How to Scale your Engineering Team
Scaleups need to be competitive in today’s market - and this is achieved by fast innovation, developing your product as per the needs of customers, and boosting client experience.
However, as you scale your products to cater to both existing and future customers, you will undoubtedly be faced with scaling challenges.
With the right processes in place, staying competitive is more than achievable…and that’s where your engineering team can help.
What great engineering teams do
Agile engineering teams understand how their work fits into the larger company strategy. Engineers know how to make data-driven decisions, and prioritise their work based on company and product needs.
Great engineering teams are focused and are able to consistently - and effectively - communicate the business case for each project so that colleagues understand why those priorities matter.
Growing a team
When teams are smaller, everyone working together knows the organisational goals, processes, and expected quality of deliverables pretty well.
Because the company and teams work in harmony at this size, there will be temptation to scale your engineering team as quickly as possible - but there’s so much more to growing your business than scaling fast, as scaling teams at pace can present challenges.
Rapid growth (especially without a plan) runs the risk of decreasing productivity, creating silos, ineffective communication, diminishing user impact per engineer over time, and limiting the ability to change how you work quickly to respond to changing user needs.
So let’s take a look at how you can effectively scale your engineering team.
Optimise your hiring process
The hiring process acts as a gateway to your future engineers, and because of this, it needs a lot of attention - but organisations often underestimate its importance and neglect the process.
Define and formalise your hiring process and commit to improving it constantly - this will increase the probability of getting the best engineers at your disposal.
Every part of the process — from searching for resumes, asking for referrals and talking over the phone to interviewing candidates and doing background checks — needs constant optimising.
Build the right technical foundation
Making decisions, monitoring quality, and shipping products quickly is a lot easier in a small team - it’s when a team expands that there may be a few hiccups.
To best equip your growing engineering team, make sure you have the right technical foundation and best practices in place - like rigorous quality checks, test-driven development (TDD), code reviews, CICD, and distributed ownership - to replicate your success in bigger teams.
Processes need to be defined and communicated across the business so the quality of your deliverables don’t start to slip.
Think long and hard about how you can build these foundations. Maybe you use automation to speed up your processes, if so, be systematic in your team’s approaches to tasks and create processes to share with the whole team.
High-velocity decision making
The ‘high-velocity decision-making’ approach helps decision-makers make impactful decisions fast, and when done correctly, this approach builds momentum and drives success.
Improving execution efficiency is one element of the high-velocity decision-making model that could benefit your growing team.
Hiring the right people
In order to build momentum and reach your engineering team goals, you have to hire the right people. The best processes in the world won’t work unless your team is read and willing to give it a go. So, what should you look for when hiring software engineers?
- Open-minded team players
- Skills that exceed our own
- Strong communication skills
- Low ego with high self-esteem
- Ruthless prioritisation and pragmatism
You will likely be presented with your first real growth challenge at around 20 people - and this will happen again and again.
Scaleups within the Tech Nation networks and beyond are often concerned when the first inflection point will occur - and many organisations feel that shift occurs at about 20 engineers.
But scaling companies should remember that they will bump up against inflection points over and over again.
Cornelia Davis, the Senior Director of Technology at Pivotal says: “It’s not that you start with five, you’re now challenged at 20, you grow beyond that, and you’re done.
“What happens is, when you get to 20, you start to break apart into teams. Eventually, each of those teams adds more people, and you hit the twenty-person mark again.”
Davis describes herself as an architect - and when she breaks teams apart, she looks for architectural seams, for example, where do you put the contracts in place? Where do you put the APIs?
Davis says you have to keep feeling for those seams at scale: “You’re looking for that mark. Is it 20? 18? 24? 15? You are continually looking for that number, all the time.”
How to scale an engineering team in 2022
As your engineering team inevitably grows, you will need to start shaping aspects such as career paths, levels, growth frameworks, a feedback culture or performance review frameworks.
Now of course, implementing these things come with their own set of challenges, including:
Becoming unaligned internally
As organisations scale, the internal structure scales with it.
Different layers of management develop, and teams often grow horizontally, which can make it more challenging to keep individuals aligned with company goals. Team leaders need to create awareness surrounding challenges faced by different pockets of the company.
This will create organic alignment and help the organisation feel like one big team going in the same direction.
No focus on intent
When implementing new practices, a good leader will always have the company’s particularities in mind as you aim to scale.
Think about why you need to scale your engineering team, and the scaling nature. Are you expanding into a new unfamiliar direction that needs expertise that your company doesn’t have? Or do you need more people in the department to increase capacity?
Make sure your choices are actionable and intentional as you grow your team to boost success.
And finally: Don’t leave quality to chance
You’re scaling your engineering team because your product is getting bigger or you’re adding more products - either way, different teams will work on different things, and keeping a close eye on quality becomes a lot more challenging.
As an engineering leader, establish a culture of quality with these three key rules:
- Pay attention: Sometimes, the most effective advice is just that simple.
- Make a release checklist: Managing an ever-increasing team of engineers brings an ever-increasing pool of knowledge. Codify that knowledge into a checklist, a set of boxes each product team must check before any product can be released.
- Implement reviews and automated testing: Code reviews, functional tests, unit tests — they all ultimately serve the same purpose.