How Engineering Leaders Can Set the Strategy and Vision for Their Teams

May 5, 2022

We recently co-hosted a webinar with Managers Club, a community of engineering managers. The Managers Club website provides articles, interviews and resources for engineering leaders. Moderated by Vidal Graupera, Founder of Managers Club, the webinar was titled “How to Define the Strategy and Vision for Engineering Teams.”

We featured the following expert panel:

  • Vidal Graupera, Engineering Manager, Productivity Tools UI/UX and IDEs at LinkedIn (moderator)
  • Monica Bajaj, VP of Engineering at Okta
  • Chintan Shah, VP of Engineering at Collective
  • Himanshu Khurana, Director of Engineering, LinkedIn

In this post, I’ll summarize key points made by the panel.

How to define strategy and vision for engineering teams

Vidal began by asking the panel, “How do you define strategy and vision in the first place?”

“Vision is what you want to accomplish and strategy is how you achieve it,” said Monica. The key, according to Monica, is to establish Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) that are aligned to business objectives. Monica’s team at Okta uses VMT: vision, methods and targets. 

Monica discussed the importance of communicating the “why” behind what the engineering team is building. Once the “why” and the “what” have been clearly communicated, engineers can figure out the “how.”

Chintan said that vision is aspirational – it’s the future state of where the company will go. He used Microsoft as an example, whose vision was once “a computer on every desk.” Strategy, according to Chintan, is the path to attain your vision.

Himanshu spends a lot of time defining the strategy for his team – in fact, last quarter, he spent the majority of time on strategy. For Himanshu, strategy and vision must be based on business goals: what is the business trying to accomplish and what pain points is it addressing? For executing the vision, it’s important to understand “the machine” of the business, including what levers (i.e., inputs and outputs) you can control.

Pictured in clockwise order from the top left: Himanshu Khurana, Chintan Shah, Vidal Graupera, Monica Bajaj

What is an engineering team’s strategy and vision based on?

Vidal asked the panel, “What is the basis for the team’s strategy and vision?”

Himanshu said that strategy is the GPS for the product’s goals. Once Engineering and Product are aligned on the product’s goals, strategy becomes the guiding principle to steer the ship in the right direction. Himanshu said that LinkedIn Marketing Solutions used a simple phrase to guide their product goals: “connect, optimize and scale.”

To determine the basis for strategy and vision, Chintan looks to the STARS framework. The framework outlines the different stages a company is in, with “STARS” being an acronym:

  • Start-up
  • Turnaround
  • Accelerated growth
  • Realignment
  • Sustaining success

Once you determine which stage you’re in, you define the strategy and vision accordingly, said Chintan. In addition, Chintan recommends using the Jobs-To-Be-Done Framework, in which you build products based on what customers are hiring you to do. 

Himanshu mentioned Lean Canvas, a one-page business model that helps leaders quickly document their plans. Lean Canvas provides a set of quadrants that users fill in. The quadrants are:

  1. Problem
  2. Solution
  3. Unique Value Proposition
  4. Unfair Advantage
  5. Customer Segments
  6. Key Metrics
  7. Channels
  8. Cost Structure
  9. Revenue Streams

Monica spoke of the importance of having engineers understand customers’ experiences with the product. While engineers can’t always interact directly with customers, engineering leaders can partner with the Customer Success team to understand customer pain points. Having a deep understanding of customers translates well into building the right strategy for engineering.

Operationalizing an engineering team’s vision and strategy

Once engineering leaders have documented the team’s vision and strategy, how do they operationalize it? Monica said that executing the vision starts with a foundation of trust between Product and Engineering. The two teams must have empathy for each other’s goals and be collaborative from the start. 

According to Monica, the engineering team needs to be transparent about risks and not wait until the last minute to communicate them. Engineering must also seek clarity: if a product specification is unclear, go back to Product to ask for clarification.

Himanshu added that having a good strategy is not enough. Operationalizing that strategy is where the hard work comes in. There are four parts to executing the strategy: people, product, process and technology. Chintan noted that one of the most important aspects of operationalizing the strategy is understanding what you’re NOT doing. This helps the team stay focused on achieving its defined goals.

When an engineering leader needs to pivot on vision and strategy

An attendee asked the panel for an example of when they needed to pivot their team’s vision and strategy. Himanshu spoke about pivoting his team from a two-year strategy to a completely new one. When he communicated the new vision to the team, one team member recited the original vision and asked what would happen to it.

To Himanshu, this was a good sign, since the engineer understood the original vision so deeply. He noted that pivots are natural. It’s good to take a step back and assess what’s working and not working with the original vision. “Double down on what’s working and stop doing things that aren’t working,” said Himanshu.

Communication is essential during a pivot: Himanshu was involved in many conversations, meetings and Q&A sessions to help the team understand the “why” and “what” of the pivot. If the team is more engaged and energized after you explain the new strategy, that’s a sign you’re moving in the right direction, said Himanshu.

On-Demand replay

Watch a recording of the panel discussion: