What do a hotel chain, a healthcare provider, a supply chain company, and a financial institution have in common? They are all transforming into tech companies to maintain their competitive advantage.
The days when technology was used mainly as a tool to automate business operations are long gone. Instead, technology has become “the business” and every facet of it relies on robust technical solutions.
This transformation has made developers and engineers the most sought-after talent, and critical assets to organizations globally. According to a Stripe Harris Poll, access to developers has become a bigger threat to business success than access to capital. Business transformation by definition has become digital transformation and no amount of capital investment will guarantee success if you don’t have talented engineering teams deployed carefully and methodically across your highest priority business goals. Without a strategy for building and scaling a technical team, your organization will undoubtedly get left behind.
How to Build and Scale a Tech Team
As a technology leader, you probably already understand the value a well-functioning tech team adds to your operations. But how do you make sure you’re attracting the best talent and building a team that is both high-performing and scalable? By thinking strategically about different aspects of your organization, team dynamics, and work product, you’ll be better positioned to attract—and retain—top-tier talent. Here are eight ways to do just that:
Understand your organization’s needs
Before you do anything else, you should assess your organization’s needs. Evaluate the size of the company, tenure in the industry, unique competitive advantage, and core operational principles. This will help you understand how resources and investments are made internally and how to rally support and get buy-in for your new idea or hire. It will also give you an idea of what kind of team members will be most attracted to the company and add the most value to your team.
For instance, if your company is an early-stage startup in hyper growth you may attract engineers willing to take risks, fail, learn, and grow fast—but may deter more risk-averse individuals seeking stability.
If your company has plateaued, you may be looking for ways to diversify its portfolio to avoid becoming an industry dinosaur on the brink of extinction. In this case, your company will need the fresh perspectives of a diverse team of engineers ready and able to inject new life into the business.
The size of your company is also important to keep in mind. Whether it’s 200, 5,000, or 300,000 employees, the skills and competencies needed to navigate these different profiles are very different. Do some research on the reputation of the company so you know how to craft your narrative as you try to attract top-tier talent.
Learn the role technology plays within your organization
Is technology an enabler, a support function, a differentiator, or is it the business itself? Technology’s role in organizations has evolved immensely in the last decade—has your company been a leader in adapting the latest technologies, or is it lagging behind?
To get a picture of where your team’s contributions will be most needed and valued, you’ll need to start by inventorying the entire tech ecosystem closely. What kinds of systems and products will your team be responsible for building? Are there legacy applications that need to be sunset or rewritten? How much technical debt do you have? What engineering practices, tools, methods, or principles were used in architecting your applications and systems?
Understand your organization’s core business model
What are your organization’s current capabilities, services, and offerings? Who are your customers? What are the organization’s growth aspirations? A company that develops animation software will have very different operation and business models from a medical device manufacturer. Likewise, companies in highly regulated markets like energy or financial services are structured to optimize for different metrics and compliance requirements. These internal and external drivers all shape team structure, culture, and work climate and should be studied closely.
Learning the company and understanding its core business model will help inform your thesis on what kind of teams will succeed in the current climate. It will also help you define which competencies, aptitudes, and attitudes are most desirable in prospective team members.
Evaluate team dynamics
Today’s evolving global economy demands that we build teams that can thrive in environments of constant change. If you are taking over leadership of an existing team, it is vital that you examine the team’s overall satisfaction. You can accomplish this through one-on-one meetings, group sessions, and surveys. If you are building a team from scratch, talk to adjacent members in product, design, UX, marketing, and sales to understand their current technology gaps and needs. Here’s a few pieces of advice for making the most out of these conversations:
- Listen to both what is said and what is left unsaid.
- Remember that even negative feedback can be good, even if it’s tough to hear. It presents an opportunity to listen, assess, and enact change. By framing it as an opportunity instead of something negative, you and your team will be better positioned to solve the problems others bring up.
- Understand the organization’s political landscape, including informal and formal channels of influence and decision making so that you know where the landmines are and which accelerators will help you meet your objectives.
- Watch out for professional cultural collusion in multidisciplinary teams. While your data scientist, data engineer, software engineers, and web developers may be lumped under the tech umbrella, their school of thought and methods for problem solving, tooling, and building are different. Start to intentionally build a common language and shared understanding of each other’s crafts and practices.
Gauge team satisfaction with these questions:
- Are individuals in your team learning?
- Are they growing?
- Are they enjoying what they do and each other?
- Do they feel management have their back?
- Is the plan for the future clear and understood by all?
Define your values and driving principles
Everyone at your organization should know why they are at the company, what they’re building, and for whom. There’s a famous story of John F. Kennedy asking a janitor what he does, and the janitor replied “putting a man on the moon.” The beauty of this anecdote is that it illustrates the power a clear sense of purpose instills in employees at all levels.
You can get everyone on the same page by setting clear team values and principles that align with those of your company—and by communicating and demonstrating them until they’re part of the team’s DNA. Your values will set expectations around how you treat each other, your customers, and partners. They should also guide how you act and how you approach challenges.
Sample values + principle statement: We seek meaningful experiences in all that we do. When we design and build, we always take the chance to make space for meaningful interactions—both for those who use what we design and for us, the creators.
Build a diverse talent pipeline and make purposeful hiring decisions
There are many studies that show diverse teams build better products. You should consider both the visible and invisible characteristics of diversity— race, gender, age, geography, and background of experiences. This is especially important today with the prevalence of artificial intelligence and machine learning. Without a diverse team, you run the risk of building bias into the technologies you create—and negatively impacting society.
In order to attract diverse talent, you’ll need to focus on the entire continuum of the employee life cycle, from wording job posts to be inclusive to developing and advancing diverse talent.
Trust yourself and trust your team
In 2015, Google conducted a study of over 180 teams, and looked at more than 250 attributes to discover the secret sauce for making high-performing teams. The results may surprise you: Google found that who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. Read on for some of the top ingredients you’ll want to consider when developing a high-performing team:
The number one most important attribute to employees was psychological safety. This means providing a culture that enables co-creation, collaboration, failure, and co-learning. You want team members to feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes. Trust in each other and management is key to creating psychological safety.
This includes communicating the intent behind your actions. To create this kind of atmosphere, you must be open about why you’re saying something, and why decisions are made — including your decision to not act on something. Set the channels and framework needed for timely communication and information flow.
It’s imperative that you follow through on commitments to increase dependability across the team. Be intentional about what you are saying yes and no to—it is important that you prioritize commitments so you can follow through consistently.
Work on alignment and structure
Set transparent expectations for your team so everyone is clear on roles, expectations, and goals. Provide a framework for team structure, learning, and growth. This is important regardless of whether you believe in top-down or bottom-up management. Assess the competence level of your team, determine the ideal decision-making process, and strategize the best methods and timing for keeping the team informed.
The Value in Thoughtful Team Building
Following the steps above is no small feat—but the value derived from taking the time to do this is undeniable. By doing these exercises and setting clear values, you will help team members at every level find meaning in the work they do. They’ll be better informed of the impact their contributions make for customers, the community, even the world—and this will translate into increased satisfaction and retention. That’s huge if you want your organization to remain competitive in today’s tech-focused world.
Although the suggestions above provide an initial framework, there is no one magic formula. What matters most is that your journey remains authentic to your organization and its people. One of the most effective ways to build trust as a leader is to be forthcoming. By admitting that you have struggles, worries, and fears, you’ll gain a lot more understanding as you instill new processes and ways of thinking. It will also make room for both you and your team to fail, grow, and acquire collective wisdom.