If you ask engineering leaders to tell you the most challenging part of their role, most of them will say management. And these days — with companies building teams spread around the world and local developers working from home — engineering managers find organizing, managing, and nurturing a global herd of computer-programming cats even more challenging. “Managing distributed teams comes down to transparency, consistency and empathy,” says Bradley Scott, VP of Tech Products at Andela, which builds distributed engineering teams for global technology companies. “If there’s one rule, it’s to get everyone to collaborate in plain sight.”
Andela has created a management framework and technological tools to foster, measure and reward a unified culture of cooperation. Here are four of their top insights:
As a team leader, you can model how open and equal communication works. Make sure that any messages you send or information you keep is available to everyone in the same way at the same time. Track projects using Trello or another online equivalent. If team members at HQ get into a discussion and start whiteboarding on the conference room wall—and they will—coach them to send a photo right away to the rest of the team in a way that invites participation from everybody.
You measure code quality and commits, so do the same for the other factors that contribute to team effectiveness. Do they communicate in a clear and timely way? Are they open and professional with the rest of the team? Andela measures a host of what some call soft skills, analyzing everything from whether developers are “speaking to be understood” down to how often they turn off their cameras while on video conferences—a move that often symbolizes disengagement. One note: Make sure to regularly explain what you are measuring and why it’s important. Surprising someone with this kind of data in a performance review never goes well.
In a survey of 500+ engineering managers, the majority said attracting and retaining developers is their biggest technical challenge. The best way to combat this is to create an environment where developers can grow, no matter where they live. In co-located teams, serendipity often plays a big role. For example, a team lead invites a developer to join a new project because they remember that person talking about a particular technology in the break room. With a distributed team, you have to be more intentional. Make sure that there are both formal and informal ways for everyone to share what they are working on. At Andela, managers can review a database of profiles of all the developers worldwide to find those that have the right skills for any new effort.
A lot of CEOs are not comfortable with distributed teams, fearing that if they can’t see the work being done, it’s not happening. You can combat this by creating transparency with the systems your team uses to coordinate and track its projects. This provides an excellent window through which senior leaders can see what developers are really doing. They can watch work flowing around the globe through chat systems, shared documents and other collaboration tools. Most importantly, they can see the hard numbers on how much code is being committed, where it’s coming from and how much it costs.
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