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Driving High-Performance in Engineering Teams

James Wilson

06 May 2020

by James Wilson

( Words)

​What are the biggest yet most business-critical obstacles that tech leaders must contend with? To answer this question, La Fosse Associates assembled an intimate gathering of senior tech leaders, facilitated by Sean Rodrigues, Head of Engineering at Trainline. The objective was simple: to debate key issues in an open forum and share best practice.

In this article, we draw upon the discussion that took place and shed light on the key challenges tech leaders and their peers face within their organisations.


Getting buy in from stakeholders on agile transformation
One of the greatest challenges facing tech teams is getting people, departments and whole organisations on board with what agile transformation is and understanding what it can do. This often takes time but, as one attendee suggested, it can be overcome in two key ways: by providing clarity as to why agile is key to strategic growth, and through gaining stakeholder advocacy. Take the redevelopment of a website for example.

Leaders and senior management teams will invariably be focused on achieving a next generation site – one that is adaptable, scalable and leverages software to better reach and engage customers, use data to drive decision making, and deliver greater efficiencies in a way that gives it a competitive edge. It is the job of the project team to not only stress the transformation imperative, but to do so in a way that clearly communicates how the planned project supports the overarching strategic aims of the business.

Then there is the advocacy piece. Yes, the work will be carried out by the development team but, without ongoing consultation and buy in from key people within each stakeholder group, the project runs the risk of being derailed. As one attendee put it, having advocates from the executive team who believe in what you’re trying to achieve will filter all the way through the organisation. This is critical to the overall success of the transformation project. It’s about forging a good network and if one doesn’t already exist, making one.

Of course, challenging the perceptions of business leaders themselves can also be key. One way of approaching this is by asking how they believe the business is currently positioned versus how they would like it to be perceived. For example, if you operate a bank do you want to be seen on a par with the likes of Santander or HSBC, or will scale and competitive advantage come from being the next Netflix in your space? What is your vision? It is a conversation that moves beyond revenue targets to considering how A will lead to B.

Moving from service to function
Many believe that development can be and is seen as a ‘service’ rather than a ‘function’, such as marketing, legal or human resources. But it is very much of the latter, so - can a shift in perception be achieved? According to one attendee, the answer is yes – as long as there are the right people at the top to make it happen.

In his experience, the best organisations were those with a CTO and CEO who could both see how development is critical to helping deliver and increase the product and revenues. But one needs to be reminded that agile as a discipline is still a relatively new concept – 20 years ago it didn’t exist, and many traditional companies didn’t have software developers back then. As one delegate pointed out, fast-forward to today, and one could argue that we are all tech companies.

Defining ‘quality’ in agile
How we define what software quality in agile looks like has long presented a challenge for those in the profession. Does it refer to code, people and teams, infrastructure, or the performance of the solution itself?

Perhaps the closest we can get to a meaningful definition is limiting the number of bugs that impact the customers using the software. It is about ensuring an enhanced user experience and a universal understanding of what you can and cannot have – setting a ‘quality bar’ that project teams are responsible for.

In pure agile organisations, quality is defined and measured from within the development team, not outside. It is an integral part of their planning and development, as it is they who are ultimately responsible for – and are measured by – the quality of the code. As such, code quality becomes the goal for the whole team, which in turn drives them to deliver as close to code nirvana as possible – zero bugs.

Maintaining quality at times of rapid scale
The last few years have seen have a sharp rise in the number of ‘hypergrowth’ tech companies – those whose scale continues to defy the odds and put paid to the traditional, more stable road to growth that has hitherto dominated the world’s economies. But how can these high-growth enterprises ensure that the culture created by their founders is not left behind as the organisation expands?

As a business, La Fosse is in the unique position of being one of the biggest providers of staffing solutions for many of the UK and Europe’s fastest growing tech employers. That gives us an insight into how founders, CEOs and other key stakeholders successfully balance both the needs of the business from a strategic perspective and the way in which they scale their cultures at the same time.

It is true that all businesses, irrespective of size or current rate of growth are susceptible to the same economic conditions and socio-political factors. But when a business is rapidly accelerating, the need to have the right people and systems in place is imperative. If these factors cannot be met, the business runs the risk of running out of steam before it has even got going. This puts pressure on the ability of its leaders to maintain the culture of the organisation, its underlying beliefs and the values that shape it.

Changing dynamics
The dynamics within any scaling business will inevitably change once the number of people working within it reach a certain point – often the 150-mark – and often in ways that one could not have predicted. This can be something that start-up founders struggle to contend with.

Quartz is a great example of this. Between 2016 and 2018, the digital publishing company saw its employee count rise from one to 150 before the leadership team took stock on how the culture of the business had evolved within that two-year period. ‘Evolved’ was optimistic – ‘devolved’, from a cultural perspective, is perhaps more accurate.

The company sought to address this, and following a series of internal surveys, a variety of issues were highlighted. These included an absence of hierarchy which left many people unsure as to what the decision-making process was; a lack of information about the vision and strategy for the business; and an eagerness among many employees to advance their careers within the business but an unawareness of whether such opportunities existed.

Quartz soon recognised that the dynamics had shifted as they grew, and their next step was similar to what the likes of Netflix, Facebook and just about every other major fast-growth tech company has learned to do (often after having gone through the same painful process as Quartz) - they did what Google would have done.

Overcoming the culture challenge
Google addressed the challenge of ‘lost’ culture through repetition. By always communicating and reminding everyone within the business of their vision (what it wants to be), mission (how it will achieve the vision), values and principles, Google was able to not only make its core messages memorable but also ensured its culture could easily be maintained as its workforce scaled. They figured out a way to create an ‘optimal’ culture.

The culture challenge can and often does get all the greater when there are distributed teams. At one of our recent roundtable events, one delegate shared his experience of working with a team spread across the UK, Australia, Australia, India and the USA, to name but a few. Each team has its own area of specialism, and managing that collective team and creating a sense of connection with the organisation’s culture is not easy. But it is achievable.

For example, if you have a team of data-orientated coders - people whose focus is on ‘getting stuff done’ - there is a chance of miscommunication between remote teams. This then makes each team feel as though they sit within a collection of individual teams scattered here there and everywhere.

However, leaders can create greater cohesion through a number of initiatives, such as regular webinars with colleagues, quarterly gatherings whereby everyone is brought together at the same location, and regular video communications - rather than over-reliance on emails - to share knowledge and ideas with one another.

All of this increases familiarity within teams, breaks down the communication gaps that can sometimes appear when people are operating in different locations, and encourage greater collaboration within an environment where people feel they can freely express themselves.

Maintaining the culture of the organisation shouldn’t just sit with the leader. As the business grows so do the range of new roles that are created, such as the COO. The burden of responsibility must rest on the shoulders of mid- and lower- tier managers, too. It is they who interact with employees on a day to day basis and it could be said that they have the greatest opportunity to ensure that the values and beliefs that constitute the organisation’s culture are put into practice every day.




James Wilson manages the La Fosse Platform Development team, based in London. He and his team help clients to identify and secure the best contract talent within the software engineering space, whilst ensuring an excellent level of service to candidates. The technologies that James and his team recruit for include Backend Programming (.NET, Java, Python, Ruby), QA/ Testing and Software Architecture.

james.wilson@lafosse.com

+44(0)2079321667




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