I share my thoughts on resignations. In this piece, I’ll cover the reasons people, and more specifically engineers, quit; when a move might be a better option for you; and tips for managers on how to handle resignations with grace based on my own experiences on both sides of the table.
News of the World
Through my own recent experience, I’m come to think of each resignation as a tabloid newspaper. I can sense some eye-rolls will appear as I write this, but hear me out!
There are three primary elements of any tabloid newspaper article, at least in the UK where I reside.
- There is a single bold headline that is the deal-breaker for staying within the role. Now it may not be a catchy pun like those used by many tabloid front pages here in the UK. But it’s normally the 10 words or less tipping point that has led this person to decide it’s time to move.
- Those catchy simple headlines are normally prefixed with a more detailed subheading to give a little more information. Here I like to think in resignation terms there may be some smaller niggling things that are not the top reason but have contributed to your rockstar employee wanting to do something different.
- Finally, there is the story itself. The opinion piece that any resignee has on how this bigger picture and smaller elements have manifested into a situation.
The headline and subtle subplot are all relevant to a resignation. As a manager on the receiving side of resignation, if you’re looking for things to fix in your organisation to eliminate further, you should scruitinise not only the sensational headline but the subtle detail in the subplot. It’s also important to look at common themes across multiple resignations across teams and institutions. Through the great resignation of 2021 and early 2022 personal factors can mean there may not be common themes, but certainly, from speaking to friends and colleagues it’s more common that bugbears that have subtly gnawed at us over time have eventually built up, and the personal circumstances become the final push to send you on your way.
She Moves In Her Own Way
Managers and leaders always want to have a simple, one size fits all reason for why people leave. Having been on both sides of the table a few times in my career, I know that is not the case. Thinking back to our tabloid analogy, it would be a pretty boring read if every article had the same headline!
The most common reason people cite as the silver bullet of resignations is that "good people leave bad managers". At one time I strongly believed this to be the case. I’m sad to admit that at one point it was the source of my sudden pandemic burnout-induced rage quit that forced me to search for a new role. But each story normally has a more nuanced subplot. I’m more inclined to believe that good people leave bad cultures, opportunities, or processes, that can spread within teams, departments, or entire organisations through one or many individuals.
I’ve always agreed with Rands’s principle that at some point a person’s shields go down, and they become open to new opportunities. His piece gives a wonderful set of questions that flow through people’s minds when the potential of a change emerges. I won’t cover this point as he does an amazing job doing so. But for engineers, architectures, and managers with an engineering heart, there are a few recent themes I’ve observed that contribute to a person putting their shields down:
- Do I get to work with the technologies and frameworks that I’m interested in? Particularly in heavily regulated sectors where adoption of bleeding-edge tech is considered with an immensely strong aversion for risk concerns, developers may become tired of working on old tech and concerned that they may become stuck and unable to progress in the industry.
- Am I getting enough time to focus on the contributions that I’m passionate about? This can be outside open source contributions or community contributions as well as within the business that you work for.
- Do I feel productive? Are there organisational procedures that I need to follow that I feel impede my ability to get stuff done? Am I struggling with excessively bureaucratic processes? These may also be driven by company culture or political reasons too.
- Do I see a clear career path that fits with where I want to go? For engineers that want to stay technical and are not interested in management or people development, companies must provide tracks for technical progression as well as progression into engineering management and other tracks such as design, testing, and agility.
- Do I as a developer feel respected by the establishment. In non-tech companies such as banks, health, and ecommerce where the main commodity or service is not software, you still want to feel like part of the team and not an afterthought.
- Do the firm values and mission still resonate with me? Have I outgrown these values? Or am I feeling that I am connected to these values, but others are not practicing them in a way that I’m comfortable with?
- Are the testing and technical debt practices treated with the same respect as the development of new user-focused features? Are you able to follow industry best practices in these areas? Speaking to some developers over the years, deprioritisation of these themes produces products that become more difficult to add to and maintain over time, leaving them feeling a lack of pride in the products they build.
- Do they have the flexibility they want to need when it comes to hybrid or remote working? Sure, some people prefer the office, but the adoption of the office-focused ethos that many companies are adopting at the moment doesn’t work for everyone. Some people want to spend portions of their time working while traveling or visiting family. Some like me find the benefits of home or hybrid working make family life more balanced. If you want to maintain a diverse and talented workforce mandating office attendance in a post-COVID era may put you at a disadvantage for recruiting them compared to more flexible firms.
- Yes, salary and perks are also a factor too. Let’s be honest here! Of course, this list is not exhaustive. I’m sure you’re thinking of many other factors based on your career path to date. But any one of these can open up the technical mind to considering a change.
Time to Move On(?)
When considering a move it’s often the case that we immediately jump to moving to another institution. However, evaluating the potential for an intra-company option might be a good option depending on the reasons you have for leaving. I remember seeing Carla Harris speak a few years ago walking through some of her pearls of wisdom. The one pearl that I still remember vividly was when she discussed the seat versus the house. The seat in this case refers to the role and high-level duties that you perform each day. The house is the institution in which you are working. She implores us to consider in times of career struggle if it is the seat or the house that is the cause of our discontent.
This advice has steered me well for a few years. I stayed in the same firm for 10.6 years and moved seats several times. It was only when I eventually realised that I wanted to take a different direction that wasn’t compatible with the house, that I ended up resigning. To continue the analogy, I could have stayed and worked to remodel the house, aka change the problems. But another lesson I’ve learned from The Liberators Network is that sometimes it’s worth thinking about if you think the fight to change in some situations is worth your time. Beliefs or opinions that are strongly embedded in organisations can be very difficult to change, even if people agree that they should not be there. In the end, if you will exert significant effort and time to rectify the problem that you don’t think is worthy of your time or impacts your personal timelines, it might be best to find another house that can be a home to these ideals and values.
A (Person) Worth Fighting For?
I’ve seen many engineering managers disagree on whether it’s worth trying to negotiate to keep someone. This applies to moves out of the organisation, as well as internal mobility moves to other teams. I think there are good and bad ways to approach it. Sadly I’ve handled it badly and well for different individuals over the years (apologies to those in the former camp). But in my experiences on both sides of the table, and experiences with amazing and not-so-amazing managers handling my cases, I’m starting to build a blueprint of how the best resignations are handled. Here’s how I think it should go.
You should always start by saying congratulations. Acknowledge their good news. This is the true distinction between good and bad managers. A bad manager takes it personally. Most managers immediately go into problem-solving mode, ask a myriad of questions and propose tons of solutions to try to fix the problem. A good manager acknowledges this is good news for the resignee and expresses happiness for them.
Next, ask them questions about the new role, and really listen to the answers. Find out what is exciting about this new adventure. How does this engagement fit in with their wider career goals? This moment is about the person resigning. It’s easy to jump ahead and think about the hurt you may feel that someone is leaving your team, or how this person leaving impacts how others see you as a manager. You need to be humble and leave your ego at the door. It’s not about you!
Discuss why these elements are not present in their current role. Especially if you have been working with this person to identify ways to expose them to these opportunities already. It may be a question of timing or personal circumstances that mean the timing to jump is now.
As uncomfortable as it may be, you should discuss compensation and perks offered in their new role. Amid the great resignation, offers are high. Particularly for long-tenured individuals who have not hopped around a lot, there may be a significant jump. Does this help them with personal aspirations? Can you counter? If you are thinking about discussing a counteroffer with management you should also consider carefully if you should as well.
Ask them if they want to be kept or fought for. This is important as we normally miss this and immediately escalate to keep people, particularly rockstars that you may want to retain. If someone truly has their heart set on leaving, you should respect this decision and support them in their transition. Throwing directors and senior folks at them to convince them to stay can sour the company’s relationship with that individual and make them feel uncomfortable. Not everyone wants to be fought for.
It’s Your Move
The Great Resignation has meant it has been an employee rather than employer market. In these times companies need the realise that retention of good people should be of equal, if not greater importance than attraction. Larry Fink’s CEO letter hammered home for me that managers, not just CEOs, should be mindful of the various issues facing their people and be thoughtful in how they engage with individuals.
In addition to upending our relationship with where we physically work, the pandemic also shone a light on issues like racial equity, childcare, and mental health – and revealed the gap between generational expectations at work. These themes are now center stage for CEOs, who must be thoughtful about how they use their voice and connect on social issues important to their employees. Those who show humility and stay grounded in their purpose are more likely to build the kind of bond that endures the span of someone’s career.
Considering this sentiment, even after the resignation, it’s worth keeping in touch after they leave, and leaving the door open for strong people that you enjoyed working with. Leaving for a new company is always a step into the unknown. Although it might be rare, people may want to come back. I don’t have any experience of this, so I suggest reading Helen Scott’s amazing piece on her experience going back to JetBrains which covers this situation well. I agree with her that probation periods are an opportunity not only for employers to evaluate if you are a good fit for the organisation, but also if this institution is a good fit for you and your aspirations.
Moving companies can be scary. I was at the same establishment for 10.6 years, and it was my first grown-up job after university as well. So of course I’ve been feeling a mixture of excitement and terror. I’m loving the change and challenge a couple of months in. I’ve also been fortunate to connect with old colleagues and community friends at Devoxx UK 2022 as well, which was amazing too. If you’re currently thinking about staying or going it can be an agonising decision. You may be worried about the timing, what will happen if it doesn’t work out, scary thoughts about being found out as the imposter, or even if the perks will leave you and your family at a disadvantage. The best advice I’ve received is not to overthink it. I’m now embracing that sentiment and enjoying the ride!
Thanks for reading! Do get in touch if you would like to chat about my moving experiences, or discuss your own. For those who now have The Clash stuck in their head, apologies and enjoy!