How to Structure and Motivate Under-Resourced Software Teams

As companies continue to adapt to a shifting technological culture that involves an increased remote workforce, technology budget cuts, and staff shortages, stakeholders are searching for ways to keep their development ships afloat. To help you update your technology roadmap and account for these changes, a good place to start is examining both the structure and engagement of your software development team. 

Revitalize the Team Structure

Before you can make any significant changes to your team, you need to identify which roles are mission-critical. While there are certain specialized roles that can either be outsourced or eliminated when staff cuts need to be made, other roles are vital to the success of your projects and should not be cut unless absolutely necessary:

  • Project Managers take overall responsibility for the progress and ultimate success of the project. Their duties range from the intangible and morale-boosting, to more technical aspects like project planning, and project monitoring and control.
  • Quality Assurance (QA) Engineers ensure the software design and implementation adheres to quality standards set by both the development company and the client. Where the Project Manager makes sure the work is completed on time, the QA Engineer ensures the product works the way it’s supposed to.
  • Lead Engineers, or Team Leads, act as mentors and guides to the rest of the development team. They have a bird’s eye understanding of the core competencies of their organization, and actively work to build full-stack solutions.

Doing More with Less

Engineers are natural problem solvers, which, if you’re working with limited resources can play to your advantage. As you develop a lean strategy moving forward, consider improving your team’s efficiency and creativity through the following suggestions:

  • Think big picture: it can be very easy for engineers to get lost in the weeds of their work and that can often lead to burnout. Help them remember who they’re building these solutions for and why. Sometimes taking a step back can help simplify the process, and reduce wasted time and energy.
  • Reuse, recycle, but don’t reinvent: while certain situations do call for creating something new, most of the time, engineers may already have solutions (or partial solutions) at their disposal. Adapting old solutions to new problems can not only spark creativity but also conserve precious financial resources.
  • Leverage alternative resources: coders have never had more resources available to them than they do now. Whether that’s open-source technology or engineering forums, developers can often find reliable help if they know where to look for it.

Helping Developers Tech Happily

If you’ve had to reduce your technology budget or headcount, chances are your engineering team is operating under a higher level of stress than usual. It’s no secret that software development carries one of the highest burnout rates of any industry, so keeping your team motivated and engaged is crucial to maintaining your software output.

  • Focus on development (the human kind): Developers are lifelong learners and generally like to know that they’re doing meaningful work and that their employer is invested in their personal and professional development. Help them establish long-term goals that go beyond the scope of their current roles and skillsets.
  • Balance collaboration with solitude: as the labor force continually shifts toward a work-from-home environment, it’s important to give your team plenty of opportunities to collaborate and interface with one another through the development process. This can have a powerful psychological impact on the team. Also, be aware that engineers need time to put their heads down and work alone. Find the balance!
  • Give praise and feedback: the majority of coding work is practically invisible once the final product is launched, so never underestimate the importance of recognizing your engineers for the hard work they do. 

Tracking Engagement Metrics

In addition to the above suggestions, you can also leverage some more objective metrics to measure happiness and engagement in individual engineers. No single one of these metrics tells the full story, but can work together to provide a clearer link between how your engineers are feeling and how they’re performing:

  • 1:1’s: meeting with engineers one-on-one is sometimes the best way to gauge how they are feeling. Promote honesty and candor in these interactions. If engineers feel they can speak openly, they’re more likely to voice concerns or challenges they might be facing.
  • Actual vs historical hours: you can also examine the number of hours spent on a project vs how long comparable projects have taken historically. Often, if current efforts are requiring more time, it may be due to a lack of motivation or inaccurate expectations.
  • Code churn trends: engaged engineers will spend significant time rewriting and refining their code until it’s perfect. If the code churn rate declines, you may need to explore the reasons why.
  • Project post-mortems: how do your engineers feel at the close of a project? Accomplished? Exhausted? Defeated? Always follow up at the end of a project to see if anything might hinder their progress in the future.
  • Daily standup participation: you can also observe the team during their daily standup meetings. How well are they meshing as a team? Is anyone avoiding participating? Conversely, is someone dominating the conversation without enlisting feedback or collaboration from the rest of the team?

Identifying key development roles, and doing all you can to build trust and engagement with your software engineers may not solve every problem that a reduced team and budget can introduce, but it can give you a solid foundation of trust and communication that you can continue to build on in the future.

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