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More Productive Eng Teams

Bill Coughran

Hiring engineers is one of the biggest challenges facing startups. That means it’s doubly important to keep the ones you have. We’ve learned a few tricks that will help you keep your team productive.

  • Listen to what people are telling you.
  • Recurring meetings take time away from design and coding, so question the value of every one. If you must have a meeting, make sure you schedule it at a time when your engineers won’t be deep in code, like in the morning before people settle into the day’s work. That way you avoid forcing people to switch modes, which is hard to do.
  • If you decide to cancel a feature, explain to everyone on the team why you’ve made the decision. This is especially important if it’s a business decision, as the reasons won’t be as obvious to engineers. Your team will respond poorly if they’re left thinking the decision was arbitrary. Don’t let this happen to the same employee twice -- she may not give you the chance to let it happen a third time.
  • Recognize your best employees and don’t rely on compensation alone to keep them happy. Give them a sense of ownership and go out of your way to highlight their accomplishments in front of the team. For example, consider offering to add star employees' names to patents that are filed.
  • Structure and titles matter although resist adding levels until organizational scale forces you to. Engineers should have advancement paths that are parallel to their manager counterparts; managers are often less important than key engineers. At the same time, employees will count how many people away they are from the CEO in the org chart. Unnecessary bureaucracy will make people feel like they don’t have as big a stake in your projects.
  • Developers often want to work on additional or new projects. You can scratch that itch with events like hackathons, which are also excellent for team-building and company culture. If an employee with a proven track record has a potentially great idea, give them the flexibility to build a prototype.
  • Highly-skilled senior contributors can be difficult to work with on a team. Just let these people work on their own. Again, make sure there are positions and titles that they can be promoted into, even if they don’t become managers.
  • I’ve yet to find a definitive answer to the ideal ratio of managers to engineers. Some say that seven engineers per manager is optimal, others 15 to 25. You need to find what works for you.
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