Inspiring The Burned-Out Computer Programmer
(FORTUNE Magazine) – DEAR ANNIE: I do computer programming in a large organization and have seen a lot of turnover in my department lately. The people leaving aren't moving up into management but are jumping to other companies or leaving programming altogether. The instructor in a refresher course I took recently confirmed my impression, remarking that she thinks programmers are burning out (1) faster than other workers and (2) faster than they were a few years ago. Yet one hears all the time about the shortage of programmers and how badly companies need more of us. My question is, What (if anything) can be done to prevent programmer burnout? And why aren't more companies--mine, for instance--doing it? STUMPED
DEAR STUMPED: If my mail is any guide, programmers are indeed a disgruntled bunch. A few common complaints: Having to write programs using bad data, or so-called mystery data, supplied by nonprogrammers. Inadequate or nonexistent manuals, or employers who don't want to spring for enough manuals, so that two or more programmers have to share, which leads to chaos. Having to write one unrelated program after another, which precludes the chance to build a coherent body of work. Lack of data-entry support staff, so that programmers spend too much time working way below their level of expertise. Being the last person or team to work on a given project, yet getting blamed for all delays since the project's inception. Getting no respect from anyone else in the organization, hence few opportunities for training or advancement. I could go on, but I won't.
It's worth noting that these woes prevail mostly in companies whose main business is not software. "If you're doing software design for, say, Microsoft, you know the relevance of what you're doing--how it will help the company, its impact on the marketplace, and so on. In a very real sense you are the company, so you naturally get treated pretty well, and you're going to be highly motivated," says Byron Woollen, a partner at management strategy firm Lucid Consulting in New York City. "But elsewhere--for example, in big investment banks--programmers are treated like pieceworkers. Nobody bothers to tell them how their work fits into the big picture. They just get task after task heaped on them." Who wouldn't burn out?
Woollen, an organizational psychologist who has done several studies on why programmers quit their jobs, has three suggestions for burnout prevention, and they are ideas that might well be useful for managers trying to hold on to workers in any technical specialty. First, he says, bosses need to spell out not just what needs doing, but why. What is the strategic importance of the latest rush project? Whom will it benefit, and how? The explanations needn't be overly wordy, but the clearer and more compelling, the better.
Second, Woollen notes, programmers often feel (usually accurately) that they are stuck in a forgotten backwater, with no opportunity to move up: "Because they're extremely analytical and detail-oriented, and often quite introverted besides, management doesn't even bother to evaluate them for opportunities that require good people skills." That could be a big mistake. Programmers should be screened for leadership jobs just like anybody else. Let them know exactly what qualities you are seeking in candidates for management positions, and give everybody a fair shot. Says Woollen: "If someone has a chance to be evaluated for a bigger job and they don't make the cut, at least they know why they're not moving up--instead of just feeling ignored, which is the worst thing you can do to someone you are hoping to keep."
And third, don't neglect to help programmers develop their technical skills: "Somebody sitting there doing C+++ [programming] for three years is going to get bored and will leave for a more challenging opportunity. So offer lots of training in new technologies," says Woollen.
Of course, all this is a lot of bother, which (to answer your second question) is probably why more companies don't do it. In the long run, though, paying attention to programmers' concerns and helping them develop real careers is very likely easier and cheaper than constantly having to replace them.
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