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Culture / Software Development

Engineering Leaders: Switch to Wartime Management Now

It’s helpful to recall what the key value drivers for engineering and general management are, especially in times of crisis.
Nov 7th, 2022 9:55am by
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I have the pleasure to work with clients from Mumbai to San Francisco, and from Oslo to Cape Town. And this has recently provided me with telling insights about how their companies plan to react to the upcoming macroeconomic crisis.

To begin with, not all regions of the world have been hit the same way, and some haven’t been hit yet. While I saw European engineering managers in tears fearing layoffs in January, U.S. teams are just starting to be careful but aren’t there yet.

One CIO told me yesterday that she “believes there is a new pattern, where EMEA is hit by a crisis and the U.S. follows with about four months’ delay.”

It is definitely true that “all economic warning lights are flashing red.” The dip is coming. The question is when. My gut feeling is that Q3, Q4 and Q1 in 2023 will be very tough in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), and Asia-Pacific (APAC), while the United States will face tougher times in the first three quarters of next year.

So far so (not) good, but the more interesting question is how the situation for us as engineering/platform teams change. How are C-level executives reacting to the dark clouds? Are they contracting budgets? Are they cutting jobs? Where are they investing, if at all?

I’m observing two key strategic approaches: blind fear and cautionary responsibility. The former can irreversibly destroy the culture and productivity of an engineering team forever. The latter can actually improve both substantially. Winning teams are formed in times of crisis.

Explaining the blind fear approach is intuitive: Managers just start freezing everything and, worst case, start firing. No investment in improving productivity and workflows. No communication that takes the team along and articulates, “We need to unite and pull in one direction to beat the crisis together.” These teams are doomed to fail.

It’s been proven for years that teams in the top quartile of developer velocity outperform other organizations four to five times in terms of revenue growth. Meaning if you innovate fast, you grow fast in revenue. You beat the crisis. It’s simple.

It’s helpful to recall what the key value drivers for engineering and general management are, especially in times of crisis.

  • Gain efficiency: Contraction of market and budgets mean you cannot outmaneuver the crisis by just throwing more bodies at the problem. You need to get ready to deliver more with less and invest in productivity-enhancing approaches and tools.
  • Retain: The crew you’ve invested in so far is likely the crew with whom you’ll need to sail these waters. Ramping up anybody else appropriately during these times is highly unlikely. So you need to retain the talent you already have and invest in their well-being even more than you already are. You need to put their experience (in our case developer experience) front and center.
  • Mitigate: Things are already shaky; you need to mitigate avoidable sub-crises. Downtimes, SLA breaches, security incidences. Funny, you’d think that you can’t just say what you want and it will happen. Correct, but you can ask teams to be extra alert. Make clear that precision matters. Avoidable mistakes are often a function of attention to detail.

So following the tactic of cautionary responsibility, I always have the same playbook:

  • Communicate clearly and appeal to the fighting spirit of your people. You have no idea how much everybody is ready to chip in when they have to save their jobs. Many people that I managed through the last crisis have said this was the most fun time of their career.
  • Yes, halt new hires. Everybody understands where you’re coming from.
  • Double down on improving developer velocity. To do this, for once follow Gartner and jump on the platform engineering train. It’s one of Gartner’s top strategic technology trends for 2023 for a reason, and Gartner expects “that by 2026, 80% of software engineering organizations will establish platform teams as internal providers of reusable services, components and tools for application delivery.” Platform engineering by now has established itself as a proven methodology to identify and erase unproductive bottlenecks.
  • Invest in tools to keep maintenance low, de-risk implementation and get things into place fast. If it takes you six months to get something in place, you might be dead by the time it’s up and running. In our latest study which we are about to publish in November, we found that 93% of the top-performing teams enabled developer self-service with a tool like an internal developer platform (IDP) to accelerate innovation cycles for faster time to market.

It’s a tough call, but one that can cost you a lot if you get it wrong. If you need help or want to talk, I’d be happy to. Good luck in the next few weeks. Managing the good times is easy. Wartime management is what separates you from the pack.

If you are wondering how to get going, the platform engineering YouTube channel is a great place to start diving into the topic.

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