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Tech Career Insights: What Companies Can Do To Keep Their Tech Teams Happy
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What Companies Can Do To Keep Their Tech Teams Happy

21 May 2019, by Cornelia van der Walt

In today’s world, where the greatest commodity is technology, it seems like every company is trying to attract those with technical know-how to help them get ahead. However, studies suggest there may be a misalignment between what companies think people in tech want in a job and what they really want. As someone working in this industry myself, here are some of the things I’ve seen the best companies do to attract and keep talent.


People in the tech industry want more than high pay-checks

I have been working in the tech industry for a number of years as a data scientist, and am currently at Capitec bank. While most of the people that I have encountered in tech really enjoy what they do for a living, I have noticed that this industry experiences a much higher churn rate than others.

A bigger salary is something that people across the board tend to want. There is this idea that the more money you make, the happier you will be. This is not always the case, however, and recently I started thinking about what else plays a role in fostering greater job satisfaction. In my own experience, I have been happiest when a company has provided me with these things:

  • A flexible work environment
  • Personal and professional growth
  • Great people to work with

Here, I will share some of the positive experiences that I have had at companies that have made my working life easier and more enjoyable.

A flexible environment

They’ve allowed teams to work at their own pace, in their own time

A lot of companies still require teams to work strict nine-to-five shifts. This is most likely a legacy from the industrial revolution where the amount of time spent at a desk directly translated to productivity. Tech work, however, can’t be done in a set amount of time every day. Often, it takes a lot of research and experimentation to come up with a solution, and these things can’t be quantified by hours.

Working in the tech industry requires creative problem solving with unique approaches where professionals need to concentrate to be at their most mentally productive. These times of optimal efficiency often don’t necessarily correspond to set office hours and so, by restricting your professionals to these times, you may risk reducing productivity and creativity.

So, how can companies help their tech teams make the most of their time?

  • Allow flexible hours: Superbalist and Capitec, two companies that I have worked at, offer flexible hours. This was really useful for a lot of people on my team as they were able to pack a lot more into their days. Being able to plan my day according to what best suited me helped me be a lot more productive because I could work when I could best concentrate.
  • Factor in remote working days: I live about 45kms from where I work. Luckily, my company has implemented a system that allows employees to work remotely for one day a week. Not having to deal with traffic, even for one day, has been a huge stress reliever for me. Also, without the interruptions that come with working in an office, I find that I can get real ‘deep focus’ work done on the days that I am at home.
  • Make use of Agile project management methodology: Something that a lot of people struggle with when it comes to remote work is visibility. Working with an Agile methodology, however, my manager and I are always on the same page about what I am currently working on, what I’ll do on next and what needs to be completed to meet the set target for the sprint. As such, my time doesn’t go down a dark hole where no one knows what I did while I was at home, and vice versa. When we all know where everyone is at, no one panics and we can focus on the work we are doing. Jira has been an invaluable tool to help with this.

Personal and professional growth

They’ve provided people with the opportunity to continue learning

The tech industry is constantly developing and changing. A lot of people working in this industry are committed to lifelong learning so that they can keep up to date with the latest changes.

This is something that I think really needs to be seen and facilitated by companies who want to help their teams unlock their (boundless) potential, and keep them satisfied as curious individuals.

Here are a few things companies can do to help their tech teams continue to develop their skills:

  • Provide resources and time for them to further their education: A lot of companies are starting to care more about the education of their employees. Capitec and Superbalist, for example, subsidise subscriptions to online learning platforms and offer other study materials for free, which is great for someone like me who is working in the relatively new field of data science. Knowing that I have the opportunity to learn more, with my company’s support, is something that really excites me.
  • Budget for your employees to attend conferences and events: In January, I was able to attend the international Machine Learning Summer School. This experience stretched the boundaries of my theoretical understanding of hard topics like Bayesian analysis and made me more aware of cutting edge developments in the field. Having the opportunity to attend the conference showed me that my company understands the importance of being exposed to new things and new people in order to expand the way we think about things. It made me more excited than ever to come back and share what I had learnt with my colleagues.
  • Encourage the development of skills beyond pure technical ones: In my opinion, to be a well-rounded individual who thrives in a workplace, it’s important to be good at more than just coding. Recently, Capitec hosted a bunch of leadership and communication workshops to help people get better at soft skills, which definitely had a positive impact on team dynamics. After these sessions, people had a clearer understanding about how they should interact with each other, which helped everyone get on the same page and fostered much better relationships within my team.
  • Commit to a diverse hiring approach: A lot of companies in South Africa are beginning to make a commitment to diversity, and are actively trying to hire team members from a variety of backgrounds. I think this is great because working with people with different levels of experience and training, helps generate new ways of thinking. In my experience, this has been really stimulating and has influenced how I’ve approached projects and thought through problems.

They’ve laid out a clear trajectory for careers

It can be very frustrating for a lot of tech professionals when it seems that there are no opportunities for internal movement or advancement. In this case, it often feels like the only solution is to go to another company. If we have developed our skills, done courses and honed our abilities, we want to know that we can use them as much as possible and be recognised for doing so.

Here are some ideas for companies who don’t want to let their staff stagnate:

  • Have clear requirements for different skill levels in the organisation: Creating a clear path to move into new roles and responsibilities is something that I have found to be hugely motivating. I have felt excited to give projects my all because I have a clear idea about how attaining certain skills will help me level up my career.
  • Recognise incremental improvements: When my colleagues take note of the hard work I have been doing to get better at what I do, I am encouraged to keep going with whatever it is I have been working on. Learning things and putting them into practice can be hard, be it figuring out how to solve a certain code-based problem or how to receive feedback. I have found it very rewarding when I know my team acknowledges my efforts and backs me to keep improving.

Working with great people

They’ve facilitated a strong team culture

Sometimes companies underestimate how important culture can be. It’s easy to focus on results and not what it takes to get there. For me, personally, the environment that I am in every day has been a big factor in determining how happy I am. Although I work with numbers all day, and often have my head down focused on the task ahead of me, the way the office functions around me is something I am very aware of.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed companies doing to create a great culture in their workplaces:

  • Have a clear understanding about how best to communicate with each other: Understanding how different people within teams communicate is key for effective collaboration. Because data science is still relatively new, I have found that other developers, or people in more ‘traditional’ tech roles, sometimes have trouble communicating clearly with me because they don’t know where I fit or how I can help. The company recently hosted a communication workshop to help address challenges like this and the results were really positive: We learnt how to effectively talk to each other and when in order to work well as a team.
  • Spend time building team spirit: I’ve seen that this can have a very positive impact on work satisfaction. A sense of camaraderie can do wonders for collaboration: In my experience, when you feel close to your team, it is easier to share things or bounce ideas off each other because you feel more like friends than colleagues. When I have been able to build up relationships like this with my team, not only have I done better work but I have enjoyed it a lot more too.
  • Establish clear values for the company that people can get behind: From my experience, having a common belief or goal that members of a team continuously come back to can really help people come together. This has been so important for me when it comes to producing good work, because when the team knows that they are all working towards the same thing for the same reason, it is so much easier to stay aligned with each other.

They have recognised and promoted solid leaders

Coordinating tech teams can be hard. To do this well, I think someone needs to have the capacity to understand not just the different roles and their responsibilities, but the people who fill these roles too. They also need to be great communicators and good at dealing with pressure.

Here are some tips on how companies can identify great leaders and move them into positions where they can make the most impact:

  • Find someone who people are comfortable being vulnerable with: A great leader is open to listening to their team and being compassionate. I have been lucky enough to work under a leader like this in my current position: Knowing that my manager cares about me has made it easier for me to trust him and raise concerns. I’ve found that when I can communicate safely and trust that my honesty will result in positive action, I have been much happier in my role.
  • Look for someone with useful experience: When it comes to data science, or any other field for that matter, a good leader needs experience to provide guidance to their team. There have been many times when I’ve needed help figuring things out and, having someone experienced to check in with, not only taught me a lot about the topic that I was struggling with, but also how to think about problems and build good processes for myself so that I could arrive at solutions more easily.
  • Make someone a leader who can effectively bridge the gap between enterprise and the team: I have worked in very high-pressure environments and seen that managing enterprise expectations and tech realities is difficult. Often they don’t align, and communicating this can result in tension. Luckily, my team lead at Capitec is someone who knows how to communicate well with both clients and tech teams to establish mutual understanding and fair outcomes. Having him as the middle-man has really relieved a lot of pain from the enterprise/tech alignment process. Through his facilitation, it has been easier to get to a point where the tech team can provide as much value as possible within the time period enterprise has agreed on.

Getting these things right takes a lot of time and attention, which can be challenging in the dog-eat-dog world that we live in. Throwing money at situations is easy, and will almost definitely have a positive short-term impact, but I think that caring about creating a great work experience for people is the real key to keeping great talent around.

Cornelia van der Walt spent the first part of her career as an academic, gaining her PhD in Physics at the University of the Free State in computational materials science, while simultaneously teaching English in Japan. She believes AI is the future and since she made the change to data science she has not looked back.


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