Creating the Dream Team: Transform Your Engineering Organization to Attract New Talent

Posted on by in Culture, Process, Startups

The organization you've wanted to work for

It’s a common scenario for tech companies: Your hiring pipeline is dry and you can’t seem to attract new talent. You notice companies touting long lists of superficial benefits. Instead of improving your internal team, you find yourself worrying about getting a pro-grade ping pong table for the break room.

You don’t need helicopter rides or Massage Mondays to bring people into the fold. Instead, focus your energy on making lasting changes to your company’s DNA. It won’t be easy, but the results will keep your existing team happy, which translates to positive conversation about your organization. Here are a few strategies to get you moving in the right direction.

Know your starting point.

Before you hire new developers, assess your current culture. Gather feedback using a Product Dartboard or a quick survey. Ask team members to rank your organization on a scale of 1-5 using value statements like, “I am satisfied with the work/life balance here” or “I have the flexibility to address code quality issues when needed.” Sprinkle in open-ended questions like, “If you could change one thing about working here, what would it be?” and “What is one quality you look for in a fellow developer?”

Once you’ve gathered feedback, assess your company’s strengths and weaknesses. For example, you may discover your company is a “fun place to work” but there’s “not enough time to ramp up projects.” Use this information to create an action plan for improvement.

Build from the inside out.

Engineers who exhibit humility, teachability and empathy are a valuable resource. How can you instill those traits in your team? By exhibiting those traits yourself.

Humility: Support a culture that celebrates failure as a means of finding new answers. When you make a mistake, share it with the team and discuss ways to improve process in the future.

Teachability: Ask your peers, supervisors and direct reports for feedback on a regular basis. Work hard to improve anything that’s a critical offender. Then, circle back to your original group for additional feedback.

Empathy: Be the last to speak and the first to listen. Make it known that your door is always open to discuss projects, company culture or professional growth.

Encourage professional growth.

Developers are happiest when they feel challenged. Is your organization a place that inspires growth? If not, here are a few places to start:

  • Provide professional development assistance for first-time technical leads and managers.
  • Offer shadowing opportunities in different departments of the company.
  • Give developers unlimited access to books and programs about new technologies and techniques.
  • Send engineers to popular conferences for education and networking opportunities.
  • Start a mentorship program with your senior and junior developers.

Support a realistic work-life balance.

Startups perpetuate an “always on” mindset, making it unacceptable for team members to have social lives. Pressure to work around the clock may be putting undue strain on your team, resulting in low morale and declining performance.

Here are a few ways to shift the balance:

  • Set the example by arriving and leaving at a reasonable hour.
  • Use your vacation days and encourage your team to do the same.
  • Send sick team members home.
  • Teach your team to set realistic deadlines and build in time for unexpected challenges.
  • Pair product managers with technical leads to ensure scope is well managed.
  • Stop sending emails late at night and on the weekends.

Share technical excellence outward…

Organizations that practice technical excellence continually incur short-term costs to pay down technical debt. For example, a team refactoring a messy code base may slow things down in the short term or delay a product launch by two weeks. Your company may even feel the tension between the two worlds: engineering moves so slowly that we don’t ever launch anything, or the business is so concerned with launching new features that we cannot maintain our software systems well.

You will earn your team’s respect if you take the time to communicate with external stakeholders who are pushing your team to launch. Explain why your team needs to pause occasionally to “keep the house in order.”  Use  metrics on bug counts, error rates, code quality, and team velocities to underscore your reasoning. Explain how intentional efforts to address technical debt will result in a measurable change and a positive impact for both internal and external teams.

…and business objectives inwards.

Transparency helps your team emotionally invest in your organizational goals. Share the vision for your technology platform and ask for feedback. Consider aligning with an Agile process like Scrum, XP or Kanban, where each team has an embedded “customer” who represents the needs of the client and the business.

There are times when engineering priorities must flex to meet the needs of the business. You may need to communicate to peers and direct reports why you must put the tech debt effort on hold in order to launch a feature that will attract your next round of funding.

Check your biases.

It’s time to do some homework around the biases that shape your hiring and team building decisions.

  • Think about the last few people you’ve hired. What are some of the common traits? Do these people look like you, or remind you of someone you know?
  • Evaluate the language, tone, and comments made in the workplace. Would the everyday  language or comments cause potential team members to feel unease, unsafe, or unwelcome?
  • Have an open and ongoing discussion about biases. Ask team members for feedback on the current culture. What makes them uncomfortable? What feels inappropriate?
  • If you notice offhand remarks, pull people aside for one-on-one conversations.

Encourage an open door policy and make it known that you are comfortable discussing and addressing concerns or complaints. The more your team is able to have these conversations, the greater your ability to directly address them and correct for them, resulting in a more diverse, inclusive team culture.

Creating a Dream Team takes time and effort. When you look around your organization and see a smart, happy and productive team, you’ll know your efforts have not been wasted. And that’s a whole lot better than a dedicated ping pong floor.