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5 proven steps to building a high-performing software engineering team from scratch

VI #023: 5 Proven Steps to Building a High-Performing Software Engineering Team from Scratch

Read time: 5 minutes


In this guide, I will walk you through the ins and outs of building an effective software engineering team from scratch.

This is an invaluable skill, allowing you to assemble a group of capable people and create a cohesive, high-performing unit that can propel your startup or project forward.

Unfortunately, many leaders and entrepreneurs struggle to build such teams successfully.


The primary reason why: a lack of a systematic approach

Here are a few more reasons leaders stumble in this critical task:

  • Uncertainty about who to hire first
  • Overcomplicating the solution-creation process
  • Failing to foster early success for the team
  • Neglecting the importance of complementary strengths and skills
  • Not understanding the natural stages of team development

But these challenges are navigable. Here are the steps I've found most helpful:


1. Hire the Leader First

Starting the process of building your software engineering team hinges on hiring the right leader.

This individual is a linchpin that connects technical prowess and business understanding, guiding your development strategy in alignment with your company's vision. If possible, look for candidates with deep technical expertise, a proven leadership track record, and solid industry knowledge. Cultural fit is equally crucial since the leader will define your engineering team's work environment.

When interviewing, involve other team members and relevant advisors. Consider incorporating a realistic case study and a technical presentation as part of their assessment to assess their real-world problem-solving prowess and ability to simplify complex topics.

Recruiting strong leaders may be demanding, yet it is an investment in your startup's future. The leader you choose will shape the team's success, driving them to deliver software solutions that add value to your business.


2. Bring Customer Needs, Let Them Devise Solutions

Once you've onboarded your new leader, the next step is to immerse them in the business context and customer needs.

Start with comprehensive discussions and documents outlining your market positioning, customer personas, pain points, and business strategy. This groundwork is essential for your leader to understand where their work fits into the broader scheme and to craft effective technical solutions.

A potential pitfall here is to micro-manage or dictate solutions.

Instead, allow your technical leader to take these business needs and innovate independently. Please encourage them to develop a culture of experimentation within the team, nurturing space for brainstorming, prototyping, and iterating. This method fosters a sense of ownership and commitment, essential for driving forward the motivation and creativity of your engineering team.

Let them transform business needs into technical objectives and strategies, creating solutions that not only meet but anticipate your customers' needs.


3. Help Them Deliver Quick Wins and Credibility

Building credibility for your new engineering team involves showcasing their ability to deliver meaningful results swiftly.

But to get there, you, as a leader, must be part of that process. Identify strategic projects or tasks that can be accomplished in short time frames, such as tackling pressing bug fixes, delivering a valuable feature that can be delivered with minimal dependencies or risks, or improving system performance.

Prioritize those with high visibility and impact, as early wins can significantly elevate the team's reputation and morale.

Contrary to some leadership advice, don't be a distant spectator during these initial stages.

Actively engage with your team, providing necessary resources and removing potential roadblocks. Be in the trenches with them, demonstrating your commitment, reinforcing trust, and learning firsthand about their strengths and challenges. This active involvement also allows you to praise their achievements publicly, further cementing the team's credibility and increasing their motivation.

Your hands-on approach and strategic selection of quick-win projects will be stepping stones to the team's long-term success.


4. Expand the Team

Expanding your team strategically requires a clear understanding of current projects and future goals.

Identify the skill gaps hampering your immediate goals and fill these positions to meet known demands. Next, align your hiring strategy with your roadmap and business objectives. Are you anticipating significant technological shifts or entering new markets? If possible, hire for such predicted needs being careful to do this to a sensible time horizon such as 6-12 months. It's essential to remember that over-hiring may result in redundancy, while under-hiring can lead to burnout.

Building a team isn't only about addressing needs but about creating synergy. Look for people with complementary strengths, skills, and diverse perspectives - fitting together different puzzle pieces to form a coherent whole.

To maintain balance, build a pipeline of potential hires through networking, creating an engaging employer brand, and nurturing relationships with potential candidates. Also, ensure you have succession planning in mind. This approach ensures you're prepared to scale when necessary without overextending resources or missing opportunities.


5. Remember Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing

As you build your team, it helps to be mindful of the four stages of team development: Forming, Storming, Norming, and Performing.

During the Forming stage, clearly communicate team goals and individual roles. The Storming phase can be challenging with conflicts, but it's essential for establishing team dynamics. Promote open dialogue and make sure disagreements are resolved constructively.

As your team moves into the Norming stage, solidify your team's dynamics through shared practices and conventions. In the Performing stage, your team operates at peak productivity; here, focus on sustaining motivation and optimizing team dynamics.

Remember, these stages are cyclical and can recur with new hires or projects. Adapting your leadership style to match each stage can help mitigate friction and guide your team toward high performance as it grows.


In Summary

To build a high-performing software engineering team:

  • Hire the leader first
  • Bring customer needs, let the team devise solutions
  • Roll up your sleeves: help them deliver quick wins for credibility
  • Expanding the team with balanced skillsets to satisfy known (and predicted) demand
  • Remember forming, storming, norming, and performing as the team grows


That's all for today. See you next week.


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