How Tech is Creating Its Own Dust Bowl

Historically, farmers in the USA have neglected managing the health of their soil. This is because there has always been “more land out west”. This is what led to the Dust Bowl, during which as much as 75% of the top soil in some places was lost. This resulted in approximately a 50% reduction in agricultural revenue and a 25% loss of the value of the farmland.

Today many farmers realize the importance of soil health, allowing them to grow food more profitably with less inputs like synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Some farmers have even started to call themselves “soil farmers” and implement regenerative farming practices to care for the soil, better supporting the entire ecosystem.

Tech companies have created a Dust Bowl for themselves. As an industry we’ve created a self fulfilling prophecy that employees will jump ship within two years. The main reason: employees have to leave in order to get a raise in line with market increases. A close second is not providing opportunities for advancement. Because of this expectation companies and managers try to extract as much from an employee during their two-year term. This ensures the outcome that you are trying to avoid. This is a one way trip to disengaged, burnt out, and disloyal employees.

You end up sowing your own challenges in retaining talent and organizational knowledge. Microsoft Labs details some of these costs in their study, The Influence of Organizational Structure on Software Quality: An Empirical Case Study. In it, they show that organizational complexity measures, such as employee churn are more predictive of decreased quality through increased defects than code complexity, coverage, or churn metrics.

All of this also disregards the cost of hiring, and ramping up a new hire, which isn’t trivial.

Some back of the napkin math can show that even if you don't use an external recruiter, and your hiring funnel, onboarding process, and training are some of the most finely tuned in the industry, you’re still going to be spending a minimum of $25,000. Between internal recruiters, hiring managers, other folks that will be interviewing and training the candidate, and the candidate’s time getting up to speed, it all adds up pretty quickly.

If you work with an external recruiter, if the first candidate that applies and interviews isn’t a perfect fit, or if it takes you longer than 4 weeks to ramp up a new hire, your costs can easily ramp up to $50,000 or more. And this only goes up with seniority of the hire.

This turnover also stunts your ability to grow, because your hiring funnel has to outpace your employee churn, just like your sales funnel has to outpace your customer churn.

Couple this with being unwilling to hire and train junior engineers, and we’ve got a perfect storm brewing.

Shifting to a regenerative mindset is long term

Adding copious amounts of synthetic fertilizer, or just hiring new folks and hoping they last a little longer than the last batch, feels "easy" even if it isn't more efficient in the long run. (Or the short run as showcased above.)

Instead focus on a long term solution you can make your life easier. Commit to a mutually beneficial relationship with your employees, and expect the same. However, you’re going to have to be the vulnerable one, and go first. People expect to get burned by their employers. They expect managers to string them along with empty promises. Be different. Do better. Show them with your actions that you are willing to make the necessary changes. Ensure they’re compensated based on market rates before they come to you with an offer in hand. Then you can build your engineering team, and business, on a more stable foundation.

This requires a shift in mindset from management that mirrors the shift the farmer must experience, from extractive to regenerative. Rather than expecting that you will only have employees for two years, think of yourself as the steward of your employees. Imagine they’ll be with you indefinitely, but in the event that your paths diverge, you’ve left them better than you found them. Don't try to wring out every ounce of productivity until they're a dried out husk of their formerly excited selves.

Soil farming in your organization is hard work. You have to make sure that your compensation stays competitive ahead of folks coming to you with new offers in hand. You have to ensure your managers are creating opportunities for career advancement and that folks enjoy working there and feel challenged. And ideally you should be hiring and training new junior engineers.

All of this allows you to improve the health of your soil, which in turn improves outcomes, but it takes time. The improved outcomes are going to be lagging indicators, but fortunately for us, our cycle time is a little shorter than it is in farming.

Your philosophy may not align

Backtracking to the idea of an extractive versus a regenerative philosophy, your company may be guided by extractive principles, but that doesn't mean that you have to be, or should be, as a manager.

In fact, for the betterment of your career it's better to have a regenerative focus with your employees, because if the company has an extractive relationship, they're going to leave at some point, and you want to have a strong network of folks that have worked with you in order to help expand the strength of your network as they branch out into other organizations, because chances are that you'll be moving on too, likely sooner than later.

You reap what you sow.