Building a Great Engineering Team: Part Five – Q&A with Chris Stewart

Matthew Strickland

6 min read

Sep 10, 2018

Building a Great Engineering Team: Part Five – Q&A with Chris Stewart

In this series, we have looked at what it takes to build a great Engineering Team. This post is going to be a little different as we chat with Chris Stewart to get some of his thoughts on the topics shared thus far. Chris is the director of the Android team at Big Nerd Ranch, where he is also an Android Bootcamp instructor. Chris co-authored the best selling Big Nerd Ranch guide on Android Programming and has been leading the Android Engineering team for over five years.

In Part One, we talked about how the first step in building a great team is starting with yourself as a leader. Can you share some insights on how you lead yourself? What are some daily rhythms or disciplines that help you as a leader stay sharp, balanced and ready to lead?

There are a few things that I do every day to make sure I’m at my best for the team.

I’ve found reading to be a great way to learn. My focus is mostly on management and leadership books, but I also read some biography and fiction from time to time. I’m an early riser and there are no distractions when I get up. I’ll pour a cup of coffee and read for a while each morning. I’ve also found that taking notes (even if I don’t read them in the future) has made me a much more active reader and helps me to retain the most important points from the books I read.

Once I arrive at work, I start each day with some planning. I have a notebook and turn to a fresh page every morning. I will copy over long-term goals from the previous day’s page along with short-term todo items. As the day goes on and new tasks pop up, I will record those as well in my notebook. I’ve found that the act of writing things down in my notebook helps me to prioritize my work, feel at ease that I won’t forget something important, and allows me to think about both short-term and long-term goals.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that we all have good days and bad days. I’ve seen that my diet has a big impact on my mood. To operate at my best, I eat breakfast every morning and never miss eating an early lunch. Ask anyone in the office at Big Nerd Ranch, and they’ll tell you how dedicated I am to eating lunch at 11:30 every day.

In Part Two, we talked about building a team begins with who you currently have. Can you share from your experience what it is like to inherit a team? How did you navigate that season, build relationships and set your current team members up for success?

In my experience, when inheriting a team, it takes time to get to know the people on that team and to build trust. It’s important to recognize that this is an uneasy time for the team because they have a new leader who may want to change the way things are done and who may want to evaluate people on the team in a different way than they are used to. Take time to build trust first before making any significant changes to the way that the team works.

For some people, building trust can take a long time. It’s important to prove that you genuinely care about the wellbeing and desires of the people on the team. Talk to people and have conversations that touch on why they come into work each morning. Find opportunities to get everyone closer to where they want to go. I’d also suggest rolling up your sleeves and doing some of the jobs that nobody wants to do. This does not mean you should try to do someone else’s job, but it is important to show the team that you would not ask someone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself.

As you’re building trust and understanding of the team, take note of things that are going well on that team and things that could be improved. Be sure to recognize and highlight the strengths of the team. Offer ideas for improvement and make sure that the team agrees with any significant changes before they are made.

In Part Three our focus was on Hiring, building your team from the outside. What stories can you share from your experience on hiring Developers, any systems you use and advise you may have for others who are in this hiring season as a leader?

To hire great people, you first need to bring in great candidates. At Big Nerd Ranch, we’re motivated by helping others learn a new skill. Through our work teaching and helping to build a community of developers, we connect with candidates who either learned from us or share the same drive that we do.

Once great candidates apply, we place a huge emphasis on how well those candidates work on a team. No matter how good a candidate’s skill set is, if he or she cannot work well with others they are not a good fit for the long-term needs of your team. We also work to understand what a candidate’s aptitude is along with their current skill set. A candidate may not bring the needs you have today, but if they have a strong aptitude to learn, they may quickly meet and then exceed your expectations.

Finally, I’ve worked to make sure that everyone on the team can have a chance to meet and evaluate each candidate before they are offered a job. Taking the candidate out to lunch is a great way to include people on the team who aren’t in an actual interview. At the end of the interview, we meet as a team to discuss if this person is the right fit to take us to where we want to go.

Finally, in Part Four we spent some time exploring the idea of retention and it is not just important to build a great team but you also have to retain it. As a leader, this is something we focus on all of the time so can you share a little bit of how you create an environment where your team members want to stick around? What are some things that leaders can begin doing today that will ensure the future is one their team wants to be a part of?

It’s important that you find some way as a leader to celebrate team success. One fun thing that we do on my team is celebrate completed projects with a project “trophy”. When a project is completed, I will find some kind of artwork that is tangentially related to the project and then gift that piece of artwork to the team. Now, our office is filled with mementos of past projects.

Celebrating success goes a long way, but to me, the most important thing you can do is build a team culture that people want to be a part of. You want to have a reason for people to be on your team that isn’t just a paycheck. If people are able to grow more than they would be elsewhere and are able to help other people on the team do more than they thought they could, then you have a winning combination.

Any final thoughts?

I think it’s important for leaders to recognize that the reason they are in the position that they are in is because of the people on the team. If you focus on making the team and people on the team as successful as possible, then your success will follow.

Thanks Chris for taking time to weigh in on this topic and our next post will be another Q&A coming to you from our Director of Design, Angie Terrell.

Zack Simon

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

Zack is an Experience Director on the Big Nerd Ranch design team and has worked on products for companies ranging from startups to Fortune 100s. Zack is passionate about customer experience strategy, helping designers grow in their career, and sharpening consulting and delivery practices.

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