Does the engineering group work according to the needs of the business? Does it support its decisions with data and rearrange priorities depending on the value each project brings to the table? Does it take the necessary time to explain to the rest of the organization why priorities were arranged as they were? If the answer to all these questions is “yes”, then the mission has been accomplished: the engineering team is “great”. If the answer is “no”, the challenge ahead is great.
How do we build an engineering team of excellence? The first indispensable element is agility. In an ever-changing world, where variables are increasingly difficult to measure and control, responsiveness at a very high speed, adapting to disruptions, and learning dynamically is of the essence.
The keyword: agility
In this context, “agility” is not understood to be only the use of a framework in particular but, rather, a cultural change that must cut across the engineering team, so that:
– Decisions can be made quickly. Those decisions that –given their scope and strategic quality– can be reverted are excluded from this standard. Actually, the truth is that most of the decisions that are taken every day can be easily reverted.
– It does not fall in love with any decision, new project, or methodology. Everything can change overnight. Adaptability, flexibility, and resilience will show the way in each case.
– If is not afraid of deliverables and of making mistakes. Generally speaking, in order to work, an initiative needs a trial-and-error process that can be completed with efficient iteration and adjustment processes.
– It concentrates on one initiative at a time and does not succumb to the temptation of doing a huge number of things simultaneously.
– It maintains a culture of frequent meetings and fluid communication.
Motivation and winning mentality
Very often, the engineering team is overwhelmed with urgent matters. Even if it is true that these matters need to be addressed, a winning mentality has to be cultivated – something that gives the team the necessary momentum to move one step ahead. That is why teams need to explore projects that will yield quick results and that focus on the areas that most impact the organization.
In the world of sports, the prevailing maxim is “victory begets victory”. Likewise, when things are not working as expected, the team must keep its spirit up and, whenever possible, build the next victory to return to the winning path. This needs to be conspicuous: every successful sprint must be celebrated as if it were magical.
Collaboration is a source of motivation. Even when the tasks at hand are unipersonal, creating a collaborative model generates enthusiasm and –thanks to the diversity of views– better results. Team-building activities are important to establish personal links that help strengthen cohesion in the work team.
The search for talent is also a great challenge. The obvious technical skills requirement is not enough. Soft skills are essential: open-mindedness (rigid and excessive structures run counter to the need for flexibility that prevails today), good communication skills (an unheard-of set of skills in the profile of an engineer just a couple of years ago!) and a good balance that prevents high self-esteem from turning into an inflated ego.
The importance of leadership
One of the mainstays for the growth of the engineering team is leadership. Those who lead high-performance teams can no longer consider that their main function is to guarantee project implementation.
Their responsibilities at present go way beyond that. Some of the main ones are the capacity to align the company’s technology strategy with its general strategy, bolster the specific purpose of team members, and promote autonomy. That balance is key to attracting, retaining, and engaging talent, while developing their skills: understanding challenges, fostering motivation, and getting everybody to give their best. But this does not come out of the blue. Leaders have to make the effort and analyze the type of growth members want to achieve, and how the organization or the team can help them do so.
Honest, frequent, and mutual feedback also helps. It generates a bond of trust that reinforces the team’s performance. Team leaders must openly point out the things that could be done better, in a constructive way (leaders want to help collaborators, and what they tell them will help them do a better job). However, leaders must be receptive to criticism and show their vulnerable side (there is no room for all-powerful leaders in the current business context), all of the above, in addition to applying corrective actions, when needed. Transparency in communication must be a pillar for the organization.
Lastly, all team members must be aware of what has been achieved, must be acknowledged for their effort, and be informed of any positive feedback from the client. All this will help them understand the role they play in the machinery they are a part of, and, in the end, will generate an extra quota of motivation and engagement.
When the engineering team moves to a higher level, it will no longer be creating code or developing software. Instead, it will contribute to the growth of the company and all its clients.