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InfoQ Homepage Articles The Top Three Priorities for Engineering Leaders in 2022 and beyond
Apr 14, 2022 10 min read
by
Lilac Mohr
reviewed by
Shane Hastie
 
In an age where nearly every aspect of the software development process has accelerated, from the increasing speed of programming languages to the expectation of faster value delivery, engineering leaders may believe that speed and efficiency should be their team’s top priority in the new year. Indeed, agile transformations for engineering teams have been a central strategy for most leaders in recent years. 
As Interim VP of Engineering, I’m well aware of the pressure for my team to perform quickly, accurately and efficiently – these are important qualities of a strong engineering team. However, I am also aware that the engineering job landscape is changing rapidly, and investing in the culture of my team is paramount to overall success. 
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Over my career, I’ve made the transition from an individual contributor to a team leader to a leader of leaders. Each transition comes with a change in scope of ownership and priorities. In my current role, I lead an international team of more than 50 software engineers who work in cross-functional groups developing our SaaS product. Because of this, I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to cultivate an environment that unlocks engineering excellence and empowers my teams to deliver with speed, quality, and efficiency. For me, it all starts with fostering a human-centered culture. 
Peter Drucker's classic quote, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast," reminds us that strategic priorities have no business value without successful execution, and that to achieve outcomes, an organization needs to invest in its people. The Great Resignation has made it clear that maintaining employee satisfaction and team health should be a top priority for companies in the coming year. Engineering leaders need to get a 360 degree view of how their individual contributors and teams are doing. With this context in mind, here are my top three priorities as an engineering leader in 2022.
Recent research shows that the tech industry has one of the highest turnover rates of any industry, and that engineers specifically have had massive attrition rates in the past year. While there are many factors contributing to this turnover, I think that increased pressure for engineers to deliver at lightning speed has created a “churn and burn” engineering culture that is ultimately not sustainable. 
Quarterly engagement surveys and net promoter scores (NPS) are lagging health indicators, providing signals of imminent attrition after the window of opportunity to remedy the underlying issue has closed. Engineers have no shortage of options when it comes to job prospects – thus it's important for engineering leaders to establish a unique and engaging culture within their teams. Actively examining your team’s culture to ensure that your engineers feel supported and valued is an important practice.
A way to improve your engineering culture is by leading with gratitude. Leading with gratitude is one of the most impactful commitments a leader can make. If you celebrate the accomplishments of your team, both big and small, and openly invite input on continuous improvement opportunities, you’ll drive a strong culture of giving and receiving feedback. At Pluralsight, we have a Slack channel dedicated to appreciation, and in the Flow Engineering organization, we’ve started a tradition we call “Gratitude Fridays” where team members are encouraged to post about a co-worker who helped them out that week. Practices like these not only strengthen bonds across the engineering team, but they also frame our daily work to look for the good in our teammates and to seek opportunities to help others. They lay a foundation for open communication around the work we do. 
On the other hand, an engineering culture devoid of continuous feedback is a recipe for disaster. I’ve experienced examples of this throughout my career. The most common feedback failure happens where the only time a team member receives feedback from their leader is at the yearly performance review. There is often a disconnect between how employees perceive their performance and how their leaders may be perceiving it, which leads to unpleasant surprises and attrition. Instead of the archaic annual review process, leaders should be co–creating performance agreements with their team members and checking in on outcomes and professional growth targets on a regular (ideally weekly) basis.
As engineering is an inherently creative practice, allowing engineers to work on projects that excite them and allow them to innovate is crucial. This may also involve providing your engineers time to work on developing their skills and pursuing creative projects. Additionally, leaders should cultivate a culture for their engineering teams that is built around appreciation, collaboration, and psychological safety. This involves weaving open and honest career discussion and satisfaction check-ins into one on one meetings. Open lines of communication will help you to stay on top of your engineering culture. 
Part of building a strong engineering culture is ensuring your decisions are data-driven. In fact, the best leaders are often data-driven leaders who use concrete evidence to strengthen their teams. Within the realm of engineering, using data and metrics to gauge the health of your team is especially important. 
Even for engineering leaders, a team’s day-to-day programming can sometimes seem like a black box. This is why seeking out clear insights about the development process is an imperative. Using an engineering metrics solution to obtain better visibility into your team’s workflow not only helps ensure efficiency and quality, but it can also help you gauge employee success and morale
Here is a great example to illustrate this concept. A number of years ago, an electrical issue in my car sent the needle on my speedometer spinning furiously. I panicked. Of course I wasn’t driving completely blind – I could use my intuition, or maybe the cars around me, to approximate my speed, but I was missing a critical piece of information that I needed to know with certainty that I wasn’t exceeding the speed limit. Leading without data-driven insights should elicit that same feeling of unrest in top leaders.  
Think of all the tools that engineering teams use on a daily basis to do their work – from communication software to ticket systems to CICD – and picture the chaos that ensues when one of those applications goes down. Software engineering metrics should have a spot on the list of systems/processes without which we can’t run our organizations. Of course we need to monitor when our cloud applications are experiencing an outage, or when our database usage is unexpectedly spiking. Why shouldn’t it be of equal importance to monitor our team health to know proactively if team members are overworked and in danger of burnout, or if context switching and excessive handoffs are causing our efficiency to tank? If we’re not measuring the right things, we’re driving without a speedometer, relying on intuition alone to make critical decisions, and then having no way to measure the effectiveness of our choices in an unbiased way. The consequence of not investing in data-driven insights for engineering teams is missing opportunities to improve and save your organization money.
A great example of this commitment to data-driven culture on the organizational level is Manulife. Manulife wanted to build a culture of engineering excellence that was centered on trust, but they didn’t have enough data to properly take the pulse of their engineers. They were used to looking at burndown rates and number of stories completed without having any real context on what their engineering teams were actually focused on. To change that, Manulife invested in a software engineering intelligence platform that provided them with continuous information about where their teams were excelling and where they were struggling. This data allowed Manulife’s engineering leaders to truly understand how and where to make changes with meaningful impact. Additionally, the data that they gleaned helped them find hidden talent within their engineering teams by using evidence-based metrics to gauge performance. 
This is why continuous health monitoring with a robust set of metrics that provide leaders early identification and resolution of friction, and a data-driven platform to ensure that individuals' contributions are 'seen' is crucial. Like Manulife, I’ve found that monitoring my engineers’ daily workflows helps me  see standout employees that may otherwise fly under the radar. Additionally, it helps me see who may be struggling on the team. It’s important to pay particular attention to metrics that drive your employees toward their professional goals and enable you to remove bottlenecks across your team.
Experts agree that prioritizing constructive feedback and one on one conversations with employees is crucial to employee success and retention. As an engineering leader, you must frequently check in on your engineers to ensure that they are thriving in both a personal and professional sense. A way that I accomplish this data-driven leadership model is using Pluralsight Flow data in 1:1s and team meetings. I’ve found that this amplifies our engineering culture because our engineers already know they are valued by their leaders and their colleagues, so they are constantly seeking out ways to increase their impact and show up for their team. Data is a powerful tool to learn about our behaviors and their outcomes, and to measure improvement.
If there is one thing that I want you to take away after reading this article, it’s that nothing will ever be as important as your people. Behind every line of code is a human, and behind every successful delivery is a team. Only the engineering leaders who remember this and prioritize their people using a variety of tools and techniques will see amazing outcomes this year, leaving their peers behind. 
Numerous studies show that a happy employee is a more productive and successful employee. Think back to a time when you felt that you did your best work. Did you feel supported and encouraged by your leader? Did you have the space and autonomy to do your work in a meaningful way? Did your leader acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments? I would venture to guess that, for most of us, these are the conditions under which we do our best work. As leaders, we can never forget to check-in with our team members as people before checking in with them as workers. 
The reason I am such a staunch advocate for human-focused leadership stems from my own career journey. I began working as a software engineer at a young age, first as an intern at age 17, and then landing my first full-time engineering job at 19. As a young woman in the male–dominated software industry, I knew I would be the minority. What I wasn’t prepared for was how isolating and lonely that would feel. The startup companies I worked for weren’t just predominantly male, in many cases I was literally the only woman in the entire organization. Many of my leaders did not make an effort to get to know me as a person, and most of our discussions revolved around the tasks that were done and what remained. During the first 15 years of my career, I never quite felt that I belonged. I never felt supported. If I wanted to advance in my career, I had to advocate for myself.  
So I left the corporate world for five years to work on my own software projects and spend time with my young children. When I came back to the working world and the company I was working for was acquired by Pluralsight, everything was different. I’m now at an organization that encourages team members to bring their authentic selves to work, prioritizes work–life balance, and coaches leaders on supporting individuals as people, not resources. I no longer felt alone and out of place. Our organization invests in showing team members what advocacy and allyship look like at all levels. Even the simplest acts like a coworker making space for me to talk in a meeting has had a profound influence on my sense of belonging.
As a leader, I’m able to make a difference by ensuring that everyone’s contributions are visible – that all team members have a voice. For the first time in my career, I can proudly say that I belong here. This culture leads to tangible outcomes for myself and for my team where we’re all engaged, happy, and ready to do our best work.
Engineering teams will continue to see high turnover in 2022 as the Great Resignation rages on. While some level of attrition may be inevitable, engineering leaders have a real opportunity to distinguish themselves and their teams through their engineering culture. Whether you are cognizant of it or not, your team has a culture. It’s incumbent upon engineering leaders to make having a people-first culture the top priority in 2022. 

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