Knowledge Management and Employee Turnover

Quick Summary - Knowledge management is a major challenge when software developers tend to change jobs every two years. How can you better retain your top developers? What can you do if one of your main knowledge keepers decides to find another job?

Knowledge Management and Employee Turnover |

The top two reasons why software developers leave a company involve career advancement opportunities along with their pay and benefits package. Others leave because they don’t fit in, over management issues, or because they want more flexibility.

What if a mission-essential team member leaves your team?

Let’s tackle this straight away. Few things are more disruptive than when someone leaves the team abruptly, without notice. The thing is, that can happen at any time. Not to be morbid, but accidents happen and health problems can hit suddenly. Contingency planning, like disaster recovery planning, is important for every business. But, what do you do when a key knowledge holder quits before you’ve had time to put a contingency plan in place?

Unfortunately, this is a worst-case scenario and your options are limited. Evaluate which of your other team members is best qualified to and can fill the vacancy. See if they will. It’s best to give them the option and a suitable reward (compensation). Diligent developers will jump at the chance to prove themselves. But some may not be ready for it – so the risk is that pressuring them will lead them to quit, too.

If there’s no one else on your team who can fill the role, you need to hire a replacement. Bear in mind, this can take a lot of time. It involves a significant opportunity-cost, especially if it’s left to the startup founder to manage the hiring process. The best option for startups is to work with an IT staffing agency and their talented, vetted pools of highly-skilled software developers and veteran IT specialists. Choosing an IT staffing agency will require some effort, but will give you a partner to help with all of your staffing needs.

Project requirements and data recovery

Beyond this, keep all of the documentation the former developer produced – especially the software project requirements. Note that it’s frowned upon legally to go through an employee’s email. But, companies retain the right to access employee work emails if there is a valid business reason to do so. Recovering project-related information and instructions, especially from someone who has left the company, certainly qualifies. Also, check with your remaining team members to see if the developer shared any notes or details they think you should be aware of.

There’s no doubt that losing a key knowledge-holder or mission-essential team member is a disruption. These efforts will get you back and track to the extent possible.

Additional efforts for employees giving notice of leaving

It’s a professional best practice and customary for employees to provide advance notice that they intend to leave a company. When they do, you’ll be in much better shape. Immediately determine, as above, if there’s someone on your team able and willing to take their place. Your best bet is to use the remaining time or at least two weeks for a complete handover of the project. The outgoing developer needs to provide training, documentation, and help to identify additional resources to assist their replacement.

A lot of companies leave it at that, but there’s another option. See if the outgoing developer would be willing to serve as a consultant or part-time specialist for your team. Time requirements can be minimal, as little as 1-8 hours a week. If you can work out an agreement, the disruption will be minimal.

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Critical retention efforts

Ultimately, the best practice is to do what you can to minimize turnover and the impact of turnover. While some companies go all-out with their retention efforts, there are some critical things to focus on.

Company vision

Your company vision says a lot about what your team members can look forward to if they stick around. A company without a vision is at best a placeholder in a dedicated developer’s resume. The company vision needs something for people to “buy” into – whether a groundfloor opportunity in The Next Big Thing, being the premiere (insert niche) specialist in a specific region, or being a growth-minded family owned or community-oriented business. No vision for growth implies no promotions and small raises. Everything else about your company must be consistent with your company vision so it needs to be honest and representative of your visible efforts.

Continued education programs

New technologies constantly enter the market. It only makes sense for software developers to be constantly engaged in expanding their skill sets. This applies to two directions – the technical skills your company needs more of now and will need tomorrow. LinkedIn indicates 94% of employees will remain with a company longer if it provides continued education opportunities.

This warrants investing in your development team by giving them the incentive and the practical means to continue developing their skills. It’s in the developers best interest to continuously expand their skills. But, it can be tough with a full-time job plus home and family responsibilities.

However, you do have a few options for setting up a continued education program. Many companies offer tuition assistance for college and online courses. Online options include sites like EdX, LinkedIn Skillshare, Udemy, MIT OpenCourseWare, and the Open Education Consortium. Some companies also offer in-house training and mentorship programs. If you are looking to ramp up fast on skills that your team doesn’t already possess, consider outsourcing with a developer to create a training program, train your team, and provide project oversight.

Two notes apply to continued education programs. First, it’s a good idea to limit participation until after the six-month anniversary of new hires (when turnover is highest). Second, most companies include a clause in their contract obligating beneficiaries of paid courses to a term of employment. If they separate early, you are entitled to be reimbursed for a portion of the costs Some companies offer training, but don’t provide official certification – making it sort of proprietary as other companies may be reluctant to recognize the training per their own requirements.


Career path program

It’s almost standard for developers to change jobs about every two years. Doing so typically nets a 10-20% pay raise, a more senior job title, and more challenging projects. By heeding this standard practice, you can structure a career path program around your continued education program to incentivize keeping your top talent around longer. A career path shines a light on available paths forward within a company based on current and projected needs (vision).

Simple examples:

  • Test Technician > Junior Developer > Developer > Senior Developer > Engineer
  • Engineer > Engineering Manager or ML/AI Specialist or Data Scientist

These titles can extend to more specialized positions or into senior and C-level management.

You have several options with salaries and compensation to help retain team members.

  • Salaries based on job title or as negotiated individually.
  • Annual or periodic raises based on time with the company.
  • Benefits packages – from 401(k) and stock options to club memberships.
  • Employee referral incentives – your team members can be your best recruiters.

Just as some companies offer a sign-up bonus, incorporate a schedule of incremental tenure bonuses. The military does this by offering reenlistment bonuses for those with special skills to commit to another 2-4 years.

Turnover Triggers and Calendar Tracking

Managers will find it useful to keep an employee calendar to track vacation time, performance reviews, birthdays, and company anniversary dates. Being aware of and observing these dates helps to develop trust with your team members. Trust plays an important role in retention.

A second-year company anniversary is a major turnover landmark. Other triggers that may indicate a team member is at risk of leaving include:

  • Announcements of layoffs or acquisition by another company saying there’ll be layoffs
  • Other friends or coworkers have recently left
  • They didn’t get a recent promotion or expected raise
  • They just finished a degree or important certification
  • Major life events – deaths in the family, recently married or additions to the family
  • Sudden and sustained decreases in production and quality of work

The more team members trust you and feel they can talk openly with you, the more likely they are to tell you about their plans in advance.

Retention with In-House, Distributed and Augmented Teams

Retention is critical with teams of all types, but it’s most acute when you have in-house teams that must work on-site. Having actual employees is almost always more expensive than outsourcing. The cost and quality of developers carries over when hiring replacements from a local, often limited, talent pool. Having a vision ahead and a clear cut path to advancing skills, job, and compensation will go a long way to keeping and expanding your top talent.

By outsourcing with an IT staffing agency, you have a partner to manage retention efforts and provide replacements faster drawing from a larger talent pool. Most companies don’t apply their retention programs for outsourced personnel. Staffing services are very much a part of the “on-demand market” where you only pay for what you need.

But, nearly all staffing services provide an option for you to directly hire developers. It’s a good practice. Amazon, for example, sources almost all of its seasonal new hires through temporary staffing agencies. Those who last the season and performed in the top 10% have historically been offered full-time job opportunities. Leastwise, when you find someone who fits your team well, who is productive, and happy to learn and take on new challenges – they’re worth keeping.


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