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Go with the flow—Retention and turnover

 Review season is here. As entertaining as that can be for managers and employees alike, it’s just a primer for what follows: musical product groups. The music starts when review numbers are released. A whole bunch of engineers get up out of their office chairs and try to find an available chair in a different group. The music stops when all the interesting positions get filled. The same game gets played at the end of product cycles, but product cycles aren’t quite as predictable (different problem).

It’s tough on the folks left without chairs. Often they get alienated from their current teams for trying to jump ship. Tough luck? I don’t think so. Managers should encourage their people to pursue new opportunities, including people they like. Anything less is selfish, stupid, and shortsighted, not to mention destructive, delusional, and deplorable. When managers make business decisions that put their interests ahead of Microsoft’s, they’ve clearly stopped working for Microsoft. I think Microsoft should stop paying them.

Don’t tell me, “Oh, but the project depends on this person. It’s necessary for me to alienate him and stifle his personal development. It’s for the good of the company.” That’s a crock-load of dung. What you’re trying to tell me is that you didn’t plan for turnover, and now that it’s come, you want to avoid all the work to recover, recruit, re-educate, and reassign people. In other words, you’re brain dead and lazy, but you’re making up for it by being selfish and self-serving. Only ignorant nimrods are unprepared for turnover.

Eric Aside

Okay, I’ve held back till Chapter 9, but I have to say it, I love re-reading these columns. Writing them has always been a cathartic experience. Reviewing them for this book has allowed me to relive the satisfaction of unmitigated rage directed at behavior I truly despise. It’s nice in its own twisted way.

I’ll just walk the earth

Good managers should expect around 10% turnover a year. Bad managers should expect more, but they probably don’t recognize it, and I certainly don’t care.

If you’re a good manager of a group of 20, you should expect two people to leave your group each year, sometimes more, sometimes less. Even a lead with five reports should expect at least one person to leave every couple of years. People leave for all kinds of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with you or your team: friendships on other teams, new technologies, a change of scenery, and relationships outside work to name a few. You shouldn’t take it personally.

Nice dam, huh?

But how should you deal with turnover? Some managers go to extremes to prevent it:

  • They blow tons of money on extravagant morale gifts and events, when having more frequent, cheap events would be far better.
  • They promise larger roles and promotions—promises they don’t completely control, promises they can’t keep.
  • They deny permission to interview for everyone on the team, which poisons morale and makes the team feel like indentured servants.

Eric Aside

Microsoft has since changed its rules so that managers can no longer refuse to allow their employees to interview. Only vice presidents still have that privilege.

Trying to prevent turnover is like building a dam to prevent a river from flowing. It works for a short time until the dam breaks or overflows and your team gets washed away in a torrent of transfers. What’s worse, such measures lower morale and make your team less attractive to the new members you’ll soon need.

Flowing like a river

Instead, the best way to deal with turnover is to expect it and embrace it. How? Think flow, flow, floooooooow.

Think of your team as a river instead of a lake. A lake stagnates. There’s no energy or impetus to change. The same is true of groups that stagnate. They cultivate mediocrity and complacency; they abhor risk. A river is always running and changing with lots of great energy. You want a river.

A river depends on the flow of water, and your team depends on the flow of people and information. You can think of the people divided into three groups: new blood, new leaders, and elders ready for a new challenge. Here’s how those groups should balance and flow:

  • The largest group should be the new blood. Not all of them will become technical or organizational leaders.
  • Sometimes you’ll have more new leaders than elders, sometimes the reverse, but ideally you should maintain a balance.
  • For flow, you want a steady stream of new blood becoming your new leaders, and new leaders becoming elders.
  • The key to flow is new blood coming in and elders moving out. For this to work, you WANT your elders to transfer before they clog the stream and disrupt the flow of opportunities for others.

Not all technologies flow at the same rate. Central engines, like the Windows kernel, flow slowly, while web-based services, like MSN Search, flow quickly. You need to adjust for your situation, but even the most conservative technologies do change and flow.

How do you successfully encourage and maintain a healthy flow?

  • Keep a constant supply of new people.
  • Instill information sharing as a way of life.
  • Shape the organization and roles to create growth opportunities.
  • Find new challenges for your elders.

Fresh meat

For a constant supply of new people, nothing beats interns and college hires. Obviously, you’ll also recruit industry candidates and internal transfers, but interns and college hires should be your primary choice for their fresh perspectives and long-term potential.

Your number of annual college hire slots should be at least 5% of your total staff, counting open positions. So if your team has 20 devs, you want at least one college hire slot, more if your team is increasing headcount. Even in a flat headcount organization there is still at least 5% attrition, so look for young talent to fill openings even if none are currently available. College hires sometimes don’t start for nine months; anything can happen over that time, so plan ahead.

Interns are the next best thing to college hires, but they take an extra year to join your team. Therefore, you want as many intern slots as college hire slots. DO NOT plan on shipping interns’ code. At best, they should be pair programming shipping code. However, DO NOT give interns menial labor either. Instead, give interns strong mentors (people who’ll be your next leads) and exciting projects (buddy them up on the coolest features or incubation work). You want to measure them as future full-time hires and convince them that there’s no better job in the world than working for you at Microsoft.

Sharing is caring

When you have new folks on your team, you want them to grow into your new technical and organizational leaders. The only way this happens is through sharing information and knowledge. There is a cornucopia of ways to do this. Here are just a few:

  • Keep an online knowledge warehouse of how your group works. It can be a big, versioned Word doc; a SharePoint site; or a wiki—whatever works best for your folks. The key is to make it easily accessible and up to date. The first month’s assignment for a new person should be to update the content.
  • Use buddy systems for all projects and assignments. The arrangement can be anything from mentoring to assigned reviewer and backup to full-on pair programming. The key is to have no one working alone, no information isolated.
  • Get people together regularly, ideally daily, to discuss progress and issues. Nothing encourages sharing of information like regular high-bandwidth communication, even for as little as 15 minutes a day.

Buddy systems are particularly important for growing your new leaders and transitioning your elders. It’s never safe for an elder to leave if you lose key knowledge and capability in the process. By constantly sharing information, you release the stress-inducing stranglehold on your elder team members, and you make flow and transition a positive and natural experience.

Room to grow

Just like with repotting plants, you need to give your people room to grow. You can encourage this through how you structure your organization, how you issue your assignments, and how you design and promote growth paths for people to follow.

First think about growth paths. The new career models provide excellent and detailed guidance. How do growth paths apply to your team? You should know every employee’s desired growth path and current stage. Then you and your leaders should discuss if those desired growth paths are available for everyone, and if not, how will you adjust?

Often how your group is organized blocks your employees’ growth. All your senior people may be on one team and newbies on another. Change it, fix it, rebalance, reshuffle. The longer you leave your org unbalanced, the more trouble you’ll cause and risk you’ll carry.

Restructuring your organization can create dozens of new opportunities for growth. It’s critical to take advantage of them. Give your people assignments and new responsibilities that stretch them out of their comfort zone. Naturally, buddy them up with more experienced partners to reduce the risk and enhance the learning, but don’t just have the same people do the same things. Choose the assignments based on desired growth paths, and everyone wins.

I must be traveling

Of course, no one can move up if your most senior people stay put. Unless your group is expanding, the only way to make room for growth is to have your elders transfer out. Luckily, that’s exactly what they need. If they’ve been in your group long enough to reach the senior positions, then the only way for them to keep growing is to take on new challenges elsewhere.

Because you’ve focused on flow, losing your senior employees is no big deal. They’ve already shared their knowledge and experience. Their project buddies are already familiar with their work. Now all they need to do is find a good fit elsewhere with you supporting them every step of the way. This kind of loyalty and support will not only be appreciated by your senior people, but will be returned in loyalty and respect by the whole team.

Remember, the whole team watches how you treat your most senior folks. It’s an indicator of how you’ll treat them some day. Nothing wins over a staff like seeing the elder members being treated fairly and generously; leaving the group with praise, well-wishes, and a great future ahead. The message: “Stay with this team and you’ll be well rewarded.”

Surrender to the flow

When you fight turnover or let it catch you unprepared, you risk your project and the effectiveness and health of your team. When you embrace turnover, it becomes just a natural consequence of life. No fear, no worries, just healthy flow for an effective team.

What’s more, driving for flow of people and information in your team creates growth for Microsoft people and value for Microsoft customers. Less stress, more opportunity, greater flexibility, compounded knowledge, higher morale, and a stronger team. What more could you possibly ask? It’s time to surrender to the flow.

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