Nathan Kallman
Kallmanation

Kallmanation

Attracting & Retaining in a Boring Industry

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

Attracting & Retaining in a Boring Industry

Nathan Kallman's photo
Nathan Kallman
·May 10, 2022·

5 min read

I work in a boring industry. Not only do I work in insurance (already boring) I work in claims handling. I know, just writing those words some of you already clicked away. For a fun party trick, answer the what do you do question with "I'm a software engineer handling insurance claims" and watch eyes glaze faster than a Krispy Kreme conveyor belt.

Despite the stigma, I've been here for several years. And plan to be here for more. Why?

Because it has not been boring to me.

And I'll tell you why it has not bored me. From my experiences and observations, these are some things that will attract and retain developers and engineers.

Tell the Stories of their Work

A boring industry's measurements of performance are usually boring. "Oh how interesting, loss ratio has gone down from 87% to 82%", thought no one. Hearing how average claim times dropped from 5 days to 3 days only grabs your attention so many times.

We especially want our work to feel like we have an impact on our world. We feel rewarded when we do good, more than just bagging a big paycheck. Stories like Sharonne keeping her job because she didn't miss a shift while her car was repaired are powerful. Kyle was able to make rent because he was paid today, not in 30 days (a typical, but unacceptable, turn-around time in claims). A criminal organization getting busted on their intricately fabricated fraud scheme? That's better than a movie.

Tell us those stories. Keep us engaged and our restless minds want to stay put.

Let them work on hard problems

Nothing may be more soul sapping to the mind of a technical person than having to do the same thing twice. Our brains crave challenge. If we are not challenged at work, we will find a challenge somewhere else.

Too often boring industries bore us because they lack vision. Decisions are made at only the highest level. And often those decision makers only want to change a few metrics they already measure by a few percentage points. Any engineer or developer faced with uninspired and unqualified prescriptions from above finds a new environment that has inspiration with decisions made by qualified, intelligent people.

Hire people who are smart enough to recognize problems and build solutions at every level, from small to big. Then give them the power and trust to do what they do.

Let them work on other things

Sometimes, the field truly does not have enough challenges for all your employees all the time. This is true and a fair point. But we can still satisfy the need for challenge.

One thing I've long loved about working at Root are the "Hack Days". Every 3 months, for 3 days, engineers are left to work on whatever they like. Read books or whitepapers or blog posts. Build a minigame hidden in the app. Make a tool we use daily just a little bit better. Play with the Javascript framework of the week. Whatever we feel is best for our personal/professional improvement, do it!

Invest in them

Expanding on the last point. Make sure to grow talent, not just use the talent. In the calculus developers and engineers use to decide where to work next, after salary and personal fulfillment, choosing environments that advance our skills and career will take precedence.

Give us a stipend for books. Recommend books and articles. Let them spend some of their time presenting and discussing topics. All these things not only make us better at our jobs; but entices us to stay to keep growing.

Pay them

An obvious and critical factor. I did not list this earlier because even with higher salary than any competitor, failing in other areas will completely sabotage the benefits of higher pay. A massively overpaid employee may still leave if they become so unhappy with their employment that they cannot enjoy the money they have made. Pay alone does not retain or even attract talent. But doing everything else right without good compensation makes those all hollow and worthless. So do pay well.

Also, be honest about compensation. Do not make us bargain and bicker and negotiate persistently just to be paid like our peers. We will find out the new hires are being paid more than us. We will leave. How much does hiring anew cost? No, those are just hard costs; we have not counted the brain drain and morale effects yet. How much does hiring a replacement actually cost? Paying us half that and pocketing the difference might just do wonders for keeping us around. Unlike hardware and software, wetware cannot be replaced so easily.

Share Profits

While we're here, compensating the creation of software with a fixed amount of dollars has always been strange to me. In one afternoon, I'll write something that nets millions of dollars per year (every year, year after year, for decades). The next, nothing, because my idea turned out to be garbage (I have a lot of bad ideas).

And software often provides much more value as a whole than the sum of its parts. So why would we only pay a simple salary to each developer or engineer? How important is that signup page if there's no features afterwards? How valuable is your service if the login is totally insecure?

Rewarding us all when we all have done well builds the trust and incentives to stay and continue performing well.

 
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