Inspiring Engineers with your Company's Vision

Eric Adams

Consulting Software Engineer, Engineering Executive at Studio Connect, LLC


My first lesson - a completely (un)inspiring story

To start, let's go back to the fall of 2012 ... I had just been placed as the engineering lead on a pilot team that was developing Windows 8 applications for a major consumer electronics provider. We were developing them all in HTML5 (remember .... 2012), and we were building them as the default apps that would be installed on all devices. I was excited to be entrusted to help lead this project that was using cutting-edge tech, would be seen by a lot of users, and would provide the potential for revenue opportunities that our company had not yet tapped into.

The team I took over had 4 engineers on it; I had worked with two of them previously on other projects, and two of them had been hired specifically for the new team. Almost immediately, I could see that the majority of the team was as invested in the project as I was—they were highly engaged, and they understood we were breaking new ground in the company. Everything felt great ... and that great feeling lasted for about a week.

It started with one of the engineers giving the same update every day in stand-up. He wasn't making progress, and he wasn't asking for help. I started to reach out to offer assistance, and I wondered: Was the spec too difficult to understand? Had I underestimated his abilities for this task? What surprised me most, though, was that he wouldn't respond to my offers of assistance. He didn't seem interested in solving the problem at hand. And perhaps most importantly, he didn't seem to care that he was failing to deliver what the rest of the team was depending on to continue the project.

Finally, I had to address this in a one-on-one with the engineer. This was admittedly awkward, as I was still the new one on the team, but I pressed ahead. I expressed that we needed to have certain things completed in a reasonable amount of time to keep the project on track. I expressed the importance of communicating if he was behind and that it was ok to ask for help. Over the next few days, the productivity didn't change, but what did change was that I started receiving text messages from the engineer, complaining about the project. Most of the complaints weren't anything I could address directly, but I remember one that really stood out to me. He told me how his brother worked for a defense contractor, and they were responsible for building rockets. That this was important work for an engineer, he said - and then he hit me with the following: "It's not like we're building rockets here."

Ouch. Did he not understand our opportunity? What we were building? How we could impact the business? What was wrong here?!?

"Why" your Company Vision matters

Ultimately, what was lacking in my communication was a connection to larger company objectives that could motivate an engineer to work towards our goals. More importantly, it was lacking a sense of purpose as to why we were developing our current project. It lacked a connection to Company Vision.

Company Vision should encapsulate the great question of "why"—not of why your employees show up to work, but why they show up to work for you. Simon Sinek captured this concept of vision in his excellent 2009 talk "Start with why", when he stated (my summary follows) that your Company Vision is an expression of what you believe, and your product is part of the proof of what you believe. The qualitative and physical attributes of Company Vision don't bubble up; they are created at the top, and must be infused into the company culture to remain relevant.

Keep it simple!

If you are unable to answer the question for yourself, "Why am I building what I am building?", then there's a good chance you're not inspiring your team to build in a way that is in alignment with your Company's Vision. If they have sufficiently bought into the "why" that drives the products or services they are building or selling, they will build and sell with conviction, in a way that is consistent with their personal values.

The statement of "why" should be simple—easy to remember and easy to restate. In another company I worked for, our founder would occasionally ask us to give a 30-second elevator pitch for our product in company-wide meetings. This is an excellent way to quickly gauge if your team understands "why". Even after having worked for the company for several years, this question would always get me thinking (and perhaps sweating) a bit.

"Making more money" isn't your why

We all get this: life isn't free, and for the majority of us, we exist in our employment to bring home a paycheck, pay our bills, support our family, etc. This is all fine! However, when you are a leader in your company, becoming fixated on sales can have some disastrous side-effects. Customer-driven product roadmaps can drift very far from your "why", and must be prioritized in balance with your Company Vision. That's certainly not to say that the customer doesn't matter! In the same way we as team leaders must inspire our teams as to why their work is important to us, we as company leaders must inspire our customers as to why our work is the right solution for them.

Slightly restated: Finding product-market fit isn't about taking orders; it's about understanding and aligning your Company Vision with the purpose of your customers and why they have chosen you.

The importance of a shared Company Vision

Company Vision should be understood by all departments: engineering, product, design, customer success, marketing, and sales. Every one of these departments will have an influence on the direction of the product, and must have a stake in the Company Vision. If there is a drift in understanding this vision, it will show up in several key deficiencies:

  • Competing departmental priorities
  • Misaligned marketing initiatives
  • Drift in product-market fit
  • Decreased engineering productivity
  • Increased Customer Churn

Are you aligned with your Company's Vision?

These side-effects should be clear -- but they may not be immediately obvious in the day-to-day operations. Attrition in your employees and in your clients is a good sign you have fallen off the mark, so it is important to ensure both your quantitative and qualitative company metrics are in place and being monitored.

KPIs may include quantitative metrics such as:

  • New sales revenue
  • Customer churn rates
  • MQL conversion rates
  • Sprint velocity

But these are often going to suffer on the tail of attrition due to misalignment with Company Vision. There are also qualitative activities you can engage in:

  • Consistent 1:1 and skip-level meetings within your organization
  • Open R&D opportunities for product & engineering teams
  • Company offsite meetings
  • Company-wide brainstorming sessions

Company Vision is an evolving process.

Company Vision is also not a "set it and forget it" act; it is a constantly evolving act of discovery and communication. In my story from earlier, it was clear that the engineers who had been at the company longer understood the importance of our project, while the newer engineers hadn't yet bought into what we were doing. In my case, if I had thought in terms of the importance of Company Vision, perhaps I could have communicated that with more enthusiasm and urgency.

Getting your Engineers engaged in your Company's Vision

Going back to my first story -- and back to engineering -- this was my first lesson in my career in engineering management, and it still might be one of the most important lessons. What excites or motivates one person to work each day may completely fall flat for the next person.

While it may not be our job as managers to ensure engineers are motivated, it is our responsibility to ensure engineers have good opportunities for inspiration and motivation. This can take a number of forms:

  • Parts of the product an engineer can own - where they are the subject-matter expert
  • Engineering as an integral part of scoping and prioritization
  • Stretch projects agreed upon with engineers

Let's quickly unpack each of these.

Engineers should be subject-matter experts in the product.

If you are working with senior or lead engineers, this is likely already a part of their workload. They may own particular features, or subsections of the product. This is good, and as an engineering manager, part of your job is to push your engineers to continue to assume ownership. This ownership can take the following forms:

  • Increased communication with external stakeholders
  • Running product demos or company-wide training sessions
  • Interfacing with clients on sales calls

For junior or entry-level engineers, some of these tasks will probably seem very daunting. However, there are still great opportunities to give them ownership of a product or codebase! These opportunities might include:

  • Refactoring legacy features to a new spec
  • Building internal tools to give them potentially lower-risk opportunities for ownership
  • Engaging in constructive team code review sessions

Engineering as an integral part of scoping and prioritization

If you work within an agile organization, some of this may already be happening. Sprint ceremonies are intended to get engineering communicating with stakeholders, and to give them agency in the decision-making process. If you are already working in sprints, look for opportunities to get your engineers contributing.

  • Ask questions of your quieter engineers to get them involved in the discussion
  • Ask for feedback in retrospectives in a round-robin fashion (everyone answers)

If you are not working within an agile context, try to establish weekly or bi-weekly touch-bases with other department stakeholders. Involve your engineers in the conversation, and keep them aware of new initiatives in sales & marketing. It's more of an effort here, but remember - it's extremely important that they understand the "why".

Stretch projects agreed upon with Engineers

I can't understate the importance of establishing stretch projects for your engineers. They are important not only to keep an engineer learning, but to provide ownership opportunities. Stretch projects provide engineers an opportunity to get creative in ways that other time-boxed activities or deadlines may not allow.

In my last position, I was hired for a stretch project—to update our entire API to Node.JS. This was a long project, but it had an amazing side-effect; once I was done, I knew almost every single part of the product. I had the ultimate sense of ownership, and it helped guide my decisions and leadership of the Engineering Team over the 5 years that followed.

In Conclusion

A Company Vision helps answer the important question of "why" we are committed to the work we do each day. It is a purpose that, when expressed through our daily work activities, can motivate engineers (and everyone) to work towards shared goals with a sense of passion.

Remember: Company Vision should never be taken for granted! It is always a work in progress that requires discovery and communication to remain relevant. There are methods you can employ to be able to see if your Company Vision is affecting company priorities, and ways you can work with your team to continually infuse Company Vision.

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Eric Adams

Consulting Software Engineer, Engineering Executive at Studio Connect, LLC

Engineering LeadershipCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingFeedback TechniquesTechnical ExpertiseTechnical Skills

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