code-for-a-living January 10, 2022

The Great Resignation is here. What does that mean for developers?

Nearly two years into the pandemic, many Americans are reevaluating their relationship with work.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, many Americans are reevaluating their relationship with work. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 4.5 million Americans had quit their jobs at the end of November 2021, while 10.6 million jobs were open.

Software developers—even though their jobs can typically be done remotely and should, in theory, be more stable during a pandemic—are leading the exodus.

Some analysts have suggested that the number of people quitting white-collar office jobs is modest, and that the Great Resignation is about strong demand for workers, rather than a rethinking of labor. While it’s clear that some industries have been hit harder than others, it’s also true that higher-paid knowledge workers like developers are playing a prominent role in the Big Quit.

Harvard Business Review conducted an in-depth analysis of over nine million employee records from more than 4,000 companies across industries and found that resignation rates are highest in healthcare and tech. The study found that, generally, “resignation rates were higher among employees who worked in fields that had experienced extreme increases in demand due to the pandemic, likely leading to increased workloads and burnout.”

Resignations among healthcare workers, who have been on the front lines of a pandemic for nearly two years, are not a surprise. But what’s driving developers to make their exit, and what challenges does the rising resignation rate entail for individual contributors, managers, team leads, and companies who want to protect against knowledge loss and ensure business continuity?

Let’s get into it.

Increased demand equals burnout; burnout equals resignation

In tech, the resignation rate rose by 4.5% last year, according to Harvard Business Review. Eighty-three percent of developers report suffering from burnout, and 81% say it’s gotten worse during the pandemic. The top reason for pandemic-related burnout among developers? An increased workload.

The pandemic has contributed to an increase in demand for developers, even as it’s nudged many to quit their jobs. Beginning in March 2020, organizations accelerated their digital and cloud roadmaps to allow employees to work remotely. The resulting increase in software adoption and growing reliance on software across industries has increased demand for developers.

In some ways, of course, this is good news: when demand exceeds supply, skilled and seasoned developers can expect more job offers and more attractive compensation packages. But high demand can also cause developers to become overwhelmed and burn out. In fact, so many developers are resigning that a shortage of software developers is likely—not just in the United States, but also elsewhere.

A cultural shift

Burnout isn’t the only explanation for the rising resignation rate. The shock of the pandemic, lockdowns, and a complete shift to remote work caused many people to fundamentally change how they see work. As UC Berkeley economist Ulrike Malmendier argues, “The pandemic and rise of remote work have changed the way we view our lives and the world.” 

Texas A&M psychologist Anthony Klotz, whom NPR credits with coining the term “Great Resignation,” says “pandemic epiphanies” are inspiring dissatisfied workers to give their notice. Those epiphanies take many forms: 

  • I could make more money somewhere else. 
  • I deserve better working conditions.
  • I need more vacation time.
  • I need a better work-life balance.
  • I want to do something completely different with my career. 
  • I want to start my own business. 

And those epiphanies often end with the words I quit.

“We can do better”

While quitting might seem like an expression of dejection or an admission of defeat, in many ways the Great Resignation is more about growing confidence, a sense that the dynamic between labor and employers has shifted, and that workers have more choice and control. The Atlantic suggests that while “quitting is a concept typically associated with losers and loafers,” the Great Resignation “is really an expression of optimism that says, We can do better.” In fact, we may come to see the pandemic as “a crucial inflection point” in American attitudes toward work—and even the inception of a healthier work-life balance.

We’ve realized that our relationship with work needs, well, work. As Vox points out, “the pandemic—as well as government social safety nets like extended unemployment benefits—gave people the time, distance, and perspective to reevaluate the place of work in their lives.” And this reevaluation is “especially notable for Americans, for whom work is considered a part of their identity and who put in more hours than most other industrialized nations.” 

Money matters—but it’s not the only thing that matters

Often programmers quit because they can make more money elsewhere. Compensation structures often incentivize developers to change jobs: the experience a person acquires in the role becomes more valuable than the incremental raises most developers can expect every couple of years. The spike in demand for digital transformation, coupled with the Great Resignation, has created an increasingly competitive hiring environment for software talent. This has boosted the compensation offered by employers looking to make critical hires.

Our own data shows that about 75% of developers are either actively seeking a new job or open to new employment opportunities. Of these developers, about 65% said compensation was the main reason they were looking to leave (or open to leaving) their current role. But money wasn’t the only factor: 39% wanted to work with new technologies, 36% were looking for a better work-life balance (including benefits like remote work and flexible hours), and 35% wanted better growth or leadership opportunities.

A tendency to view developers as technical resources rather than people (interchangeable, effortlessly rechargeable) causes some managers to neglect their employees’ job satisfaction and professional well-being. This attitude drives devs to quit. Almost universally, people want to work where they are valued and where they have an opportunity to grow their skills and advance their careers. For a growing number of developers, that means working for themselves.

Entrepreneurship is taking off

Many people quit their jobs over the last two years to become self-employed freelancers, consultants, or entrepreneurs. In the words of The Wall Street Journal, “The pandemic has unleashed a historic burst in entrepreneurship and self-employment.” Some people want better-paying or more flexible jobs; others are anxious about COVID exposure, need to be home to provide childcare or supervise online learning, or are simply done with the rigidity of a 9-to-5 in the office.

The number of unincorporated self-employed people rose by 500,000 since the beginning of the pandemic, reaching nearly 9.5 million, according to Labor Department data. In other words, the number of self-employed people has risen by 6%, even as the overall employment rate in the US continues to lag almost 3% behind its pre-pandemic figure.

Americans also registered more than 4.5 million new businesses from January through October 2021, up 56% from 2020—the largest number on record dating back to 2004, according to the Census Bureau

Developers are reinventing how they work

Our own 2021 Developer Survey found that fewer professional developers were employed full-time (81%, a decrease from 83% in 2020). The percentage of professional developers who were independent contractors, freelancers, or self-employed rose from 9.5% in 2020 to 11.2% in 2021, suggesting that some developers are worried about job security or want more flexible work arrangements. So while the resignation rate is high, not all of those programmers are leaving the workforce; many are simply reinventing how work itself looks.

One consequence of this trend toward self-employment is that companies will likely find themselves working with contractors or consultants for certain roles and projects—increasing the potential for confusion as people come and go and distributed teams need an effective, asynchronous way to collaborate and communicate.

A focus on skills over pedigree

In tech, economic power may be shifting toward labor. This means a focus on skills (what can you do?) over academic pedigree (where did you go?). Over the last 20 years, content platforms have allowed non-developers to build their skills and enabled experienced programmers to work more effectively. Some programmers shifted to creating tech companies, which allowed more people from non-technical backgrounds to enter the tech workforce. This gradual sea change has altered the way the industry works. For some programmers, it’s driven them out—or pushed them into business for themselves.

The rise of remote work, even before the pandemic, planted the seeds that are now bearing fruit in the form of the developer exodus: developers exhausted by corporate hierarchies, long commutes, expensive cities, and corrosive company cultures have been shifting to remote self-employment for a decade. The pandemic has accelerated the exodus, especially among developers 30-45 years old. These people are more senior in their careers and therefore more likely to launch their own businesses than to join another company—particularly in the face of age discrimination and high barriers to entry.

Challenges for managers and team leads

The Great Resignation presents particular challenges for people who manage developers and lead development teams. For one thing, trying to hire and retain talent is time-consuming and resource-intensive, especially when so many people are no longer settling for jobs that don’t check all their boxes.

A high turnover rate is a related problem. Companies invest time and money onboarding and training new hires, but when those people leave, they take their institutional knowledge with them and create a vacuum that needs to be filled with another qualified candidate.

From an organizational perspective, companies need to protect against knowledge loss as employees come and go, expedite the onboarding of new employees so folks can start adding value quickly, and enable remote collaboration in an increasingly remote-first workforce. 

But companies and managers also need to make avoiding developer burnout a priority, since that’s a contributing factor to many of these challenges: overworked developers quit, and the resulting churn consumes resources and causes knowledge loss. Valuing the developers on your team by recognizing and rewarding their hard work (and by investing in their professional development) goes a long way toward reducing burnout and attrition.

Plan for the boomerang effect

Managers who create a positive work environment often find that employees who left for another company or to work for themselves want to come back after a short time, having realized that the grass wasn’t really greener after all. Self-employment is not without downsides, and it’s a rare company that doesn’t have a few drawbacks. To encourage these boomerang employees, managers need to build the right culture: one that values employees holistically.

“There is much value in recouping strong, previously-trained talent, but it is critical to let them know before they leave that the door could be open for a return,” explains SailPoint CEO Mark McClain in Fast Company. “Leaders who consciously establish from the get-go that work is a choice and that personal situations or great opportunities may warrant a job change make all the difference in encouraging boomerangs.” 

Developer managers should take this advice to heart. The chances are good that some of the developers who left their jobs in 2021 will want them back in 2022—if they are welcomed back with open arms.

An inflection point

The Great Resignation is reshaping the labor market in ways we’re just starting to understand. One thing is clear, though. The fact that developers are resigning at such high rates should nudge companies and managers to reevaluate how they treat these employees: how they’re paid, how much respect and autonomy they have, how flexible their jobs are, and how much work is demanded of them. 

For developers, this is a moment to consider what is and isn’t working for you about your job—and whether you’re tempted to join the Great Resignation yourself. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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