Kevin Gibbs

Thoughts on engineering and management.

Build a team they'll never leave: the 4 things that matter


I’ve mentioned before that keeping people on your team is one of the most important tasks that a manager has. It’s hard to hire people, and it’s harder still to hire great people. But the hardest task of all is keeping those great people on your team, month after month, year after year. Once you have hired and put together your team, as a manager you should then treat that team like your most valuable possession. You should do everything you can to build an environment where your employees want to stay.

On engineering teams, I have found that there are four things that are primarily responsible for creating an environment where your team members will want to stay. They are:

  • Mission
  • Family
  • Compensation
  • Growth

If everything else within your organization is more or less reasonably managed and stable, then these four areas will become the drivers that will get people to stick around. You can think of them as four independent dimensions that your team can excel in. When you do excel in these areas, you’ll create an an environment where people are happy to come into work and want to stick around in your group, not just for the first few months, but forever.

If you can build a supportive environment around 2 of these areas, like Compensation and Mission, or Family and Growth, then you’ll likely get a solid team that will stick together for a good amount of time. But if you can excel in 3 or all 4 of these areas, then you’ll have something remarkable—a team that your engineers will never want to leave.

Let me talk about what I mean by each of these four areas in turn:


Having a Mission means that you (and your team) are working on something that is bigger than your product or your company.

It means that you’re doing something that you honestly believe will make the world a better place. A Mission is something that gives people passion, and makes someone feel like they are working on something larger than themselves. Importantly, though, your Mission doesn’t need to be (and usually isn’t) the entire endeavor of your team or your company. Rather, the Mission is usually an aspect of the work you are doing: your team isn’t primarily trying to end world hunger, but your new low-cost gardening tool may have a huge impact on farmers in the developing world.

In other words, a Mission in this context can be one part of what you are doing, like providing a new way for groups to quickly organize and communicate (Twitter), or letting anyone in the world run an app for free (Google App Engine). The Mission doesn’t have to be your team’s main thrust. But a Mission is something that gives them a purpose.

A Mission is a dream to follow that provides motivation to your team when times are lean or when the work is hard.

It should be clear that if you work at a business software company, it’s not enough to say that your Mission is “Increasing productivity for e-businesses everywhere.” That is not a Mission. But take Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart may not seem like a paragon of corporate virtue or idealism. But try this Mission on for size: Wal-Mart will relentlessly do anything they can to save the average Joe a little more money every month. Legitimately, love them or hate them, Wal-Mart is making some goods and dreams a reality for many folks who never thought they could have them. If I worked there, I’d fight for that.

A Mission is a dream, a vision, that gets you out of bed in the morning and puts that starry look in your eyes. It’s defined not in terms of profits or pageviews, but in terms of actual people, human beings, and how you’ve changed their lives. If you can provide your team a Mission, one that they truly believe in, then you’ve got one of the most powerful things out there to keep people on your team.


Feeling like a Family means that you feel a real, emotional, connection with your teammates.

That means you look forward to seeing the people you work with. You like spending time with them. They make you smile, you’ve been to their houses, and you know them well enough to make jokes with them or tease them at lunch.

Family means having co-workers that you’d like to spend an afternoon with, even if you didn’t have any work to do.

A feeling of Family is hard to build. In my experience, Family usually comes from having one or two key extroverts on your team that form the glue that brings everyone else together. These key people are usually charismatic folks, social butterflies, who manage (just by being themselves) to make everyone else feel more relaxed and comfortable. They set the tone for relationships on the team. Sometimes these folks are the ones in charge. But more often these social folks are just members of the team, people that bring everyone else out of their shell, pop a few jokes here and there, and get relationships and friendships forming.

Having a team that feels like Family should not be confused with simply getting along with your coworkers, or respecting them. Family are people that you miss when they’re gone. They are people that would make you want to come into the office every day even if you were digging latrines together, rather than writing code.


Compensation, unlike the rest of the areas I’ve talked about, is pretty simple. It’s money.

Money can be in the form of dollars that have value today, or it can be in the form options or other compensation that your team believes will be valuable later. But mostly, it’s about cash on hand right now. When you’re dealing with Compensation, you’re competing with the big companies, who have big salaries to throw around, and the hottest startups, that already have billion-dollar valuations and options or RSUs that seem almost as good as cash.

In most situations, the compensation that really matters for employee retention isn’t equity—it’s the salary that you pay out each month.

Another way to look at this is that the salary that you give your employees is what they’ll bring home each month to share with their partner or their family. Their salary is what determines whether they’ll be having ramen or going out to Gary Danko tonight. Salary has an emotional affect on how you feel right now, and on the various decisions and comforts that are part of your daily life. And comfort and your family situation, over the course of years, usually has a bigger impact on the decisions in your life than a percentage of equity.

Although in some ways compensation is the hardest of these areas for a manager to change, in other ways it is the easiest. Improving Mission, Family, or providing Growth takes careful, sensitive planning, sometimes over years. Improving Compensation just takes a number. It may be a gamble for you, and it may increase the risk of your startup’s balance sheet, or it may raise your team’s profile and expectations at a big company.

But when thinking about Compensation, it’s important to remember how hard it was to hire the stars on your team, and where you’d be over the next 3 quarters if one of them was to suddenly leave. Lack of money can wear someone down over time, often in ways they may not even be aware of. The impact of Compensation may be silently influenced by a partner, a peer, a new job offer, or a life change you don’t know about. Compensation can have a real effect on whether someone will stay on your team, in ways you may not be able to see until it is too late.


Fostering Growth means making sure that each member of your team feels like they have concrete opportunities on the horizon for personal growth and advancement.

Most often, Growth means that people feel like they have a chance to be promoted. But Growth can mean many other things as well. Growth can be the opportunity to eventually lead a team, or the chance to learn a new type of task from some more experienced peers. Or Growth can be the opportunity to change your role, say from engineering to management, or from sales to product design.

Not everyone cares about this area. Across the people I’ve managed, of all ages and backgrounds, I’ve seen the whole spectrum: those who’ve happily done the same job for 5 years with little change or interruption; those who want to grow a little bit each year, with a few new types of tasks and challenges; and those who are so aggressive about advancing themselves that they need a big new challenge to work towards constantly.

For those who do care about growth, this area is critical. Moreover, the engineers interested in growth are often the overachievers, the informal organizers, and the quiet, dedicated folks that do the critical work that holds your team together. They’re the folks that want to channel their passion, their competitiveness, or their love of learning into their job. If you’re smart, you’ll give them a path so that they can find good reasons to keep channeling that passion into your team.

If nobody on your team cared about personal growth, you probably wouldn’t have a very talented team. Everyone became as talented as they are today somehow.

At a large, growing company, or at the hottest startups, you may not have to worry as much about providing new opportunities. Fast growing teams always have something new and exciting coming up, as they restructure and expand.

But the meteoric rise of those companies are the exception, not the rule. At most companies and in most situations, things change slowly. It’s not unusual for a group to grow by adding only a single engineer a year. Thus, as a manager, if you want to keep people engaged and excited about their future, you need to plan for their growth, and create opportunities for them, rather than waiting for opportunities to happen. It’s your job to ensure that each person on your team has a ring to reach for, whether or not that planning comes at a convenient time for you.

I’ve worked on a number of teams in my life, and it’s interesting to look back on those experiences in the context of the four areas I’ve talked about above.

At IBM, my team was strong in one of these areas (Family), and I stayed for about 2 years. On the Infrastructure team at Google, which I felt was strong in two of these areas (Growth, Compensation), I stayed for three and a half years. The App Engine team, which I’ve tried to run with all of four these ideals in mind (to some level of success), I’ve stayed on for 5 years. I’m still there today.

When you’re thinking about your own team, it’s helpful to think about which one of these areas you think your team is the weakest in. Thinking about which of your areas is weakest is easier than trying to figure out which of the areas you are strong in, because it’s tough to be both objective and complimentary about yourself. (I think it’s a little easier to be honest about your shortcomings.)

Once you’re thinking about one specific area you’d like to improve on, it can be surprising the small changes that are within your reach that can make a difference. Here are some examples of small changes that I’ve made over the years on my teams that had an impact:

  • Family: Introduced a team lunch on Fridays, where everyone left the office together.
  • Compensation: Spot bonuses after a big launch. They’re easier to afford than a raise, and they show people directly that you notice and appreciate them.
  • Growth: Earmarked people to lead specific upcoming projects—and let them know about it. It’s not a guarantee, but it gives the person a plan and makes you transparent.
  • Mission: Told a story from my childhood that connected me to our team’s mission, and explained how. I got emotional about it.

When you’re leading a team, it’s easy to get distracted by the urgent stuff, and miss the important stuff. Perhaps unsurprisingly, “employee retention” and a well-balanced work environment will never seem like an urgent topic. But it does matter. Spending time to emphasize the meaning behind your team’s work, fostering comfortable and relaxed personal relationships, giving each person on your team a meaningful future opportunity to work towards, and then budgeting enough money to show everyone that you mean it, matters.

As a manager, I have found that focusing on these four areas will help get your team to stick around.

Written by Kevin

March 19th, 2012 at 3:09 p.m.

Posted in Management, Teams

Ed Catmull: 1000s of little ideas


One of my favorite quotes about engineering is from Ed Catmull, the head of engineering at Pixar. It’s a great insight into the reality of how amazing products are made.

There is a confusion, I thinkā€¦ in that we think about “an idea.” When we think of ideas for movies, we think about ideas for products. And it’s usually thought of the some singular thing. But the reality is, their successful movies – as with all successful products – have got thousands of ideas. It’s just all sorts of things necessary to make it be successful. And you have to get most of them right to do it.

Written by Kevin

October 14th, 2011 at 12:59 a.m.

Posted in Quotes, Engineering, Teams