Building a Great Engineering Team: Part Two – Start With Who You Have

Matthew Strickland

5 min read

Aug 13, 2018

Building a Great Engineering Team: Part Two – Start With Who You Have

In Part 2 of our series, we are going to look at building our team with the team you have today. When I joined Big Nerd Ranch in 2016, I inherited a tremendous team and odds are you probably did as well. The difference between where we were then and where we are today is what I want to explore together.

Start with who you have

When you inherit a team you inherit not only the people but you also get the culture and any baggage that comes along with that. It is imperative as leaders inheriting a team that we assess where we are so we can know where we need to go. One mistake a lot of leaders make when inheriting a team is forcing their culture and vision onto a group of people they do not know or understand. This is why you must get personal.

Get Personal

As a leader, it is impossible to lead people you do not know. I am not suggesting you have to be best friends with all of your team members, but you need to know the stories of your people. Who are they? What got them here? Why are they here? These types of questions will go a long way in informing your next steps.

When I joined Big Nerd Ranch, part of my first 90 days was making sure that I spent quality time with everyone on my team. I first prioritized time with my existing leaders who I would be directly responsible for but soon made my way through the entire team. Schedule 30-60 minutes, whatever your time allows, which each team member and listen. Did you get that? Listen. Come in with questions but ultimately let those questions guide the conversation so that you can hear from them. The goal in these conversations is not to make them hear from you, trust me, they will get that soon enough.

Assess Strategic Direction & Systems

Most teams do not lack strategic direction, they actually have too much of it. I would wager that the team you are inheriting is not underwhelmed by the prior leader but overwhelmed by all they have to deliver on. The typical team commits to too many things, under delivers because of poor systems in place to support.

At Big Nerd Ranch, we say “yes” to very little as an Engineering Team and that is strategic. If you could only say “yes” to one thing as a team, what would it be? The answer to this for you and the team you inherit should be clarifying. For us the answer is multiple but it all rolls up into one idea: leading ourselves well.

At Big Nerd Ranch, my team commits to three things that accelerate our ability to lead ourselves well.

  • Weekly, 30 Minute, 1:1’s.
  • Weekly, 30-60 Minute, Team Meetings.
  • Weekly, 30 Minute, Pair Programming.


Our time in 1:1’s allows each leader to invest in a team member to build a personal relationship. It is amazing how a little bit of personal understanding will allow us to execute better on the professional front. As a leader, you should want each team member to feel seen, heard and valued. The 1:1 allows for so many things, that’s a blog for another day, but if we can provide those three things, add guidance and goal setting into the mix, everyone will begin to lead him or herself well.

Team Meetings

Our team meetings are more gathering than a meeting. The goal for this time is to foster community. Some groups read together, some groups just hang and chat, other still do programming quizzes. The variety is intentional, there is no prescribed approach for how it should be done but there is that goal: community. If our team members feel the support of their colleagues, that wind at their back and safety net when needed will be catalytic towards our goal.

Pair Programming

I hesitate to use the word programming here because not all pairing requires a code editor. This time together is something we prioritize because we place a high value on the ability to problem solve and communicate complex thinking. If you and I can spend 30 minutes together going over something we are facing, ask questions around it and explore it together that is going to make the both of us better. We alternate weekly the responsibility of bringing a question so that we can exercise different muscles. The hat of the student and the hat of the teacher is something we share and that creates a wonderful dynamic.

However you do it, building relationships both individually and collectively through 1:1’s, Team Meetings and Pairing are essentially building blocks of our system to accomplish our goal and strategic direction.

Empower others

You’ve probably heard me say this quite a bit in other forums but I think it is so important that I will say it again here.

“Your greatest contribution to your organization may not be something you do but someone you empower. Identifying, developing and empowering your team members will allow you to dream bigger and achieve more.”

You do not scale, but your leadership can. Be sure that as you begin to get to know the team you inherited that you are identifying who can help you lead. What are their strengths, what could you give them ownership of today that would accelerate their growth and the growth of the team? Asking these types of questions will unlock potential you did not know was there.

Most leaders obsess over the best strategy but the best leaders obsess over their team, who they are developing and empowering. Lasting success for any organization is not built upon a great strategy, it is built upon a great team. Who are you developing and empowering today? If the answer is no one, stop everything and begin, it will unlock you in ways you never imagined.

Final Thoughts

Inheriting a team can be one of the most difficult things we do as a leader. Not only do you inherit people you did not hire, you get their culture, history, and everything that comes with it. Instead of focusing on the problems this can present, focus on the opportunity that is there. Build from the existing team you have, get to know the people and begin identifying who you can empower. As you assess the strategic goals and systems in place, find the wins, use what we do here at Big Nerd Ranch if you would like…but whatever you do, be authentic. The team you inherit will take time to mold into the one you want, but that is true for any new hire as well. Remember, culture is not built on accident it is built intentionally.

Part 3

In the next part of this series, we are going to focus a little more on hiring. How do you add the right people to your team to make sure you are building a great engineering team? In this part, I will share some of my experience having hired 29 people in the last 23 months here at Big Nerd Ranch, our process, how we built a team to handle this and much more.

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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