Scaling engineering teams

Scaling engineering teams as you grow

Written by on May 7, 2019

Rapid innovation across the technological landscape brings increased demands on engineering teams. As companies scale, product development must evolve accordingly.

Customers will require new enhancements and features, more and larger-scale customers will use your product, and there will be an increased appeal for new products from you as well.

Engineering as a function has to grow to address these different dimensions and do it with increasing velocity and predictability. This requires a deliberate approach to engineering leadership.

The 6-36-216 growth model

At nascent stages of product development, your company starts with a small team, say, six people, focused on designing and building a product. Once that product is able to consistently solve customer problems and establish a reliable product-market fit, most companies will typically see a six-fold increase in their engineering teams. From here, you would most likely look to accelerate, establishing yourself as a credible player. This exponential growth could boost your company by another six times, taking you to the 216 stage.

Ideally, these stages must be used as markers within the company to establish processes and culture codes. The nascent or the 6 stage focuses purely on product development, while at the second rung of product market fit or the 36 stages, the leadership should begin to articulate a deliberate approach to growth. The 216 stage is when the company culture, channels of communication, and ways of working are firmly in place, serving as a foundation stone as the growth trajectory continues.

Work as a startup within a startup

When a small group of people work out of a room, ideas fly across the table, there is transparency between all members, decisions are made faster, and changes are implemented quickly, ensuring nimbleness of operations and a willingness to experiment. The teams are small, well-connected with the business, the methods are transparent, and engineers do what they know best – ideate, code, validate, and repeat.

The energy, agility, cohesion, culture, and ownership of functioning like a startup, is well worth preserving and nurturing, especially as you scale.

The secret to achieving this is to organise your product development function into smaller teams, aligned around specific features or product areas. Break down all your functions into a service, create independent teams under each function, and align your organizational structure as many smaller companies under one umbrella business.
With this framework, smaller teams operate as cross-functional squads working towards unified goals – product management, user experience (UX), development, quality analysis (QA), and technical operations.

The ‘why’ behind every function

In a growing engineering team, the only way to ensure rapid product development is to have decentralized decision making. Every engineer needs to be aware of the ‘why’ behind their responsibilities, and fostering this across the organization through transparent channels of communication ensures clarity.

Effective communication - Engineering leadership

What is your company’s vision? What is your market? Who are your customers? How do they use your product? What customer needs to do your products fulfil? What are your architectural principles and design patterns?

These are just some of the questions that everyone must have answers to, preferably directly from the leadership.

In an early-stage startup, the leader is visible and accessible to every employee. As you grow from a small team to hundreds, it is inevitable that the communication overhead within the company becomes high, and a gap is created between the leadership and the employees. Bridging this gap requires a deliberate approach to communication.

Periodic meetings with the smaller teams, fireside chats, all-hands meetings, using a collaboration wiki, and leveraging tools like Facebook’s Workplace are some methods to strengthen communication.

Hiring with awareness of your unique work culture

When your products serve a growing customer base, the need to increase your teams is a pressing priority – and one that has to be dealt with sensitively.

A product company today requires engineers who are able to adapt to ambiguity, innovate and experiment, and arrive at the best solution. Beyond the technical skills that they bring to the table, it is also imperative that they are self-driven, collaborative, equipped with curiosity, and are able to think on their feet. The scope of engineering has evolved beyond the books, as has the criterion of hiring for engineering teams.

While hiring engineers, it’s imperative to know the methods of working they have been used to and evaluate their fit with your culture code and working methods. Present them with scenarios relevant to your product, customer engagement, and culture, and gauge their response.

All said and done, we must accept that no solution is black or white, and there is no single set of practices that will apply across the SaaS landscape, especially within the engineering gamut. The key principles may resonate across the industry, but each company has a unique approach tailored to their vision.

What must remain solid and unchanging, is the principle of being an eternal startup. Even the most rapidly growing company should always be able to work as a startup, preserving the culture, cohesiveness and energy that they began with. Make sure your employees always feel the fluidity and energy of a startup, and you will find that scaling occurs seamlessly, your employees are happy, and your customers will constantly come back for more.

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