Building a Great Engineering Team: Part One – Start With You

Matthew Strickland

4 min read

Aug 6, 2018

Building a Great Engineering Team: Part One – Start With You

At Big Nerd Ranch, we love helping Engineering teams and their leaders dream big and achieve more. As the leader of our iOS & Web teams here at the Ranch, one of the questions I am always evaluating is “how do we build a great team?” In this series, I am going to share some of my current thoughts around this topic that I believe will make your team more effective whether you are the leader or contributor. Let’s start with one thing we can control and predict, you.

Start With You

Your team’s ability to thrive is directly related to how you are thriving as a leader. Your greatest contribution to the team you lead is leading yourself well.

Why? Because a great team is composed of a diverse group of individuals who are all leading themselves well. If you want to see any behavior in your team you have to first see it in yourself. Be what you want to see.

When I first joined Big Nerd Ranch, I knew I wanted to see our team serve one another and fight for each individual’s common good. To do this, you have to build personal relationships and let those on your team know that you care. And so that is what I set out to immediately do. I wanted to get to know my team, spend time with them, build rapport not for the sake of control but for influence. Great teams are not controlled by its leaders, they are empowered and influenced by them.

Maximize Your Yes

As a leader, there seems to be a never-ending to-do list. It is quite possible to start the day with a set of objectives that have them completely turned upside down due to that day’s events. This is why it is imperative that we make sure the things we are saying yes to are the best things. If 20% of your effort is netting you 80% of the results, do you know what that 20% is and is it maximized?

Most teams and leaders say yes to too many things. As a leader, we need to simplify what we are committing to. If you could only commit to one thing today, this week, this month, this year, what would it be?

By prioritizing our yes we can maximize the thing we are committed to. The level of success your team will achieve is impacted most by what you are willing to say no to. Let your noes inform your yes.

Hall of Fame Basketball Coach John Wooden says it like this, “do not mistake activity for achievement.” As a leader, make sure your day is filled with the right things and not just things. A full calendar does not demonstrate progress, an effective calendar does.

Progress > Perfection

I want to land this idea that to build a great engineering team you must start with you by saying where you are is where you are. It is very easy to get discouraged as a leader because we are not at some milestone we think we should have already passed. This can be defeating but please do not stop there.

The goal of every leader should be progress, not perfection. You will not be asking your teams to be perfect, so why expect that of yourself. Recognize where you are and begin to formulate a plan for how to grow into the leader you want. The way I like to say this is that I am trying to become a leader worth following. Every day, decision by decision, I want to become more worth following than I was yesterday. How do I do that? By ensuring that my level of leading does not exceed my level of living.

Here are a few practical steps:

  • Avoid living in isolation – surround yourself with people who can speak life into you and provide guidance. It can be lonely at the top but it does not have to be.

  • Invite feedback from people who are invested in you – as you surround yourself with people who lift you up, ask them for accountability. Blind spots are called that for a reason because we are blind to them. Do you have someone covering for you?

  • Prioritize your physical, mental and emotional health – when I am failing as a leader it often comes back to one of these things. Leaders often eat last as Simon Sinek is famous for saying, but that does not mean we have to de-prioritize our health in the process. Fight for yourself, create a sustainable system for personal growth in these areas and watch your team thrive as a result.

Part 2

Now that we’ve looked at ourselves first, in the next part we will begin with the team we have today. Most leaders are hired and inherit a team. How do you make them great? How do you build from where you are today? If you are starting a team from scratch don’t worry, we will cover that in Part 3.

Josh Justice

Reviewer Big Nerd Ranch

Josh Justice has worked as a developer since 2004 across backend, frontend, and native mobile platforms. Josh values creating maintainable systems via testing, refactoring, and evolutionary design, and mentoring others to do the same. He currently serves as the Web Platform Lead at Big Nerd Ranch.

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