As an engineering leader in tech, you are running one of the most important and expensive departments in the company.
Software companies spend billions on their talent, from hiring, onboarding, performance, employee satisfaction, and up to employee development. They are also dealing with structural changes and choosing mid-management engineering managers to lead the teams. Those processes and decisions involve making hard human factor decisions.
The larger your engineering team gets, the harder it is to really know them. The problem is you might miss your key performers, or you might oversee the team influencers. You are missing the opportunity to make sure you both motivate and encourage these all-stars to keep doing great work, perhaps even rolling them into more impactful positions within the engineering department. You can and should also map out the teams and individuals that need more attention and help in order to keep up with the delivery requirements.
At the end of the day, your delivery depends on your people, on each one of your engineers. So it’s a good idea to get a glimpse of the team dynamics, understand who your power centers are, and make the right decisions when flying this airship. Yes, you definitely deserve a co-pilot, but start with the tips below :)
Here are some practical tips to detect key groups within your engineering team. We also added use cases we’ve heard a lot about and our POV of how to tackle them :
- Who are they? These are your makers, the main contributors to multiple projects. Your top performers together represent about 50% of your overall velocity.
- How to find them? Top performers are usually the top 10% of your workforce. They will take the highest priority tasks, they will be preferred reviewers to most engineers, their tasks will be efficiently divided into small batches which increases efficiency and quality of the code. They will most probably have a small amount of review cycles to their PRs and their velocity will be a good example for others.
- What to do about them? Top performers are great tech leads and architects, so make sure they keep contributing to the most strategic projects your R&D team is running at the moment. Use them to mentor newcomers and remember to use their help if you have a project that got stuck.
- Who are they? These are your problem solvers, your key players who handle most of the top-priority work and bugs.
- How to find them? Look for engineers who review others' work, do the heavy lifting, but still maintain good velocity. Like top performers, they also take the high priority tasks and have excellent communication skills which make them good reviewers and team players.
- What to do about them? Team influencers are great team leads. They raise red flags when necessary and spend a lot of their time mentoring engineers. Use them as the glue of the team and make sure you have at least one of them in each team.
On the rise
- Who are they? These are the team members that get the job done, they push forward and as a result have a positive trend and continuously improve over time.
- How to find them? Look for trends—your rising stars are engineers that have at least two metrics with a positive trend, although they are not your top performers. Oftentimes these are the positivity leaders, the ones that make you feel safe when you think about them, those who do what they can to continuously improve.
- What to do about them? They can potentially be your next top performance. You should make sure they get positive feedback, that they are not interrupted and that they can continue to grow and improve. Use them as a sticky shadow to push other engineers for improvement, and let them work on similar projects with engineers that need to improve.
- Who are they? At any given point in time, there is most probably someone who needs your attention—not to say, these are your weakest people. They can even be your top performers; everyone faces challenges this way or another.
- How to find them? One way to identify team members who need your attention is to analyze your process and metrics and ask yourself why, why and why again. This will probably lead you to a specific team and specific people that can fix or improve their practices. Another way is to look for red flags in specific metrics—team members that are not taking reviews, team members that only work on low priority tasks or with very long MTTR. Extreme cases are also good indicators, like top velocity with no reviews.
- What to do about them? First and foremost, you want to be there, in the right place at the right time, to support them. It might be that they run into a conflict or just got a huge PR review that burns their whole week. You should not point fingers, you should ask the right questions. Having a team member that doesn’t take any reviews might be a decision of the team lead. It might be a good or bad decision; ask them why. Your questions will lead to the right discussion or will raise the needed awareness.
- Who are they? Your onboarding team members, the ones who are not onboard as smoothly as you expect.
- How to find them? New team members are easy to detect, they are new :) But the challenge is to find the ones that require more attention. One way to do it is to set a couple of metrics that can help you identify the newcomers that require more resources, for example time to first commit or a ramping-up trend.
- What to do about them? Onboarding can easily become a source of waste, but there is never a good time to invest in new people. Identifying the ones who are too dependent and need more attention instead of treating all onboarding the same can save you precious time. Those new team members should get 1:1 help from your team influencers and top performers. You need to make sure you provide them with what they need to realize their potential and grow from there. Some of them are just not a good fit. We’d recommend letting them go in the first 2-3 months and not waiting until they are 1 year into the job, for both sides' sake.
*Side note: there is a perception I see of engineering leaders who avoid looking into their engineering talent and their workforce health, sometimes at all costs. I can understand where it comes from because I hear a lot of sentences like:
- It is very unpopular to measure developers
- Develops will just leave the company if I measure them
- I don’t believe in micromanagement
These are all valid points, I can relate to them and I agree that when companies rank stack their developers, they miss the point.
Unfortunately, these bad practices cause good leaders to avoid looking at their talent and miss out on many of the opportunities to improve their team and to make informed good decisions.
At the end of the day, 90% of the resources in software companies are spent on talent. There is a consensus among all leaders that any company should invest in its talent. Without looking at data, keeping our talent and realizing its potential is a very complex task.
Data can tell us so much about our workforce and can help us make better decisions, on time.