Managing software developers: Challenges of a distributed team

10 min read
Joshua Ahn
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As we’re looking forward to a post-pandemic world, rules are changing; especially regarding work-from-home policies. Companies are shifting their focus towards creating policies to respond to anxious workers thinking about their future work situations. Living in a post-pandemic time brings new challenges that stretch us to consider new solutions we would otherwise have overlooked and know how to navigate new scenarios such as differing timezones.

Before we dive into the challenges of a distributed engineering, is creating a distributed engineering team even worth it?

Companies like Apple and Stripe answered this question through big-picture metrics such as cost, talent, and diversity. Distributed teams reduce costs associated with salary demand from pricey regions, increase talent acquisition from areas outside of central metro locations, and increase the diversity of their teams. All in all, finding skill sets that best work for their product development requires an open-handed approach.

Engineering managers worldwide are facing the birthing pains of shifting work expectations, so you might be asking yourself, “How should I successfully manage my hybridized engineering team?”


Communication

Visibility

Culture



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Communication

Efficient and effective communication builds the bedrock for companies. While software engineers aren’t always known for their outstanding communication skills, here are some helpful tips for improving your distributed engineering team’s communication.

Communication frequency

There is a careful balance to strike between overcommunicating and under-communicating with your engineering team.

Overcommunication leans closer to a feeling of micromanaging, while under-communication could cause misunderstandings within your team. To address this challenge, establish communication frequency norms between you and your team.

Consider setting expectations for the following details between both parties:

  • Channel

  • Amount of Information

  • Frequency

  • Occasion

Communication preferences

Meeting a fistbump with a handshake followed by a fumbling of awkward exchanges might become a trending theme in a post-pandemic world and highlights the unique preferences of communication between different individuals. While remote work diversifies the software development team, it opens the door to a challenge of differing cultural norms, expectations, and personalities.

For example, Erin Meyer’s book on global communication provides insight into how contextual communication styles are between cultures. Between the range of low context and high context communication, the US prefers communication styles that are more simple, explicit, and precise. On the other hand, most Asian cultures prefer communication styles that are more nuanced, layered, and implicit.

The best way to approach this challenge is by asking questions and having an empathetic approach. Learn more about how each of your teammates prefers communication strategies by asking the following questions:

  1. How do you want to receive positive and negative feedback?

  2. How have you received feedback in the past that was helpful?

  3. In the past, what communication styles or preferences are you comfortable with? Particularly communication regarding feedback, decisions, scheduling, and disagreements.

Communication gaps

Have you ever walked into a conversation and slowly realized you were missing some context? With hybrid teams on the rise, the challenge also rises for addressing gaps in communication. To give a scenario for when communication gaps occur, imagine two in-person individuals holding a brief conversation at the water station about a project they’re working on. As a result, remote team members miss out on small details for project adjustments. An agile approach to software development requires frequent communication and reduced communication gaps.

The best approach for communication gaps is actively addressing scenarios where communication gaps could occur. Here are some examples you should outline for your team to be on the lookout for:

  • Casual conversations in-person

  • Conversations in private channels

  • Hybrid conference calls (voice distribution between in-person vs. remote members)


Visibility

“Give credit to whom credit is due” - Samuel Adams.

We become more familiar with people we see more frequently. You may face challenges regarding the visibility of your team member’s work or ideas. A lack of visibility can result in team members feeling unrecognized for their contributions or lacking agency within the company.

From your engineer’s perspective, lacking visibility from a remote standpoint can negatively impact their career growth or make them feel unappreciated for their work. So how can you increase visibility for your team?

Project distribution

Great managers look out for project opportunities that align with their team’s interests, while assigning clear goals. The challenge with remote project management alongside agile development rests heavily on your team management skills.

The best way to address this challenge is by having occasional check-ins to scope the interests of your team members. As a result, your team members will feel more noticed and take more ownership of their work.

Ask questions such as:

  1. What are some ideas you would be interested in learning more about?

  2. What knowledge areas do you want to grow in?

Victories and Failures

Part of monitoring process and performance rests on the victories and failures of your engineering team. This becomes increasingly difficult when remote work brings up scenarios where you’re less aware of your team members’ work and successes.

At Educative, we hold stand-up meetings to share personal victories and challenges throughout the week. These meetings increase visibility across the team and highlight any accomplishments to be recognized.

In addition, every Thursday, we send out thank you messages in a company-wide slack channel that promotes collaboration and allows team leaders and members to boost the visibility of their teammate’s work.

Peer to peer

When developing a complex project, cross-team and team communication can make or break the final product. Failing to have constant communication between team members can cost the company valuable time and money. Finding new ways to create spaces for teammates to interact with one another organically will lower the barrier for communication between teammates during a project.

Maintaining high visibility within your engineering team gives your team members a better idea of what their peers are working on and gives them further social cues to interact with one another. Here are some possible solutions to increase peer to peer engagement:

  • Offer small incentives for team members to meet with one another

  • During team meetings, break off into breakout rooms

  • Encourage team members to schedule regular check-ins


Culture

Understanding company culture can feel like painting a picture, which becomes increasingly complex in remote environments. As a manager, you can make this process easier by painting a rough sketch for your new team members.

When hiring new developers, it’s essential for them to feel in sync with the company culture. Frequently, culture becomes more established when meeting people face-to-face and interacting with multiple teams in the office, so what are some aspects of company culture you can address early on?

Values

Every company holds a different subset of values to guide its employees towards a common goal, yet some values may be less pronounced than others in a remote setting. With hybridized teams, your remote team members miss out on conveniences from observational learning and candid conversations.

As your team’s manager, you’re presented with a challenge to set yourself as an example for the company’s values while setting your team up for success by aligning their values.

To address this challenge, here are some suggestions:

  • Make company’s value documentation easily accessible to your team

  • Create a transparent review process that highlights company values

  • Talk about values occasionally during team meetings

Organizational structure

A coworker of mine recently told me a story of how his company’s cofounder personally delivered his laptop to his apartment, which broke his framework of how a company organization works. The concept of the company cofounder delivering his supplies felt similar to Jeff Bezos showing up in an Amazon delivery truck.

Every organizational structure holds pros and cons, but some hierarchical structures best fit your company’s goals and size. Moving from a larger company with a rigid top-down system to a startup with little to no hierarchy takes time to learn and vice-versa.

Let’s say you’re working for a startup. The concept of a new hire directly communicating with the CTO will seem foreign to someone recently hired from a larger organization.

On the other hand, a new hire from a startup might also need some pointers to navigate a larger organization’s hierarchical structure.

Keep in mind that research shows office politics as a number one turn-off for software engineers, so be mindful of how you guide engineers through your company’s organization.

Here are ways to address hierarchical structure early on:

  1. Ask your team member during a one-on-one if they have any questions about your company’s organizational structure.

  2. Provide stories where you felt uncomfortable or comfortable with who you would communicate with.

  3. Provide examples of other employees who were in similar positions of navigating your company’s structure.

  4. Show visuals for your company’s organizational structure, with names and pictures for roles.

  5. Your company will change over time, so address organizational differences you’ve noticed as your company grew.

Subcultures

I once joined Seattle Indeed’s annual office party and experienced the different subcultures represented by team members in less than an hour. That experience felt completely different than when I joined a company during a remote year.

Frankly, few remote experiences can recreate a similar convenient scenario, but time and intentional conversations can help fill this gap. You might be asking, "why is learning subcultures vital to my engineering team?

Start to think about your company as a large boat on a sailing mission. Your boat crew comprises of several teams and a different leader for each group. While calm seas require fewer interactions between each team, a rough patch requires a swift and coordinated effort to pull your boat to safety successfully.

Understanding subcultures reduces friction during cross-team interactions when projects take a stressful turn or when deadlines start to press your team members.

Here are some measures you can take to narrow the gap between subcultures:

  • During projects that require cross-team collaboration, follow-up with questions asking about communication and any observations your team member noticed.

  • During all-hands meetings, have different teams showcase their work.

  • Create slack channels with cross-team interactions.

  • Hold remote or hybrid events that create opportunities for cross-team interactions or conversations.


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Wrapping up

With distributed engineering teams, the absence of conveniences from the past creates challenges for the future. As a team manager, you’re juggling challenges to best meet company goals while optimizing your team’s workflow. Problem-solving for multiple stakeholders takes time, so knocking down roadblocks early in the development process will prove invaluable in the future.

To review, expect to face challenges in the following categories when working with a distributed team:

  • Communication

  • Visibility

  • Culture

Happy learning!


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WRITTEN BYJoshua Ahn

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