As we talked about in our last article, the pandemic has changed a lot about how work happens today. More and more companies are adopting a remote-first approach, choosing to let employees work from anywhere.
Software engineering teams, in particular, can struggle with this transition, given how collaborative the work is. Going from being able to get your colleague to quickly take a look at your code to now having to ping them on Slack or schedule a meeting can be a significant change.
At Bennu, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the remote engineer and talking to hundreds of engineering managers about how they’re building great remote engineering teams.
We’re also big fans of remote (our company is remote itself!), and so we’re sharing a few tips to any engineering leader who is looking to build a great remote engineering culture.
To a certain extent, you are already trusting remote employees by allowing them to work outside of a traditional office. The next step is to build a strong culture of alignment and execution.
Many engineering teams have been empowering their team members to self-manage for a long time. Engineers are often given autonomy when it comes to what they specialize in, the projects and issues to work on, and how they focus their career. Now, it’s still important to make sure that we preserve that autonomy and embed it into remote leadership practices.
Even when we were in-person, frequent drive-by status updates didn’t make a ton of sense for engineering teams. In a remote world, it can be very tempting to use this tactic due to less visibility, but it can come across as micro-managing. In addition to regular team-wide status updates, it’s a good practice to encourage individuals to speak up when they’re blocked, and strategically follow up when you suspect a team member could benefit from support.
Whereas it can be easy to get stuck in the weeds of standup, sprint planning, and retros, we think it’s also important to step back and start a conversation about how an engineer’s work fits into their career goals, and identify the type of feedback they need to feel supported in their development.
Building a successful remote engineering culture is the culmination of great leadership practices and effective tools. Although we will never replace great leaders, engineering managers can leverage new tools like Bennu that integrate with Github and Jira to increase manager visibility and empower employees to surface their work and drive the conversation. Giving software engineers opportunities to self-manage can create a more productive and engaged relationship.
Engineering teams have been early adopters of integrations and automated workflows that surface the right visibility at the right time. This has been a huge philosophical driver in the evolution of continuous integration and deployment. Having the right visibility at the right time also extends to engineering management, and just like CI/CD, engineering managers can use tools that automate data collection while creating a process of appropriate escalations.
There are code KPI tools that claim to provide insights over code quality and velocity, but managers often need additional context to make code metrics actionable. Engineering managers need visibility into leading indicators—not lagging—because employees don’t want to find out when it’s too late that they’ve done something wrong. The best tools help managers strategically and proactively support their team members and prioritize business needs.
Jira + Github + GCal + PagerDuty are more powerful together. Engineering managers need the ability to identify what is “good” in different contexts—a senior engineer’s code KPIs will be really different than a junior engineer’s. For example, when an engineer is on call, other activities for the week should reasonably decline so that they can prioritize what we’re asking them to do: be available for firefighting.
When engineers ask how to get to the next level, managers want to be able to point to an internal career rubric as well as examples of potential mentors and role models. When the team is colocated, it is easier to see how high-performers operate, because there’s a higher chance of being able to strike up a conversation and observe how they operate, especially if they’re on a different project.
Focusing on regular career check-ins at 1-on-1s can ensure that reports feel acknowledged and understand what they need to do to keep improving. This in turn can motivate them and clarify how they can further develop their skills. Intentionally connecting a direct report with a more senior engineer for shadowing and discussion, or pairing them on a project together can help support knowledge transfer and career development.
Making and sustaining this transition to remote is not at all easy. However, building a culture where engineers have the freedom to do their best work is worth it.
If Bennu can help you empower your engineering team, increase visibility, and integrate career conversations, we’d love to chat!