Leading tech teams through change

Guest post by Nick Mills

In life, we’ve all discovered more often than we want that we have limited control over our environment, leading to stress – as change and ambiguity can become scary.

Leaders know that a core tenet of leadership is helping teams cope with change and ambiguity to become resilient.

Leading technology teams, particularly software engineers, the pivotal innovators driving so much business change – and revenue – can be a particular challenge. Developers always want to push boundaries, they care about extending the state of their art.

They are also well aware that they are the innovators behind transformational applications and brands – they know their value. Glassdoor says that developers at Google can expect to make an average remuneration of £71,506 per annum. That adds a little spice to the process of managing these skilled individuals.

For an SME that undergoes rapid changes through growth, success, perhaps pivoting, managing developers is key to ensure the business delivers on what’s needed. That’s products and services that meet and exceed client expectations.

So managing developers and tech teams through change is key to ensure those who drive it are not burnt out in the process.

Our job as leaders is to build environments and systems in which people can thrive

In fact, great teams are strongly correlated with strong management. Yet personality and people management are often underrated in the technology industry: To change this the whole ethos of engineering management must change.

Software has become central to everyday life. Because of the collaborative nature of the practice of DevOps software development is an act of representation. To do it well the team needs to reflect real-world users so teams can understand how products are made safe for different users and uses.

Our job as leaders is to build environments and systems in which people can thrive. We also want to build a team that is resilient, so they too can become leaders. We need to invest in our people, to be a realistic cheerleader, to show up for ourselves, hold our values close, and to be ready to navigate different horizons at all times,

Technology needs change, but humanity does not

Technology will change over time – we live in an era of extreme innovation. Technology teams rely on technology to do their jobs, but they rely on their leaders, their teammates, and their structures more.

Building the right environment for them to do their jobs means continually upgrading tools, platforms and services. But what never gets old is being there to help them do their jobs, stay motivated, learning, and engaged. These are human values – not technological attributes.

Connect teams to the bigger picture

Creating an impact is a very good motivator for all of us, so helping tech teams understand how their work connects to the bigger picture, helping users or supporting other teams, is an extremely important and strategic skill.

While goal-setting frameworks like OKRs can help, it is also crucial to align engineering and technology initiatives with higher-level goals, and connect them clearly with user value.

Make an investment in your teams

The point of leaders is to direct, grow, and invest in our people, especially in times of change. This means building a team that can learn, adapt, evolve, and is resilient to change. A major part of this revolves around building leaders. Team members with potential should receive context for growth, and the opportunities to do so.

Involving colleagues in discussions so they can learn how to deal with real situations. A simple tip is to share notes from strategic meetings with direct reports to give them exposure. Or delegate strategic problems and work through the issues collaboratively.

Support colleagues as full human beings

Maintaining strong connections and understanding the needs of the people you work with became of further clear importance in the pandemic. And with larger teams it’s even more important that colleagues get a chance to be heard and authentically understood.

Given that people come in a bewildering variety of types, with even more varied interests and backgrounds, it’s important to offer a range of options to help them cope with uncertainty. Moreover, don’t prescribe to them, offer information and listen to their response.

Times move fast, but milestones mean something

OK, innovation and growth can make time move fast. Don’t forget to mark milestones with celebrations. Acknowledge teams’ contributions to success, especially when their roles may be abstracted from the end customer or business result.

One person might like a personal note, another public praise. Part of good leadership involves adjusting your leadership style to each individual’s needs.

Consider your values and live them

Managers are often the first person that colleagues turn to in times of crisis. This can define what kind of leader you want to be in live, stressful situations. Leaders need to ensure the present is being managed effectively.

They also need to anticipate what will happen and prepare their teams for the changes that lie ahead over the short, mid and long term. You can’t lose sight of yourself and your values in that work. One of the best things you can do as a leader, especially in times of uncertainty, is to use your values to guide your team through those challenging periods.

Measure technology and technology people correctly

Leaders can tend to put too much emphasis on engineering metrics without considering the bigger picture. Insightful and relevant metrics often fall into one of three categories: Velocity, morale, and business metrics.

Everything the tech team does should propel the company forward

Engineering velocity metrics measure the speed and efficiency of software delivery pipelines and is the category that managers typically pay the most attention to.They are critical in helping teams identify slowdowns and find ways to optimise their performance. Common velocity metrics include: Throughput, change lead time, sprint velocity, duration, mean time to recovery, and the success rate.

Morale metrics may be the most overlooked metric category in technology. They tell you how teams feel about the quality of their work and their job happiness: A major retention factor. Common morale metrics include: Individual and team morale, and code quality confidence

Everything the tech team does should propel the company forward. That’s why it’s also essential to track business metrics, including company growth, funnel metrics, and end-user value.

Put it all together

Leaders must be proactive and lead. They must pull everyone along in their efforts. If there’s a cadre of cynical employees who think an important project is merely a fad, it will be.

It’s essential that leaders realise that their efforts will require cultural and procedural changes with time. Colleagues must understand how the role they perform changes and evolves – and they must want to be a part of it.

Nick Mills is General Manager, EMEA at CircleCI