9 principles for building strong engineering teams

There is a festival in India called “Janmashtami”. It's the celebration of the birth of the Lord Krishna and happens in the months of August/September. 

Janmashtami Pyramid

A big part of the festival is “Dahi Handi”. Clay pots filled with sweet yogurt are decorated and hung by rope over streets between buildings, at difficult to reach heights.

Young men and boys (these days also young women and girls) form teams, make human pyramids to scale many 10s of feet above ground and attempt to reach and break the pots. Seas of people watch this event and are mesmerized by the team work.

This event symbolizes Lord Krishna’s childhood antics when he used to steal his favorite butter and sweet yogurt from his mother’s kitchen. His mother Yashoda used to hide the milk delicacies from him in high out of reach places so he couldn't get to them. 

Oh well, Krishna got to them with his charming leadership and by building a strong team of friends to create a human pyramid to get to the pots of yogurt. 

During my career as a Technology Executive, there have been times when my figurative pot of yogurt had been placed at heights that were difficult to reach. 

It's during those times that the strong engineering teams I have built, have made it possible to steal a victory out of an impossible situation. 

I want to talk about the following nine principles and my approach within each, that are key in building strong engineering teams.

1)    Hire for skills, attitude and diversity
Hiring is an integral part of building and growing multi-talented teams. Some team members hired with a proven track record of knowledge of the technology stack and business domain help close any skill gaps.

However I have also prioritized hiring candidates with the right attitude, who can depict a quick learning history and the ability to build capabilities not only within themselves, but also within other members of the team.

Diversity in a classical sense relates to gender, background and ethnicity. Additionally there is diversity in thought that I seek in candidates, which creates an innovative team, that challenges the present state of affairs, brings about ideas and learning that helps everyone grow.

2)    Inspire to create excitement 
When individuals become part of an organization or team, they sign up because they see a promising destination and a fulfilling journey to get there. Having a clear vision for technology that aids business and personal growth forms a big part of that promise. 

My strong belief is that when we provide a sound strategy and a practical approach to realize this vision, it inspires excitement. The excitement becomes many fold when the vision and its realization also provides opportunities for everyone in the team to continuously learn and pursue mastery in their skills. 

3)    Be democratic and provide independence
Empowerment creates ownership that goes a long way in carving success out of challenging situations. I have always created an environment that is democratic, that provides independence in approach and strategy to teams in completing projects.

Strong teams are ones that reach beyond what's assigned to them because they are engaged from inception and have autonomy over their work. This instills a sense of responsibility and motivates teams and individuals to achieve better results every time.

4)    Have clarity in communication
Communication in a classical sense is when teams are regularly kept informed of the organization’s and the project’s current state of affairs. This allows for transparency and awareness. 

I cannot stress enough, the importance of ensuring the team members have clarity about their roles and responsibilities. Every task has the highest chance of successful completion when there is no ambiguity about the ownership and accountability. Teams form a track record of consistent success because tasks don't fall through the cracks due to lack of clear communication. 

5)    Ensure continuous dialog
Where overall communication is at the team level, having continuous dialog and feedback is essential at team member level. Regular one-on-one conversations about personal and professional well-being creates a sense of belonging for team members. 

This continuous dialog also reinforces every team member and their manager’s understanding about expectations and enables them to reset and redirect focus in time to keep on track on personal and professional goals.  

6)    Nurture routines
If there is one aspect across projects and programs that is ensured, it’s there will be unexpected situations, risks and issues to deal with in spite of good planning and provisioning. What creates the strength and ability in a team to overcome setbacks and make their way to a solution, are procedures and routines. 

Daily standups are a chance to correct course. Retrospectives are a chance to learn from and create plans to prepare for challenges. Procedural guidelines help in decision making when next steps may be unclear. These routines and processes create sustainable results.  

7)    Instill trust
Teams and members perform their best when they know and feel the trust from their leaders and peers. I strive to build a culture of trust by providing guidelines and removing boundaries. It's my way of encouraging innovation so my teams and members are proactive in their thoughts and are not afraid to suggest ideas that are out of the box. 

A team is strong when its members are inspired to exceed expectations because it’s their ideas and leadership that take the projects to completion.

8)    Ensure growth
Every success in projects and programs is hollow without it contributing to the professional and personal growth for each team member. My approach to building a strong team where members have a path for career progression, is to have varying levels of experience from intern/junior to seniors within it. 

Every individual has strength and potential. The key is to identify that strength and mentor team members through their journey towards professional growth. Recognize ambitions, provide opportunities that play to their strengths and help them show their merit. Essence of leadership is to create a positive difference with personal and professional growth for members of the team. 

9)    Make tough decisions as last resort
Finally, it is essential to objectively identify incompatibility and make the decision to let someone go. For me personally, this decision comes as a last resort, after I have tried every avenue to make a good fit. 

The paths we take need to lead to the same destination. When we work for an organization, business strategy and goals are our beacon. No matter what path we choose to get to that beacon, we are all stronger together walking it with happiness.

Final Takeaway
The fabric of a team is delicate yet tenacious when woven with consideration to individual strengths. Pick the right skills and attitudes, add inspiration and ownership, provide the right tools and guidelines and you get a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Building a great team is an ongoing journey. People become part of a team. They learn, contribute, grow and sometimes part ways. Team dynamics change, and the cycle starts over.  Team building never stops. However, following these solid principles for building strength in engineering teams, this process becomes repeatable and reliable.

Pallavi Hanson, Senior Director of Software Engineering

Pallavi Hanson

Head of Software Engineering

Pallavi Hanson, Head of Software Engineering, focuses on building a platform for creativity and influencing engineers to be and do their best every day.