Stack OverflowHow to develop a career path for programmers in a small company?
[+102] [17] Christian Hang
[2009-05-19 13:28:17]
[ career-development team peopleware ]

I am working in a small software company, which has grown from 4 to just over 50 employees (1 to 12 developers respectively) in the last 4 years with me being the lead developer/manager of the development team.

No developer has quit so far and during the last round of feedback interviews everyone emphasized that they like the environment, colleagues and their current tasks at hand. However, for the first time, a few people mentioned that they started to think about how to expand their horizon (beyond the component/team they are currently working on) or develop additional skill sets (in addition to "plain" programming), e.g., to look into technical pre-sales activities.

These issues were all raised by developers who have been with the company the longest and had seen the wild early days. Since then we've established processes to improve stability and quality which seem to work okay and a certain part of the daily work load has shifted from "new and exciting" to "routine and maintenance", so I can understand that they are looking for additional challenges.

I've read several questions on SO from developers concerning steps to improve their career, but I am now faced with the other side: What kind of career path can I offer a developer in a small company like ours?

Obviously, those people provide a lot of our specific domain knowledge and are very valuable to the team, so I want to make sure I can keep them happy. Given that business constraints and tight resources in a small company don't allow for a lot of extra projects on the side, any suggestions on what kind of options I can offer them?

(6) Excellent question. - Pablo Santa Cruz
(10) It is so rare to see someone in the position of power to recognise issues like this and take action. - Arnold Zokas
(1) Congratulations Chris, you won 440 rep! - Isaac Waller
[+22] [2009-05-19 13:34:34] Curt Sampson [ACCEPTED]

Avoiding "ownership" of particular areas, both within the technical side and between the technical and business sides, may help. For smart people, it's frustrating getting stuck in one area and being told not to work on something interesting that's considered outside of one's field or expertise.

In particular, you might let the more senior folks start to contribute more to the business side of the company. Being involved in that adds meaning to software one's working on, and you may also find it benefits the company significantly because the developers will have a much better grasp of the cost/benefit tradeoffs of particular technical decisions (once they learn the business side) than the business folks will.

Looking through the agile development, particularly Extreme Programming, literature may produce some ideas, since that tends towards avoiding compartmentalization, at least within the technical domain.

This sort of thing was in fact why I ended up starting my own company. Doing something like using Haskell instead of Java for a major project is for me as much an economic decision as a technical one: I've found sufficient evidence to convince me that it's a worthwhile business risk, because it has the capability to put me ahead of my competition. But that's a business decision that someone non-technical is probably not capable of making, and thus it was never going to fly in most companies. (Notable successes in this area, such as Jane Street [1], have very strong technical skills in their upper management.)


Technical compartmentalization is not that big of an issue, if you are referring to code ownership, cross-component cooperation and getting involved with different/new technologies. What I am struggling with is bridging the gap to the business side. Developers are already involved in feature planing etc. but pre-sales and similar domains are a completely different ball game. Do you have any concrete examples on how that could work? - Christian Hang
Well, yes, but coming out to Tokyo to work for my company for a while is probably not very practical. Unfortunately, this is not something where you can offer someone simple "do X and Y" advice; what you need to do depends heavily on things such as the personalities and interests of your technical and business folks. I suppose the best advice I can offer is to let information be shared freely: allow your interested developers to attend the business development meetings, for example. - Curt Sampson
[+12] [2009-05-19 14:31:32] JMarsch

I'm looking for an answer to this myself! It sounds as though you and I are in very similar positions!

The most important thing I have found so far is to listen to them -- they all want something a little different, and what doesn't seem like a big deal to you might be very important to another individual.

The whole problem is very hard -- you want to give everyone something to keep them fulfilled, but there might be limited opportunities to do so.

One thing that I've learned is that every person responds a little differently. In some cases, it made sense to expand someone's role or responsibility. As we got bigger, my own responsibilities increased in volume, and it was hard to keep them all in balance. The need to have people to help out created growth opportunities within the team.

As has been mentioned above, conferences and training can be a big factor -- since you don't have 100 mouths to feed, it can be much more practical to try to send developers to conferences such as TechEd, the PDC, etc. These are great because your devs will love them, and those conferences directly impact your company's ability to stay sharp technically. They have been worth every penny.

Is working from home an option? As a small software company, we don't have a lot of red tape to deal with, and we are able to be flexible when life makes it easier to work from home. This will be a bigger deal as your employees age. When we started, we were all young and single, and it wasn't a big deal. today, those same developers (and new ones) have kids that get sick, they have to be home when repair work is being done, etc. The whole demographic of developers is changing.

Can you provide some degree of responsibility rotation? This one is tough, and it doesn't work for all developers. However, sometimes you will get a person who feels they are at a dead-end because of the project that they are working on. On the one hand, it's often most efficient to keep them on that project/product, because they have the domain knowledge. On the other, you have to weigh that against the cost of losing them completely if they grow tired of their responsibilities. (others prefer to work in their comfort zone, so this really depends upon the person). I don't know if I would call it "rotation" so much as "migration". there are some costs in doing this -- more processes and design must be written down, cross-training is required, etc. But those very processes will make the company more effective and better able to cope with a lost employee. For the employee doing the crosstraining: if they do a good job of it, they are better poised to take on the next New Thing and not be boat-anchored to an older product.

(2) +1 for recognizing that people are different and fulfillment is an individual thing, not a broad stroke. One person may prefer a 5% pay raise, another may rather have a stash of Mountain Dew (that costs 1% of their pay): both may equally be equally perceived. - Colin Burnett
[+10] [2009-05-19 13:34:43] tvanfosson

I think your best resource for ideas on how to do this are the people giving the feedback. Ask them what it would look like for them to take on additional challenges. One idea would be to take an idea from Google and give them 10% time to work on independent projects that spark their curiosity. I think people learn alot from this type of work that could siginificantly improve their productivity in their remaining time and, potentially, result in new products for your company.

I worked for a small company which tried 20%, with mixed success. Surprisingly few people did it, so it never really gathered momentum to the point where 20% projects started attracting additional people. However, it did let people try things out and address their pet peeves. And in my case it stopped me checking anything in to my main projects after Friday lunch, which my manager probably appreciated ;-) - Steve Jessop
[+7] [2009-05-19 20:54:32] doomspork

I can tell you that you're not alone in your quest to develop a technical career path. I've been with two large technical consulting firms (20K employees+) who struggled with the same thing.

You've got a lot of good answers already but I figured I'd still give you my 2 cents:

"new and exciting" & "routine and maintenance" are very tricky. There happens to be a lot of money in sustainment and anyone who has worked for a big firm will tell you that a lot of the work isn't new or exciting. Someone at Google might be an exception. So something you may wish to do is let your employees know that you're on the look out for more exciting or involving work but the company still has to make money, especially in this economic climate, and you can't be expected to pass over work because it's "routine".

You may want to look at setting up one of more career paths which define the position's responsibilities and what it takes to reach that level or the next level. You may want to have a path that branches at a certain position with one path going more technical and one into business development. This would allow experienced and senior team members to do more client facing work and see a "new and exciting" part of the business. As individuals venture further into the business development path their technical roles would diminish.

Clearly defining what it takes to go from Position A to Position B is extremely important. I can't tell you how frustrating it is when transition seems to be dependent on a superior's personal judgment. Have quantitative and obtainable goals that are reasonable for that level of experience and skill set are extremely important.

Sr. Developer: Obtain 2 technical certifications. Complete 40 hours of training annually.

Asst. Technical Architect: Author or contribute to at least 4 white papers. Obtain an additional technical certification. Complete 40 hours of training annually. Provide mentoring for junior team members.

Business Adviser: Prepare or contribute to one proposal. Participate in client meetings. Manage one project from proposal to delivery. Complete writing, presentation, or speaking training.

                   Jr. Developer
                   Sr. Developer
             Asst. Technical Architect
                    /     \
    Technical Architect  Business Adviser
              |                  |
 Sr. Technical Architect  Sr. Business Adviser

Education is something I always look for in a company and I'm not suggesting tuition reimbursement but access to conferences and training as long as it supports current or potential work efforts.

Also, it's important to remember to include goals and tasks that support team work and participation. As employees climb the ladder they should have a portion of their time dedicated to billable work, training, management/peer activities, and business development. The ratios of these would be dependent on position obviously.

If you're interested in more information let me know and I'd be glad to tell you more about my experiences with technical career paths, what worked and what didn't work.

Hope this helps!

Thanks, that's the first answer concerning an actual career path - while there are some excellent ideas for involving developers more into the business side of things, this is addressing what I was initially aiming for: a long term plan. Quantifying the goals is probably the most difficult part. Any more ideas in addition to the examples you mentioned (x hours of training, certifications...)? - Christian Hang
Well speaking from my own experiences the companies I've worked for provided a guideline but it's up to the individual employee to really take control of their own future with the company and define a set of goals that demonstrate their abilities and desire to grow. After I put together my list of goals a peer or manager would assess them to ensure they're on track with the companies needs. Some examples: Deliver X to client with 0 critical bugs, training, conferences, project or module ownership from inception to delivery, author best practices documents, internal/external presentations. - doomspork
[+6] [2009-05-19 14:23:19] Petros

Well, we are a small company also with 4 developers including myself. I am the lead of the department and I also have exactly the same problem. Some of the things I am trying to do include:

  1. I don't take ownership of produced code
  2. I go one step further and whenever I have the opportunity I promote the work of every developer to the management and at the same time I inform my fellow programmers the fact that I did that
  3. I try to create the best environment for a programmer. That way everyone has a higher tolerance when we need to do maintenance work for a long period.
  4. I encourage developers to spend time on their ideas and on improving existing code
  5. I encourage developers to handle their projects on their own without me filtering out the communications. That way they feel they have an advanced role in the project. For example they talk directly with the stakeholders.
  6. I give them more responsibilities and try not to micromanage.

Some of the things I want to do:

  1. Have once a week presentations from every developer on subjects they really like.
  2. Have them present to the rest of the team some smart code they wrote during the week.
  3. Create a system like SO for internal use, where developers earn reputation and badges and this system is visible to the whole company. The result is satisfied developers because their value is communicated.

+1 for "Have once a week presentations from every developer on subjects they really like" - pramodc84
[+5] [2009-05-19 17:04:38] DaveE

Not exactly a career path, but...

If you can, start treating releases or presales preparations as individual 'projects'. Let the developers rotate on & off these projects. Have them function as lead/coordinator for the project, development lead, manager etc in rotation.

My company assigns one of the developers as a "release coordinator" - it's part of their job (and they have the time and authority needed) to coordinate & schedule all activities related to the release.

I've been through this at my last two employers. Where I work now sounds similar to your company - just over 50 people, 9 developers - and every developer who's had the chance liked it.

[+5] [2009-05-19 13:44:09] George Jempty

Maybe try a variation on Google's "do your own thing 20% of the time". Get ideas from the developers as to what they might like to do, that still pertains to your business. Then let them pursue those ideas for a half-day (10%) or even a couple half days (20%) a week, other issues permitting. Try to give them as much leeway as possible when it comes to technology to be used and such.

[+4] [2009-05-19 13:39:22] Seun Osewa

You can't satisfy the old timers' wishes (by promoting them above the other programmers) without making the others less happy (by putting their peers above them), so I think you're better off looking for some other way to make them happy.

Better pay? A spiffier job title that reflects their real expertise? Flexi hours. A "senior developer" title that really doesn't imply management?

(4) +1 for titles. If you end up with everyone being a "senior developer" so be it - once they've all been there 5+ years, know the design of the whole product intimately, and constantly propose and assess global changes, they are senior developers, verging on architects. Even though they're not planning to leave, if they eventually do they deserve the CV points. Staying as a plain old developer just because the company wants to use "senior" as a rank of management will eventually get annoying. - Steve Jessop
[+3] [2009-05-19 13:32:36] TheTXI

Help fund the cost for new training, conferences, seminars, etc. You could even implement a tuition reimbursement program so that your developers can go back to school (if necessary), get a degree, or complete a masters program.

guessing the "tight resources" may not allow for that sort of expense? - CSharpAtl
We are actually already supporting one developer to go back to school and get his master, he is taking a couple of afternoons off to go to classes - but that doesn't include tuition reimbursement. "Tight resources" also refers to time constraints, tough. Giving everyone time off (like Google does), might be difficult. - Christian Hang
Chris. That's understandable. It may be possible to work in the tuition reimbursement through very small means over a longer period of time which would help offset some of the heavy burden on your part. Time is of course another constraint. Some of the things like training and certifications can be done outside of the workplace during personal hours online, so that may be more desirable for your situation. - TheTXI
Regarding tuition reimbursement: Some (actually nearly all in my experience) organizations which provide tuition reimbursement attach a requirement to stay with the company for some time period - usually a year, but I've also seen two years - after the course is finished, otherwise the employee must pay the money back. Sometimes this is prorated, sometimes not. For someone working on a degree part time, this provides the company a fairly high chance the employee will stick around for a while. - PTBNL
PTBNL: Very good point. That is actually something that me and my boss were discussing a few months back when we got into the idea of tuition reimbursement for me to go back to school one day, they would cover like half of the costs while I would give a 1 or 2 year committment. - TheTXI
[+2] [2009-05-19 13:40:56] Igor Oks

Do you have some management hierarchy in your development team? You can let 2 or 3 experienced developers to become team leaders, if the leadership and management skills are the ones that they would like to develop.

If you have an experienced developer who isn't interested in team leader role, but is interested in professional development - he can grow to become a technology specialist (possibly shifting to work with the CTO of your company). You can define that an important part of his job specification will be looking for new technologies, ideas, improvements, etc.

The team is split into smaller groups (2 to 4 developers each) which have an informal hierarchy, as one or two members of each group are more experienced/senior. I have thought about instituting explicit group leads, but I am afraid that this will cancel out some of the benefits of having a rather flat hierarchy and introduce unwanted tensions. Do you have experience with that? The technology expert is a great idea, though. - Christian Hang
Chris: I don't have practical experience with making such decisions. Just what I learned in the MBA, and witnessed at the workplace. - Igor Oks
[+2] [2009-05-19 13:37:44] John Christensen

That's really tricky - we struggle with the exact same thing. I think the key here is to first determine what kind of career path your individual developers are interested in. Are some of them interested in helping out with sales? Are some of them interested in project management or product management? Are some of them capable of leading development teams? Do you have developers who really shine when developing new code and the architecture of your applications, or developers who really shine at interfacing with your users and finding and fixing their problems?

More importantly - are the developers who want to go these path particularly talented therein?

In the end, I think you're probably better served trying to work with developers and link up where they want to go career-wise with the value that they can deliver to your company. There are going to be problems going through this path - this entire discussion is, after all, intricately linked to issues of status and money (even if everyone insists its not).

The simple alternative would be to just throw together some sort of job titles that establish some sort of fixed hierarchy - but I think you'd be poorly served by this. You don't need hierarchy, you need talent development.

[+1] [2009-05-19 13:38:23] Steerpike

I think the answer has to lie in where the developer would like to see their skills develop, not everyone is interested in going in the same direction. Some developers may be more interested in systems administration, some in project management or various other areas. I think the solution is to sit down with each developer, map where they would like to progress and allow the to 'shadow' someone with those skills in the organisation.

This means that domain specific skills get shared around, individuals get a sense of personal growth and the business has mutiple people who can cover similar tasks.

[+1] [2009-05-19 13:37:09] JonnyBoats

Do you fund and provide paid time for activities outside of work that encourage groth? Examples:

1) Pay for employees to take college classes?

2) Encourage employees to attend conferences where they present sessions?

3) Spend some paid time doing work for approved not for profits?

[+1] [2009-05-19 13:46:05] User

What about paying for their additional training courses maybe in the area of soft skills?

Or some other field they could be interested in?

For exampe, a web developer could be interested in a serious graphical design course...

[+1] [2009-05-19 13:47:05] Nicolas Dorier

I think that, like every developer, they love to learn, so give them books, ask them to pass certifications (very useful because it keeps you motivated to reach a concrete goal)in what they would like to work or what they would like to learn.

[+1] [2009-05-20 01:19:40] SpliFF

I have worked in large and small companies. The key to keeping people at small companies is to keep the workplace interesting and involve staff in planning as much as possible. In a large company most people are happy to accept that the bosses decide everything (even if they grumble privately) but in a small company small mistakes can change their work environment or put them out in the street.

The easiest way to keep on top of things is to organise regular outings and Friday drinks (you don't have to pay for everything, just make sure there's beer). A bit of time away from work but among colleagues builds bonds which are harder to break. Furthermore you're more likely to hear about issues that are bothering people.

Your staff know that there are less opportunities for financial growth at a small firm. If they came in the first place and stayed as long as they did then it probably isn't just the money or the work but the community they are there for. You have to keep that community healthy and happy to keep the staff.

Finally the pull towards big companies in IT is usually about getting to play with better toys. Be prepared to spend a little on fancy gadgets (cisco's for the net guys, new macs for the artists, etc...). My boss got me a 30" screen and I've been happy as punch ever since. A raise would have cost him more but I think the screen has given me more satisfaction (I'm more of a cautious spender myself). Toys have a similar effect, leave soft rubber balls, "bullshit buttons" and other interesting and geeky gizmos around the office that a large company would never tolerate. This gives the feeling of having a better workplace than some large stuffy corporation.

[0] [2009-05-20 03:36:26] Mr. Will

This is a very interesting question. The company I work for is much smaller than it appears from the outside. I can quickly see that the career path at this company is title-based. Employees get promoted to a new title, but there aren't really any new responsibilities for them. I think that is the wrong way to go about it.

I would agree with trying the Google approach to development, where employees are given an X percentage of time each week for personal projects. It is a good way to allow employees to continue to gain knowledge in new areas, while maintaining the current applications. I know I would like this.

Another thing you could do is create some architect positions. Your employees that have been there from the beginning should have a good grasp of the application and could help guide the product into the future.