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Team Building2024-06-10

Building a High-Performing Engineering Team

What sets high-performing engineering teams apart? In this blog, explore the essential ingredients for building a high-performing engineering team!
How to Build a High-Performing Engineering Team?

Ever wonder what makes a team truly click? Think about a sports team that won a championship. They didn't achieve that without the right mix of collaborative effort, hard work, and the right leadership, right?

As someone managing and leading engineering teams, we strive to cultivate a similar environment – a team that consistently delivers high-impact work and maximizes return on investment (ROI).

Of course, setbacks happen. But when engineering teams falter and miss their targets, the focus often shifts to the processes to get the team back on track.

However, many engineering leaders overlook the importance of a long-term sustainable plan that prevents these setbacks from happening again in lieu of providing a quick fix to the challenges at hand.

An engineering team needs the right environment, resources, and values to thrive and deliver on the high expectations we've set for them.

Yes, we’re talking about building a high-performing engineering team. 

This goes beyond simply team morale or a good company culture. This is about creating a strategic approach that minimizes rework, fosters clear communication, and reduces employee churn – ultimately leading to a higher ROI for your organization and most importantly for your engineering team. 

In today's blog, we will discuss the factors that constitute a high-performing engineering team. It is loosely based on our conversations with 600+ engineering teams, and their view of what worked for them and what tempted them for a redirection. 

So if this interests you, we highly recommend you keep reading.

What Defines A High-Performing Engineering Team? 

From our discussions with these engineering teams, we've realized that no two teams are exactly alike, even if they’re operating in a similar space, at a similar capacity. Their goals and expectations can vary widely. 

Moreover, tech is like a speeding train – constantly evolving! What stakeholders want today might be completely different tomorrow. So, how do you even define the success of an engineering team in such a state?

There's no magic answer, but here's what we've seen works well:

  • They crush their goals, consistently. Whether it's building new products or making sure releases go smoothly, they deliver. That's why it's a two-way street – you set clear goals, and they knock them out of the park.
  • They've got a great culture, solid processes, and leaders who can bend but don't break. In other words, it's a happy, and healthy dynamic with strong leadership.

This is where you, as an engineering leader or manager, come in. Building this kind of team takes a lot of different things working together. We'll dig deeper into that next...

What Does it Take To Build A High-Performing Engineering Team? 

Imagine this: you've assembled a talented team of engineers, but things aren't quite clicking. Projects are running longer than expected, and frustration levels are rising. Sound familiar? 

Our latest State of Engineering Productivity Report 2024, which surveyed over 200+ engineering leaders worldwide, identified a key culprit: ambiguity in roles and responsibilities. 

This lack of clarity leads to inefficiency and can seriously hinder your team's potential.

This is where your role as a leader becomes critical. To turn the tide, one of the most effective strategies is to remove ambiguity with clear goal-setting.

Removing Ambiguity with Clear Goal Setting

As a manager or a leader, you set the tone and direction for your team. The best way to do this is by establishing clear goals. 

Of course, you might follow the standard procedures of inductions or quarterly meetings, but leading a team goes beyond just following processes.

So, how do you clearly define goals and ensure that they resonate with your team? One way to do so is to communicate it to them frequently. No, we are not asking you to repeat yourself, or the same message endlessly, but rather reinforcing the goals in meaningful ways.

One practice that can help is setting SMART goals.

Smart Goals

They're Specific, clearly outlining what you want to achieve. They're Measurable, allowing you to track progress and celebrate milestones. They're Achievable, challenging but attainable goals that motivate your team. They're Relevant, and aligned with your overall objectives. And finally, they're Time-bound, with a clear deadline to keep everyone focused.

Let's break it down with a real-world example: Imagine you want to speed up your team's cycle time by 20% in the next few sprints. Here's how SMART goals can help you achieve that: 

Instead of a vague "improve cycle time," a SMART goal would be: "Reduce overall cycle time by 20% within the next 5-6 sprints." To track progress, we'd monitor things like how often code gets submitted, how long it takes to review code changes, and how much code gets rewritten. If we see a drop in review times and less code needing rewrites, we can count that as a win!

Here's the important part: this goal shouldn't exist in a bubble. It should connect to the bigger picture for the company. Maybe faster cycle time means happier customers because features get released quicker. Or maybe it reduces costs because less time is spent on rework. Plus, it helps the team grow by developing their skills and boosting their confidence.

Bringing Engineering Metrics Into The Conversation

Using engineering metrics can help you move closer to building a high-performing team.
We mentioned cycle time earlier, but beyond that, having a 360-degree approach towards data can help you provide a broader picture of how things flow within your engineering team. 

This can also improve visibility and alignment, make goal-setting more accurate, ground conversations in facts, and help combat biases. Metrics can also empower developers to identify and remove blockers and improve their own processes.
But when organizations start using data, the ‘how’ is often the biggest concern.

How to Introduce Engineering Metrics to Your Team? (if you haven't already done so)

It's crucial that your team understands why you're bringing engineering metrics into the organization and what you hope to achieve. Engineering is highly collaborative, and any data you look at will be influenced by multiple factors – no one person should feel personally responsible for a given metric.

Developers may worry that their data will be used against them – that they will be held to certain numbers and penalized if they don’t meet them. When everyone understands how data will and will not be used (more on that below), it can help alleviate many of these concerns.

How to Use Engineering Metrics to Improve Processes?

Even the best data can’t tell you everything about your team and how it’s working. It’s important to place all quantitative data in the right context. 

How? By gathering additional qualitative information from your team itself.

For example, you may notice a recent increase in your team’s overall cycle time. Now you can bring that information to a standup, one-on-one, or team meeting to find out why. If you use that data to start a conversation with your team, you might find out that meetings are eating into your team’s time to code, or that unclear technical specifications are making it difficult to get work ready for production. With that knowledge, you can work with your team to remove their blockers and bring throughput back up to its usual level. Or you notice certain kind of PRs remaining in an unreviewed state for a long. Backing your observations with data adds a lot of context for the entire team and helps you find rightful course correct to overcome the challenges.. 

But now that goals are set and data is also addressed and being leveraged, this is the time to do some groundwork. In conversations with various engineering teams, especially those looking to optimize their processes, a clear pattern emerged. High-performing engineering teams share a common secret: they prioritize their time effectively. Their approach often includes research, addressing immediate issues, and making long-term investments. If you want to set the right tone with your own engineering team, this strategy might be just what you need to jolt your engineering team into action. 

The Three-Step Process to Maximize Your Engineering Team's Efficiency

In order to truly boost productivity and transform your engineering team into a high-performing engineering team, it's crucial to understand how your engineering teams operate. This means setting some of your own time aside and understanding your engineer’s work through their own lens.
What we mean by this is…

Understanding Your Engineering Team's Work Patterns

Spend time observing engineers in their daily routines. Optimize engineering metrics to guide you in this process, such as by observing developer throughput to see how PRs were created, merged, and reviewed. Conduct in-depth interviews to understand their challenges, successes, and collaboration styles.
Participate in some engineering tasks yourself. This firsthand experience is crucial as it will provide valuable insights into the daily realities of your engineering team. 

By immersing yourself in their work, you'll gain a true sense of their routines, challenges, and workflows.

For instance, you might discover that tasks you assumed could be completed quickly are, in fact, much more complex. 

This could be due to various reasons, such as the need for intricate problem-solving or unexpected technical problems. Additionally, you might find that some tasks have many dependencies that are causing delays or bottlenecks that weren't immediately apparent.

Optimise for Quick Wins

Understanding your engineering team's needs and execution style is the first step. Now, let's move on to making small, easy improvements that can greatly improve their daily work.

You don't need big changes to empower your engineering team. Often, the biggest impact comes from quick wins—small changes that can boost your team's efficiency and morale.

Think about how repetitive tasks can slow down your engineers. Fixing these issues can make a big difference. Here are some examples:

  • Streamlining Workflows: Can you simplify or automate multi-step processes? Cutting out unnecessary steps can save a lot of time.
  • Automating Manual Tasks: Are there repetitive tasks that a script or tool could handle? Automating these tasks lets engineers focus on more important work.
  • Fixing Common Bottlenecks: Is there a process that always causes delays or frustration? Fixing these problems can make everything run more smoothly.

Within this process, keep encouraging engineers to suggest improvements in their daily work. They know the problems best, and their ideas are invaluable. You might also form a small, temporary team of engineers to focus on these quick wins. This allows for focused problem-solving and faster implementation.

Most importantly, publicly recognize and celebrate both large and small improvements. Highlighting the positive impact of these changes motivates everyone to contribute and shows the value of continuous improvement.

Investing in Your Engineering Team Long-Term

After addressing the low-hanging fruit, it's time to think about long-term improvements. This means making changes that are functional, technical, and psychological within your team. These changes will help create a more efficient, cohesive, and motivated team.

1. Functional and Technical Changes

First, let's talk about the functional and technical changes. Standardizing processes and tools is crucial. When every team follows the same procedures and uses the same tools, it becomes much easier to work together and share knowledge. Imagine how much smoother things could be if everyone was on the same page. This might mean you have to be up-to-date in terms of technology and how it is being leveraged by your overall team, or it might mean that you need to take a step back and acknowledge that you went too heavy-handed with a tool or integration, and not everyone in your team might feel the same way about it. 

Then, take a good look at the tools and processes your teams are currently using. Are there inefficiencies? Are some tools outdated? Once you identify the gaps, select the best solutions that fit your team's needs. Implement these changes gradually and provide ample training to ensure everyone is comfortable.

2. Emphasizing Autonomy

One key psychological change is giving your team more autonomy. Akshat Malu, Engineering Manager at TikTok in a recent interview with us said, "Giving people the freedom to work on their projects and learn from their mistakes is essential for their growth. It's about nurturing a culture where individuals can thrive and make their own decisions, rather than dictating every detail to them." By empowering your team, you can foster a more innovative and motivated work environment.

3. Measuring and Calibrating

Now that you have made these changes, it's important to see how they affect your Software Development Life Cycle (SDLC). Take some time to evaluate the impact and adjust your approach as needed. This might mean getting rid of processes that aren't working and trying new ones.

However, the journey to building a high-performing engineering team doesn't end here. It's an ongoing process. Every engineering team strives for smoother releases, better optimization, and a happier work environment. 

To keep your team on the right track, it's essential to regularly assess their health. Pause every now and then and ask yourself, "Is my engineering team healthy?" This involves looking at how well the team is functioning and making necessary adjustments. We go into more detail about this in this blog. Check it out to learn how to perform a self-assessment check on your engineering team.
By regularly evaluating and adjusting, you can ensure your team remains high-performing and motivated.

By focusing on psychological, functional, and technical improvements, you create an environment where your engineering team can thrive, continuously improve and achieve greater success.

Closing Thoughts

SDLC practices are becoming increasingly complex, and our engineers are continuously learning and adapting. A study shows that most people who become software engineers are driven by the desire to solve problems through code. It’s this passion for tackling challenges that keeps 58% of engineers motivated.

Their drive is never in question; they thrive on complex challenges, support, and encouragement from their peers. This combination helps them focus on delivering seamless, high-quality software.

For this reason, regularly taking steps to ensure they have everything they need to perform at their best is the key to building a high-performing engineering team.

This highlights the need for people leading engineering teams to constantly strive to improve the developer experience. This means making use of all the resources you have to work on this goal.

If you need help with this, our productivity experts can provide valuable insights and help you refocus your efforts.

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Table of Contents
  • What Defines A High-Performing Engineering Team? 
  • What Does it Take To Build A High-Performing Engineering Team? 
  • Removing Ambiguity with Clear Goal Setting
  • Bringing Engineering Metrics Into The Conversation
  • The Three-Step Process to Maximize Your Engineering Team's Efficiency
  • Understanding Your Engineering Team's Work Patterns
  • Optimise for Quick Wins
  • Investing in Your Engineering Team Long-Term
  • Closing Thoughts

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