Steve Rabin is the Chief Technology Officer at Insight Venture Partners. He has extensive experience designing enterprise-class software and managing technology teams. At Insight, Steve’s goal is to help the technical teams of portfolio companies build best-of-breed R&D organizations and enterprise-class solutions. 

This post has two parts. In the first, Steve identified the attributes and behaviors of top-performing technical managers. Below, Steve offers advice on how to deal with management challenges that can arise when leading tech teams. 

In many ways, managing a team of developers and technologists is no different than managing teams in other specialized areas. 

As challenges and issues arise, it’s most important to remember that positive change doesn’t happen overnight. Teams develop their own cultures, and people perform based on habits ingrained over the years. Habits die hard and breaking unhealthy cultures is a non-trivial exercise which takes both time and effort. 

A second nugget of good advice is to seek guidance from others who’ve been where you are. Take a look at how other managers have addressed problems analogous to the ones you’re facing. While this sounds easy, it’s anything but. Corrective actions need to take into account the specific people on your team. Use the approaches of others as a guide, but remember that your impact will vary based on personalities and context.

With those points in mind, let’s look at some general guidelines that have proven to be effective in addressing performance issues on technology teams. 

Isolate the problem 

The first step is to identify the actual problem and clarify how that issue may be intertwined with others. It’s important to be clear about the root of the issue so you can design a genuine solution. 

Once the real issue is isolated, I recommend using the “Hot Stove” principle: you can either warn the child walking towards the hot stove that they’ll burn their hand if they touch the stove, or let them touch it and experience the pain. Clearly, from a risk-mitigation perspective, the first alternative is better, and workers who are performing poorly need, and deserve, clear warnings about where their actions are leading, along with the consequences. It’s the job of the manager to be clear, and address situations head on.  

Managers who are confrontation-averse tend not to be managers for very long.  

Managers who are confrontation-averse tend not to be managers for very long.  

Know the metrics 

An even-handed approach is a prerequisite for the work a manager does daily. The more objective a manager can be, the more likely they will be able to provide meaningful feedback. Metrics are a key tool in achieving objectivity. 

Project-related metrics are important for both teams and managers. Good managers must be able to assess whether or not teams are meeting their commitments, if individual team members are meeting theirs, and so on. When it’s necessary to discuss issues, simply telling someone they’re underperforming isn’t sufficient. Concrete examples, facts, and metrics go a long way towards minimizing subjectivity and enabling productive discussion.

Metrics that teams and managers typically track to assess project work are also useful for reviewing overall as well as individual performance. These may include: 

  • Velocity
  • Story points committed vs. delivered
  • Defect count
  • Defect span (the amount of time it takes outstanding bugs to be closed, once assigned)

For tech teams in particular, always remember: if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it – and this includes people.

For tech teams in particular, always remember: if you don’t measure it, you can’t manage it – and this includes people.

Place team members in the right roles

People are the reason firms succeed, and your team should be given the resources they need to succeed. This means setting goals, parameters, and guidelines as well as articulating a plan with achievable and measurable milestones. Feedback along the way helps minimize bumps and ensures that everyone is on the same page with expectations and deliverables. If expectations are unclear, the fault lies as much with the manager as the employee.      

Individuals are responsible for managing their careers and reaching their goals. Strong managers help their team members by concretely supporting their individual objectives. Taking an interest and mentoring team members provides many benefits. If you help your teams grow, you’ll see better results. 

Having an organization that is structured to support two career paths is an example. In a development organization, one career ladder would be management-oriented while a second would be technical. This allows team members to advance in the organization in ways that match their skills, interests, and goals. 

Actively manage team dynamics

The last alternative available to a manager is dismantling the team or removing unsuccessful or obstructionist team members. While this is obvious, too many managers don’t move quickly enough when it comes to letting people go. Evaluating good versus bad is not just technical. Personality and fit in a team’s culture must be considered as well. When necessary, changing out team members can be the best solution to addressing a stubborn team problem. 

Manage proactively and be self-aware

Being a successful manager of dev teams requires both people and technical skills along with solid tools for assessing productivity, effectiveness, and quality. The best managers both inspire their teams and appropriately control them. They have integrity and persistence, and they understand how to get the best out of people. Successful managers ask, “What needs to get done?” and then organize activities and team capabilities around priorities. 

These are skills developed over time. Managing technology teams is hard. If it weren’t difficult, it wouldn’t take professionals with years of experience to do it. 

If you would like an assessment of your dev processes and team governance, please contact Onsite’s Tech & Product Center of Excellence to discuss. We can work with you, or recommend third parties who can provide insight and help you build high performing teams.