How to Build a Great Software Engineering Team

December 23, 2019

Engineering teams require more than technical acumen to be successful; they also need empathy. 

According to Newsela’s VP of Application Development Christian Gloddy, looking for engineers with soft skills during the recruitment process helps build teams stacked with collaborative and supportive employees. 

“Bringing on empathetic engineers helps ensure every engineer is surrounded by people who will catch them when they fall, and lift them back up,” Gloddy said.

Engineering leaders need to demonstrate empathy, too — especially during the onboarding process, ensuring rookie engineers are set up with mentors and training materials. 

These are only a couple of the ways that empathy can empower engineering leaders as they scale their teams. We got tips from four dev team leads on how they build rapport amongst team members, despite increasingly challenging business goals.

 

Newsela team working
Newsela

Christian Gloddy, VP of application development at Newsela, said a manager should be receptive to the needs of cross-departmental colleagues, users and the person in the mirror.  

 

What’s a key factor leaders should consider when growing their dev team?

One important thing leaders need in building a high-caliber team is empathy. For us, that means empathy for our users, the teachers, and the students who use our platform in the classroom every day. Leaders need empathy for the engineers beside them. They need empathy for their partners in product, design and marketing. And of course, empathy for themselves. 

Empathy shows itself in the features that are built. It isn’t enough for software to be functional. It has to be understandable and flexible. For that, empathy is necessary.

[Leaders] need empathy for their partners in product, design and marketing.”

 

What’s been a major challenge you’ve faced and solved while scaling?

The software industry has an unfortunate history of empowering what is often described as the “brilliant jerk”: lone coders who understand the languages and platforms in play, but also struggle to collaborate, communicate and aid those around them. The greatest challenge for us is finding teammates that are both brilliant and build upon our team’s culture of empathy. 

Bringing on empathetic engineers helps ensure every engineer is surrounded by people who will catch them when they fall, and lift them back up. To build a team for future growth, you need people in longboats rowing in the same direction, not jerks on jet skis.

 

Teampay team working
Teampay

Justin Oblak, VP of engineering Teampay, said it was important that neither his new or veteran engineers felt neglected as the team scaled. So a balanced onboarding process was implemented to cater to the needs of both groups simultaneously.

 

What’s a key factor leaders should consider when growing their dev team?

Empathy is one of the most important attributes to consider when recruiting for engineering teams. A team of empathetic individuals creates an environment of trust and confidence instead of pressure and bullying. This solid base of trust results in increased ownership and responsibility, which allows the team to scale more gracefully.

A team of empathetic individuals creates an environment of trust and confidence.”

 

What’s been a major challenge you’ve faced and solved in scaling your team?

One of the biggest issues we faced was onboarding time. As teams grow quickly, it’s easy to get into a place where you’re spending more time helping new engineers than building the product. We prioritized implementing a well-documented onboarding process to fully support new engineers when they join, while still allowing our existing team members to execute on their day-to-day responsibilities.

 

NS1 team working
ns1

Setting up new hires for success meant educating them for NS1’s Director of Engineering Thomas Spiegelman. To do so, the leader said he matched new hires with experienced engineers that could provide a wealth of knowledge, building a collaborative culture in the process.

 

What’s a key factor leaders should consider when growing their dev team?

One of the most important factors is finding engineers who are excited about the work they are doing. We find they are more apt to enjoy teaching other people, and this builds a foundation of cross-training and collaboration

We made it a point to pair new engineers with our more seasoned engineers.”

 

What’s been a major challenge you’ve faced and solved in scaling your team?

We have had problems with historical knowledge being siloed onto a handful of engineers who have been around for a long time. Changing this was no easy task, but we took two specific avenues to increase the velocity of our cross-training. 

We put together a more structured onboarding experience to help build a base of knowledge in new employees. Then we made it a point to pair new engineers with our more seasoned engineers to remove single points of failure in our knowledge base. 

 

Betterment team working
Betterment

Sometimes mentors need support just as much as mentees do. Betterment Senior Engineering Manager James Paolantonio said that as his teams scaled, it became clear that mentorship could extract a cost from mentors. So the onboarding process was revised to give teachers and apprentices more breathing room. 

 

What’s a key factor leaders should consider when growing their dev team?

The two keys to a great software engineering team are balance and growth.

A team composed of engineers with varying skills and experience creates an atmosphere of teaching and mentoring. This allows every member of the team to grow in their own way while also being exposed to technologies and processes they may be unfamiliar with.

We took steps to allow greater onboarding time that better supports our new hires and mentors.”

 

What’s been a major challenge you’ve faced and solved in scaling your team?

Managers often fail to take into account the weight of mentorship in onboarding new hires. We consider onboarding a vital part of our engineering experience and pair new hires with a “buddy.” But in the past, we sometimes didn’t take that responsibility into account when planning projects. So we took steps to allow greater onboarding time that better supports our new hires and mentors.

 

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