Balancing creativity & productivity: how to retain your best developers

While there has been a well documented need for more IT and software development skills in South Africa, companies themselves often play a part in either losing – or chasing away – key talent.

Yet few could deny that the world of software development and enterprise IT is a grueling one. The stakes are high, with massive businesses relying on developers to keep systems and processes running smoothly. Think about banks, for example – and the financial fallout involved with a breakdown or interruption of services.

But the need to keep things running smoothly increasingly has to be balanced with ‘disruptive innovation’ – as developers are relied upon to come up with sleeker and faster interfaces and architectures. These innovations need to both charm the end user and reliably deliver the service or product required. And given the furious pace of today’s business environment, all of this has to happen within painfully tight deadlines.

As a result, software development companies have a difficult task. They need to tread a fine line between pushing their staff and delivering work on time, with taking care of employees and being mindful of their limits. This often means managing expectations on the client side.

They’re Also Humans…

Despite the common stereotype that has been assigned to the software developer – the antisocial, geeky human being who doesn’t mind being holed up for 12 hours – these workers need the same things that most other professionals require in their jobs.

They need to be constantly challenged, but having said this, they also need to be given reasonable time frames within which to work. Increasingly, clients demand creative solutions within a space of a few days – and they expect these solutions to work seamlessly. The reality is that creativity needs space – and time – in which to emerge and develop. But if software developers are constantly smothered by unreasonable deadlines and long hours, it is unlikely that they will produce the type of work that they can be proud of – and ultimately be recognised for. Essentially, it is the task of managers within development houses to set their people up to succeed – instead of setting them up to fail.

Meaningful Work: Addressing the Myth

As with other professionals, developers also need to feel that their work matters. This may require giving them the opportunity to undertake independent research and development, or vary the nature of the projects that they are assigned to. It must be noted, however, that the sensational success of tech giants such as Facebook, Snapchat, etc, have led to an overly romanticised view of the world of software and more broadly, IT. So while developers may enter the industry with visions of coding the next groundbreaking app or platform, the reality is that software development is often less exciting – while still critically important. For managers, the challenge is therefore to find ways of allowing staff to see the value and impact of the great work that they do – whether it is keeping a business running or developing life-saving mobile apps.

It’s tough out there…

Given the challenging economic environment, ensuring that the key motivational and hygiene factors are present for development staff is becoming increasingly critical. Local development companies have to compete with U.S. and European companies that can often poach key talent with the promise of higher salaries and exposure to global clients. In addition, companies also need to retain developers at a time when startups have become very attractive and trendy – particularly for young and ambitious software developers.

However, there are factors that are working in favour of established development houses. For one, global companies are starting to view SA as an attractive outsourcing destination. Given the weak Rand, and pools of qualified and talented IT professionals based here, it makes business sense for them to outsource. Local development houses can thus develop long-term partnerships with foreign companies – and secure steady work.

Ultimately, though, despite what the local or international trends may be, development companies will have to become astute at managing the desire to create and innovate – with the business need for efficient output.



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