Managing and Growing Engineering Teams in the Age of Coronavirus (COVID-19)

March 18, 2020
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The World Health Organization (WHO) categorized the COVID-19 coronavirus as a pandemic.  COVID-19 has forced many companies to close their offices and ask employees to work remotely. My thoughts go out to all those affected. There’s nothing more important than our health and safety.

Years from now, when we look back on COVID-19, we’ll call it a turning point in the way work gets done. COVID-19 has forced many companies to close their offices and ask employees to work remotely. 

We were already headed to a world of remote work. COVID-19, while horrible and tragic, is the accelerant.

Corporate embracing of remote teleworking is the new normal, and we’re never going back. It is the age of the Digital Workspace.

Within specific roles, such as outside of core engineering, (customer service, sales, marketing, etc) decentralizing your workforce remotely can seem logical, beneficial and at the risk of oversimplifying, easy.

In R&D, we are quite accustomed and rely upon integrated teamwork daily, to accomplish large goals. However, with advanced collaboration technologies enabling digital capable work and stringent project leadership, engineering leaders can not only adapt and adjust to this new world, but also thrive.

As an engineering leader based in Silicon Valley, I can already hear the dissenters: “Our teams thrive when working in the same physical space. We’ll resume with our usual work model when the coronavirus concerns subside.”

I’m sorry, folks, but as of March 2020, the world has changed forever.

Digitally capable work, including software engineering, is increasingly remote and it’s global. In this post, I’ll share my insights on how engineering leaders can adapt and adjust to this new world.

Hiring in the age of COVID-19

Today, your team might be concentrated in a single location (e.g., Silicon Valley). In the past, you’d look to make your next hire in that same location. That doesn’t need to be the case. In my years managing large scale engineering teams, I identified my functional needs, then filled those needs based on where I could find qualified engineers.

Sometimes, those engineers were in faraway geographic regions.

My strategy seeks merit-driven, “best of the best” candidates, no matter where they’re located, and no matter where they work. Be it from home, or within an office, top talent is not confined to one particular region of the country, or kept exclusively to the corporate office.  

Hiring in Silicon Valley is hard enough — opening up your talent strategy to sourcing candidates from other regions widens one’s pool of candidates. And believe me, there are best-of-breed engineers in every area of the globe.

Given my local team works well with remote engineers and I’m serving the needs of my customers and key stakeholders, we all win.

Hire remote workers who “get” remote work

Some of us will struggle with the shift to remote work.

We’re the ones who can’t have a home gym, we need to go to the gym to get our heads in game. We get distracted at home’s constant interruptions and become less productive. We crave that personal touch, building on the social/professional interaction which makes our focus and effectiveness even greater. 

We thrive with the ability to lean across the aisle and ask a question, while still using slack, Teams, and collaboration applications and leverage the new, digital workspace.

Distance working, for some, just doesn’t fit. Like a shoe that doesn’t fit, the “fault” is neither the shoe nor the foot. It is simply a work preference and how one works best.  

As the engineering leader, however, one must recognize which workers can succeed and thrive in a remote environment. Guide your people into the arrangements that give them, and the team, the best chance to succeed.

Hire like a chess grandmaster

Chess grandmasters aren’t thinking so much about their current move. Well, yes, they are, but they’re also thinking many moves ahead. The current move sets up where they want to go. When hiring, whether candidates are local or remote, assess their capabilities not just for the current project, but for your business’ future needs:

  • What new market will you enter in 2021 or 2025?
  • Will the engineers you hire today help you get where you want to go tomorrow?
  • Will your company’s direction help grow your engineers in the future?

Have a strategic plan to organize your talent. Place deep specialists in each functional area, then bring these areas together not unlike a conductor weaves her sections into an orchestra.  The right music must come from the right section — one doesn’t want the strings to play percussion and vice versa.

Managing the team

When I talk to peers about remote engineering, a common question I get is, “How do we handle the daily standup?” That question is especially relevant these days, when the entire team is remote.

Here is one approach:

  • Identify a leader. You can have the same leader for each standup or use a rotation. Designate the leader in the calendar invite.
  • Ensure the leader documents this week’s key deliverables and impediments prior to the standup so team members have a chance to review. 
  • Ensure that a calendar invite exists and that each standup starts on time.
  • Keep them to 15 minutes or less.
  • Document the standup order in the calendar invite (e.g., in a web meeting, you can’t see a participant’s position relative to others).
  • Keep each member to the standard questions: what have you recently done, what will you do, and what are your impediments.
  • The leader should attempt to inspire and motivate the team. Keep things light. And fun! 
  • The leader should officially open and close each standup.

Beyond daily standups, encourage team members to regularly communicate with one another.

We live in an upside down world: we use our phones to tell the time and we use our watches to answer our phone. Remember when we actually used our phone to make phone calls?  Keep in touch.

With entire teams in remote locations, it’s more important than ever to stay connected by talking to one another. So yes, use the phone. Use FaceTime and related video calling. And yes, go ahead and use Slack, Teams, Zoom, Skype and BlueJeans.

The world has changed

Mark the month, March 2020. The world of work has changed forever.

While COVID-19 has been troubling and tragic, it also serves as a turning point. Remote work presents challenges for sure, but I think they’re outweighed by the benefits. May you and your loved ones be healthy and safe.

Author Bio

Don Williams headshot
Don Williams

Don Williams is a hands-on, dynamic and transformational leader.

Don has an exceptional record of accomplishments leading technology teams for organizations ranging from private equity-backed start-ups to large, global corporations. 

Successful transformations include Cisco’s IOS architectural decomposition into “micro” services, Skype’s transformational migration from Waterfall to Agile, Prysm’s secure, cloud streaming communications and Polycom’s revitalization of their entire Audio, Video, and Platform product lines in record-breaking time.   

Utilizing the latest management methodologies and tools, Don and his teams have increased software and hardware productivity by 40-75% making companies more competitive making customers delighted and creating huge value for investors. Don is a champion of change, delivering a balance of strategic and tactical leadership.

Working with Lohika

In this video, Don talks about his experiences working with us.

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For over 20 years, Lohika has successfully transformed companies with remote engineering teams.
Taras Matyashovsky
Head of Consulting & Solutions
Our consulting team can show you how to improve efficiencies and grow engineering software teams in the new age of remote working.
Taras Matyashovsky
Head of Consulting & Solutions
Our consulting team can show you how to improve efficiencies and grow engineering software teams in the new age of remote working.