Managing a Development Team

This excerpt is from Growing Software by Louis Testa, published by No Starch Press.

As the development manager at a small company, you have a unique role not found in most large companies. Whether your title is chief technology officer, vice president of engineering, or director, you must connect the CEO and members of the executive team directly to your development team. In a small company, you must be able to stretch in ways that differ from those of a development manager in a large company.

Understanding Your Core Management Values

Before delving into the mechanics of managing a team, let's take an introspective look at what it takes to be an effective manager. Ask yourself how you want to work with your development team and how your core values affect how you interact with others. Your respect for others, ethics, coaching and listening skills, ability to provide feedback, and concern for the success of others all affect how you make decisions.

LAST ONE STANDING

Our QA team consisted of six engineers, and we were good at what we did. When our QA manager left the company for another job, the VP in charge appointed a manager without QA experience and without management experience. Our team was willing to give him a chance. However, over the next four months, he managed to alienate all of us by showing no interest in quality. Gradually, the other team members found other jobs and the manager did not replace them.

I was the last QA engineer employed at the firm. I wrote an email to my manager asking him to show more interest in QA. I expressed concern over how the rest of the team had left the firm and how he had not replaced them. He fired me and had me escorted out of the building that day for insubordination. I should not have trusted him to be fair, even in a private communication. I found out later that this QA manager quit two weeks after I was dismissed to take a management job at another company. He destroyed the QA team and then left the company.

—QA engineer

As a manager, you need a "toolkit" of approaches you can access when working with your team. Your toolkit should include methods for motivating people, making yourself available, choosing the team's tools, organizing the team, setting up the workspace, managing projects, resolving conflict, and communicating with your team. With multiple tools and approaches on hand, you can select the best tools for the job.

In contrast, a rigid manager might have only one tool -- the one he used at the last job at the last company. But as the saying goes, If your only tool is a saw, then the solution to every problem is to cut.

The following sections consider the key tools and components of a set of core values: trust, flexibility, sincerity, confidentiality, respect, and empowerment.

Trust

Companies with an environment of trust are the most productive, because workers do not waste energy on politics, pointing out others' mistakes, or guarding their backsides. These companies encourage direct communication -- employees trust management and each other to pass on correct information and get support for their work. This fosters high worker morale, as workers focus their energies on being productive instead of on being wary.

Employees at small companies must be able to believe what they hear from senior management, because working at a small firm can be riskier than working for a large company. Since small and growing companies often lack significant resources, a high-trust environment drives the efficiencies that are essential to success.

Employees at companies with low-trust cultures waste energy focusing on other people's mistakes and protecting their positions. Workers believe they need to double-check the veracity of all statements from management. In such companies, management perpetuates low-trust cultures by rewarding low-trust behavior, such as political maneuvering, public verbal complaints about others, rumors, power plays to force decisions on other teams, and backstabbing. Low-trust cultures tend to breed in companies at which people are worried about losing their jobs. Management is often authoritative and political. Senior managers spend their energy pulling other people down to pull themselves up. In the absence of focused positive effort by top management, short-term advantages exist for individuals who exhibit low-trust behaviors to advance their position.

Why don't more companies create high-trust environments? Building trust requires that management make a focused effort by discussing company values and core beliefs every day and not just at yearly reviews. A high-trust culture requires that managers hire the right people, train them in company culture, and model the behaviors they expect.

As a manager, you can build trust by exhibiting high standards of fairness, confidentiality, respect, sincerity, and conflict resolution. You deal effectively with development team members who break your trust. For example, if a team member reports to you that she has completed a task, you expect the task to be completed correctly. If you later discover she did not complete the task, you will no longer trust her. This person will be a drag on your time, as you have to inspect her work carefully to ensure that it's getting done correctly.

In high-trust environments, a development manager looks out for her team. She doesn’t view the team as machinery to accomplish a job; nor does she consider her role to be simply a conduit for passing off uppermanagement's demands and problems to the team. Instead, she acts in the interests of both her team and her company.

Trust can appear to be an abstract concept. The following examples help to illustrate high-trust and low-trust responses to different situations:

  • You are attending an executive meeting and a fellow manager mentions that one of your senior developers failed to deliver a project on time. Although marketing contributed to the delay by changing the requirements at the last minute, you and the developer agreed to make the changes.
    • Low-trust response Point out in the executive meeting that the marketing manager made it impossible for the developer to complete the project on time. He changed the definition too many times, running up the costs without your consent.
    • High-trust response Indicate that you agree that the result was unacceptable. You plan to review the project with the goal of improving future performance. You invite the marketing manager to join in the discussion.
  • A developer tells you about his interest in getting a master's degree. You know another engineer who would like to join the team if a spot became available.
    • Low-trust response Find an excuse to lay off the engineer who spoke to you because you know he was likely to leave anyway.
    • High-trust response Try to determine whether the engineer can attend classes while still working for your firm. Ask him to provide as much notice as possible if he decides to leave the company to pursue an education.
  • Your commercial servers went down for four minutes during peak time. Your initial analysis points to an error on the operations team, compounded by a software flaw that prevented the proper system automatic recovery. You do not manage the operations team.
    • Low-trust response Tell the CEO about the operations team's mistake immediately while pointing out the need for the operations director to improve staff training.
    • High-trust response Spend some time investigating the issue with the director of operations. Then, the two of you meet with the CEO and describe the sequence of events and what steps you plan to work on jointly to prevent this from happening again.

Flexibility

A team of workers who believe they are trusted will act in a trustworthy fashion; being flexible in how you treat your team will help you build a high-trust environment. Treat members of the team as you would like your boss to treat you. Focus on individual successes as well as team successes. Developers are not just hired hands, but people with a career and a life outside of work. If you are fair and honest in your approach with them, they will generally treat you fairly and honestly in return.

You can show flexibility when a team member encounters problems or life situations that make it difficult for her to work in the usual ways. Flexibility in such a situation might mean allowing her to work from home for an extended period or allowing her to take time off. Flexibility can also mean shifting a person's working hours or shifting weekday work to weekend work short-term.

You can also demonstrate flexibility in making work assignments, making adjustments to align required work with the desires of individual team members. Each developer would then be able to focus on particular tasks that are of interest to him or her; this improves team members' morale and usually provides valuable cross-training that does not occur if individuals focus on the same areas repeatedly.

Flexibility does not mean providing the same solutions to all team members, whether or not they have a problem. For example, if one employee has family issues that require him to work from home for a week, everyone on the team should not then be allowed to work at home. When an employee will be working remotely or at hours that differ from those of the team, tell your team about the accommodation to help them understand your decision. Of course, in some circumstances, you should leave the accommodated employee's details vaguely defined, because telling others the details would be inappropriate.

A manager's flexibility has an impact on all the other core management areas. An employee is more likely to trust a manager who shows flexibility when the employee is experiencing a situation that makes it difficult to complete work as usual.

Some employees might take advantage of your flexible approach, but having an employee take advantage of you occasionally is better than being totally inflexible. While a few individuals might be untruthful about their circumstances, most people are honest.

Sincerity

Your team members will appreciate your sincere concern for their success. You can demonstrate your concern in words and actions, but ultimately your actions count. If your employees believe you are sincere and trustworthy, they are more likely to follow your direction when you are trying new approaches to solving problems rather than resisting every step of the way.

SINCERITY IS NOT A MANAGEMENT FAD

My manager openly talks about the fact that the job we have now may not be the one we always want to have. She encourages people to explore their interests even if it means they might end up leaving the team. She continues to do this even when the company is not filling vacated positions. She constantly puts our individual best interests first and is committed to working out whatever staffing problems arise as a result. This makes us all want to keep working for her!

-- Senior technical writer

If your actions show that you are insincere, it doesn't matter how earnest you appear while talking to people; you will not be trusted, and you'll be far less effective as a manager, which can lead team members to undermine you. Your team will lose focus on achieving the best results for the company. Consider, for example, the case of an unprofitable company that makes budget cuts. After the manager asks his team to save money and spend only on essentials, he purchases a new computer system for his desk, even though his current system is fairly new; this manager would probably lose his team's respect and ruin his credibility.

Confidentiality

Confidence also builds trust. If an employee confides in a manager, she expects that the information will not be shared with others or used inappropriately. Unless a confiding employee commits a serious ethical breach, violates laws, or puts the company at risk, you should never share this information or use it against the person. By encouraging an environment in which people can confide in you, you can help resolve problems rather than allowing them to grow.

Consider, for example, an employee who tells you that she wants to work on a different type of project. She has spoken with other companies about potential employment. On hearing this information, some managers would immediately lay off the employee or reassign her to unimportant tasks -- because she is leaving anyway. However, since the employee has voluntarily revealed this information, it shows that she trusts you, and, in fact, she might not really want to leave -- she might be giving you an opportunity to change her project assignment. If she does decide to leave the company, she will likely give you time to transfer her responsibilities to others because she trusts and respects you.

Respect

Individuals on your team must be treated with respect, by you and by other developers and co-workers. Lack of respect can be shown overtly -- for example, when someone verbally demeans another person face-to-face or behind the other's back. It can also be shown in a subtle way, such as when someone belittles another person by demeaning his or her qualifications, skills, or abilities to others.

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