Help Your Team Become Grown-Ups: Not Everything is Fun!

As the tech industry keeps getting more and more bizarre and given the state of the market and extremely high demand for engineers, I keep seeing companies go at great lengths to coddle their teams. It’s one thing to create a work environment that people enjoy coming to, and that enables hiring great talent. It’s a whole different level to let the fear of people not having fun to run your organization.

Let’s start with a few real-life examples I’ve witnessed with my advisory clients:

  • The over-complicated stack: There’s something new and shiny, or one of the engineers is getting bored, so it’s time to rewrite the frontend or write a micro-service in a new language. Do this enough times, and in 2 years, you end up wasting weeks of work and having to manage a menagerie of stacks.
  • Time to level-up: A culture where engineers feel entitled to get promoted or level-up very rapidly, sometimes even within six months of starting a role. I’ve seen this come to fruition as either a proliferation of titles in a career ladder the means nothing (as everyone becomes “senior” within a year), a structure where everyone wants to move to management and so having a lot of micro-teams, or by merely having people switch positions quite fast as they get bored.
  • Neglecting the important yet unsexy: Everyone that’s working on an important task, with significant business impact, are more focused on the fact that it means using some old SOAP API or that it requires changing the legacy PHP system, instead of focusing on the considerable value it would bring the company. Naturally, what follows is that the engineering managers end up shying away from accepting these projects, inflating the LOE to make sure it doesn’t get scheduled.
  • Hurting the clients so engineers won’t get angry: I’ve seen cases where the customer experience was being hurt literally to keep the engineers at bay. For example, by not enforcing an orderly on-call process, which resulted in incidents being treated haphazardly and slowly.

Hopefully, you’re not experiencing anything as severe as these, but they are all true incidents. Now, I’m not saying work should be all about the work, or that people should be treated like cogs. Let’s put that straw man argument aside – that won’t fly even if you tried. The crux is that you have to break it to your team that they are grown-ups, in a workplace, and not everything is going to be fun.

“Do what you love, and you’ll never work again,” is banal and irrelevant. For anything worthwhile, you have to do things that are not always fun. The key is to drive motivation from the success of the team as a whole and the impact on your customers.

Some things you should put in place in your engineering organization right now as the leaders are:

  • Candor: If a change is not in the company’s best interests, and would do the rest of the team a disservice, handle it so. Don’t take the cowardly solution. Talk about it, and be clear about the gap that needs to be addressed for something to happen (e.g., “you can’t switch teams in the middle of the project just because you want to do Svelte” or “I don’t think you’re ready to be a manager, but let’s layout together what you need to work on, and I’ll help you”).
  • Induce Product Mastery: My term for being proficient not just with the tech and codebase, but with the business aspects of the product as well. Invest in making your team understand what they are building other than it being another CRUD server. Have them see clients – answer support emails, webinars with clients saying what they have been getting out of the product, and more. Minimize the number of people that regard themselves as code monkeys focused solely on how cool the tech they’re working on is.
  • Be Impact-Driven: Team’s goals should be clearly linked to the company’s business objectives. When something is achieved, show them the clear benefit resulting from it. If they just worked three months on something that ended up being a flop, talk about it transparently. The preponderance of engineers I know would prefer to be told the bet the company took wasn’t successful over not hearing anything.
  • Celebrate wins: The last point is to make sure that you help make the important stuff fun as well. Major milestone? Have shirts made. Send everyone to a spa. Gift them a great dining experience. A round of applause in the next all-hands is sometimes invaluable. You’re here to build something amazing, celebrate the advances along that path, and reduce the tendency to measure one’s value by their quick ascent up the org chart.