How to Build Healthy Engineering Teams

Creating an industry with healthy productivity is paramount. But too much of a focus on going faster without addressing burnout is a recipe for disaster.
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This story originally appeared on DevOps.com by Ravs Kaur, Uplevel CTO on November 19, 2021.

A common challenge today for engineering teams is the increasing complexity of their jobs and figuring out how to make it both productive and enjoyable without burning out.

Over the last 10 years, the role of a software engineer has evolved drastically. Software continues to reach unprecedented scale, it is becoming more complex and customer expectations are higher than ever. Organizations from all industries are now becoming software companies and, with the pandemic, everyone is feeling the effects of burnout.

There are close to a million unfilled IT jobs in the United States. To ensure organizations are able to continue innovating, the industry needs the tools, state of mind and reliable practices to make this career sustainable.

Creating an industry with healthy productivity is paramount. But too much of a focus on going faster without addressing burnout is a recipe for disaster. Engineering managers need to constantly balance both. Here are some things they should keep in mind:

Invest in Engineering Productivity

Companies are increasingly hiring for roles focused on engineering productivity—there are currently hundreds of open job postings from organizations looking for these skills. These jobs are aimed at making developers and engineers’ lives and work easier by focusing on streamlining how things are done within the engineering organization—including improving developer workflow processes, execution efficiency and product quality. They are often responsible for building internal tools that support cross-functional and developer workflows. Even with a relatively small engineering team, organizations can start thinking about bringing on a team member dedicated to making engineers’ roles within the company easier.

Focusing on Healthy Productivity

Productivity is, and will always be, extremely important, but potential burnout should also be seriously considered in the process. Remote work during the quarantine and the pandemic has brought this front and center. When people don’t have enough deep work time, they often work longer hours which can eventually lead to burnout. An average employee has 11 minutes to focus between distractions at work and then, after an interruption, it can take around 23 minutes to return to the original task. In addition, the average worker attends 15 meetings per week.

There are many questions about how workers’ productivity has been impacted since early 2020, and research has found that developer productivity isn’t a problem—but burnout is. From March to December 2020 the study found:

  • Deep work time—a two-hour period of uninterrupted work—decreased by 22% between March and December 2020.
  • Average time in meetings went up by 67% from March to December 2020.
  • Pre-pandemic, 10% of developers were showing “always-on” behaviors at work, but that percentage went up to 15% and then to 20% by the end of the year.

Focusing on driving healthy productivity—where developers are productive but not overworked—is key to keeping your employees.

Strengthening Engineering Managers

Managers play a key role in keeping engineering burnout in check. Ensuring that managers ‘manage well’ is not a new idea, but today there are particular complexities that make the engineering manager role both uniquely challenging and especially important.

It is now widely acknowledged that culture is a considerable part of what gets employees to stick around. But culture isn’t only employee benefits like trendy offices, great snacks and other relatively superficial—though still important—benefits. What really matters is identifying and building teams that really care about one another on a personal level and making sure that incoming employees feel the same.

With engineering teams, there is a tendency to focus primarily on the technology being created rather than the people who are creating it. While this approach can absolutely result in successful products, it is often the default management style for managers who don’t have the tools to do otherwise. Moving from software engineer to manager requires a whole new skill set that involves different communication styles, time management, organization, tools and software, scoping work, learning how to effectively delegate and identifying the right people to complete the team.

As challenges continue to evolve, organizations need to ensure that engineering managers are able to support each individual on their team. It is so important to make sure that people feel aligned with a mission they care about and that their career interests and goals are being met. Not all of those can be measured with data, so managers have an all-important role in keeping up with the pulse of the team.

Building Helpful Tools and Growing Developer Communities

In the last decade, the speed of innovation in enterprise technology has skyrocketed and the amount of code and tools developers need to master has increased. At the same time, the number of unfilled job openings continues to grow. There are a lot of great trends that are helping to close this gap including low-code and no-code tools as well as a massive increase in community resources.

No-code/low-code tools: As both technical and non-technical organizations hire an increasing number of developers, low-code and no-code have become more prevalent. With frameworks that allow even those without a technical background to deploy software, no-code tools open development capabilities to an increasingly diverse subset of people. While these tools will not replace developers, they will make it possible for more people to enter the field of software development and help companies continue to innovate.

Developer community: The amount of resources available to new and existing developers has also skyrocketed in the last several years from open source communities to Stack Overflow to the ability to simply Google how to do something in code. The Linux Foundation’s extensive training catalog is one example; even Medium has a wealth of basic technical info, how-tos and deep dives available. If you’re looking to adopt a new tool, one of your main priorities should be to look at the size of the community so that you can easily troubleshoot problems if they arise. Having access to resources from community members that have gone through the exact same problems you encounter is priceless.

The above are all just a start. Teams can go even further by finding and adopting analytics tools to dive deeper into specific productivity metrics. These can give managers and executive teams the hard data they need to make educated decisions that will help them keep their teams and drive innovation. It is worth investing the time and the tools to maintain your engineering resources. By doing these things, organizations can reach and maintain healthy productivity.