An innovative and effective approach to build high performing engineering teams
Elevating engineering excellence and embracing innovation
Throughout my journey as an engineering leader, I’ve embarked on a quest to discover the secret behind building high-performing engineering teams. I’ve explored numerous approaches and delved into different strategies, all in the pursuit of uncovering that elusive formula. I have read books and blog posts and discussed them with fellow engineering leaders who have built teams from zero to one at different stages of an organization. After a good number of trials and tribulations, I’ve discovered that achieving a higher success rate in building high-performing engineering teams hinges on assembling teams with a balanced mix of product-focused and tech-focused engineers.
Who is a product-focused engineer?
Product-focused engineers are motivated to ship new features.
They are not concerned about cutting corners to get new features to market. You would often hear them say, “Don’t worry about the performance and scalability of the feature; we will always have time to come back to it once the users fall in love with the new feature”.
Product managers have a soft spot for product-focused engineers, because they see them as ninjas every time they want to prototype a new concept. Product managers and product-focused engineers work in close collaboration, placing a strong emphasis on business-centric objectives and outperforming competitors.
Product-focused engineers also have a tight network with engineers in the industry, and they are constantly enticing some of the excellent engineers from other companies to join them. However, it’s important to note that the product-focused engineers may not be the best mentors, as their focus is more on driving the product forward than nurturing talent.
Make a mental note of the product-focused engineers you had the pleasure of working with.
Who is a tech-focused engineer?
If you were to share an exciting idea with a tech-focused engineer, you would hear about how certain components of the platform need to be rewritten before a new feature can be developed. Minimum Viable Product is not their mantra; they like to ship “Minimum Lovable Product”, so that the users embrace the new features from the get-go.
Tech-focused engineers lose sleep over tech debts.
They are worried about leadership not paying attention to deeper problems in the platform that could have significant repercussions for the product and company in the future.
Tech-focused engineers want to measure the whole nine yards before they can commit to building on a new product feature. Product managers will sway away from tech-focused engineers for fear of answering the most unknowns.
Tech-focused engineers are great at identifying and nurturing talent. They are always on the hunt for young and aspiring talent in the organization.
Tech-focused engineers excel at channeling the curiosity and enthusiasm of junior developers towards resolving unfunded tech debts within the organization.
I am sure you are now thinking about a tech-focused engineer who proactively prevented a major platform collapse by being thoughtful and timely about a bleeding tech debt.
Do I need a product or tech focused engineer?
There is no definitive answer; it is a matter of context and dependency.
However, what I can affirm is that both types of engineers hold equal significance in a high-performing team.
When a team heavily favors one engineer type over the other, it lacks the collective mindset required to strike a balance between speed, quality, and efficiency.
Can you think of a high-performing team that has remained high performing during different stages of growth and maintenance? Most likely, that team had a good balance of product and tech focused engineers.
Ideal ratio of Product and Tech focused engineers in Product teams
In a fast-moving engineering organization with a focus on innovation and rapid time-to-market, a ratio of 70 percent product engineers to 30 percent tech engineers has shown positive results. This composition allows for speedy product delivery while also addressing tech debts effectively.
However, when teams accumulate significant tech debt due to their rapid pace, it becomes necessary to recalibrate the composition and introduce more tech-focused engineers who will pay attention to the debt caused by swift progress.
What makes a high performing platform team?
Platform teams attract tech-focused engineers because they are more invested in solving problems that are behind the scenes and not visible to users. A high-performing platform team maintains a strong foundation in the core and continues to monitor and remediate the non-functional challenges of the product. A healthy ratio of product and tech focused engineers in a platform team is 60:40, with 60 percent of the team composed of tech engineers and the other 40 percent being product engineers. This maintains a good balance and a strong narrative for the platform team to focus on initiatives that are closely aligned with platform stability and scale.
How do you hire to maintain a healthy ratio of product and tech focused engineers?
Maintaining a healthy ratio of product and tech focused engineers needs constant re-calibration. While hiring new engineers for a team, it is essential to consider the current ratio of product and tech focused engineers and make new hires to balance that ratio. Knowing the kind of engineer you would like to attract to the team will ensure that you build the job description to match the required skills and attract the right kind of candidates.
By intentionally building teams with a healthy ratio, we can foster an environment that drives both product innovation and technical excellence.
Establishing and upholding a ratio of product and tech focused engineers is dependent on the specific context of a team and organization. Leaders should have a clear understanding of what constitutes a high performing team within their organization and be open to experimenting with different ratios and team compositions.
Creating high performing teams is more of an art than a science, so it’s important to question the status quo and constantly strive for excellence.