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How to Efficiently Scale Your Team For Success and Growth

Denison Wright

VP Engineering at Sonatype

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Problem

Team scaling is necessary for successful growing businesses. If you are the manager of a growing team and have reached your scaling limit, it is time to figure out how to structure the organization for it to continue functioning properly and have a repeatable model to grow further. It is important to identify the critical elements of this and have the responsibilities assigned appropriately.

Actions taken

"I really like the team lead model as a start, because I see the team lead as someone who doesn't have people management responsibilities but are very good engineers and capable of leading the team."

Over the years I've been a team leader, manager of multiple teams, and director of multiple managers. I've taken a team within its startup period with only a hand full of people and grown it to 50+ people. I also have experience starting companies, so I understand the business side of operations, especially product management, with a focus on the engineering side.

The team leads act as facilitators while getting people engaged and keeping an eye out on the group goals. They also provide a context for team members while collaborating with product managers and others in a leadership role to get a picture of the health of the team and how things are going.

Having a team leader also helps from the onboarding perspective. The team lead will act as the initial point of contact to get new members onto the team and try to figure out activities to make them productive quickly and build a high performing team.

Another angle is the concept of engineering management as you are now looking to grow the organization and distribute the management side of the job. It is a good idea with a multiproduct situation to have managers assigned to each project.

"From my perspective, good engineering managers don't need to be the best, but they do need to be respected. They need to have enough seniority from experience so that they understand operations and best practices. They should be responsible for people, technology, and processes."

Of course, they won't be doing everything themselves. They will facilitate a group of people to cover all the bases for each project.

The engineering manager needs to work with their team to tailor a hiring plan to fill positions and enable the team to put materials in place to onboard new members.

The manager should do one-on-one meetings with individuals to facilitate their development. They should also be a trusted point of contact for employees to approach them with issues.

It is important for the team leaders to have a good working relationship with the engineering managers, so that they understand what is expected of them, time frames, constraints, etc. You also want to know they are making the right choices to deliver against the objectives you have, while making the right technology trade-offs to help balance time.

I have end-of-month meetings with my team leaders to find out where the team is and identify areas of improvement so I can assess things. If the team lead is handling more of the technical execution, then the manager and team lead will be able to collaborate to solve problems as they arise.

You can have two parallel career tracks, one being technical starting at an entry level position, and the other track might end with CEO. Somewhere along that track, you'll want to branch off and create a management track from bottom to top.

On the technical track, make sure you separate career related levels such as an entry level engineer (taking a lot of direction from people) and a senior engineer (operating at a higher level). These engineers are going to be the workhorses of your company. They need to know a lot about technology, processes, design and implementation to make things happen.

On top of that, the bulk of your organization might be senior engineers with a handful of staff level engineers and maybe an equivalent level of junior engineers, depends on your strategy. So how do we scale that application to satisfy whatever load we need? Or how should we architect the solution to minimize the cost? The senior engineers are having a big impact, but they are more feature oriented instead of product oriented. And obviously there's a departmental or operational impact because your senior engineers will have insights and opinions.

One thing I'll mention is to try to separate between the formal career ladder and what I call "operational" types of roles. For example, your team lead might not be a career ladder type of role, so any senior engineer could theoretically play that role but it's not permanent. Separating operational from career track roles.

Think about the capabilities the different role levels should be able to perform. At the engineering level you are responsible for being an independent contributor, but as you move up to the senior level you may play a tech lead role if your company doesn't have formal product owners. Hence, at a senior level you should be able to wear many hats.

Same thing goes for an engineering manager - you've had experience as a team lead elsewhere but you understand product ownership and engineering stuff, and you may be able to play the different roles your team needs. Sometimes you don't want to be a crutch, and at others you may need to act as a training wheel and show them the ropes, and later hope to disconnect for the team leader to pick it up and carry it forward.

Lessons learned

In my experience when I joined this company, my boss had started in the company about six years ago as the VP of engineering and at the time we only had 10 engineers. The group grew to 60 engineers and product managers, but he was still the only manager and everybody reported to him.

Things mostly worked from a delivery perspective, but he wasn't able to meet one-on-one with anybody and things were fairly loose. When I started digging, I found a bunch of holes and I knew that it wouldn't scale. I started evaluating performance and over time I was able to convince my boss that we needed engineering managers and I talked to the people I thought could be qualified. I instituted that a few months ago and have provided a lot of support which is important.

Try to have an open dialogue about the issues they are trying to tackle and trust building is very important. Don't overload your managers; managing 10-12 people at a time is sufficient. Now I'm at a point where I have 12 direct reports and each one of them has anywhere between 8-12 direct reports themselves.

Each company has a different manager style, some are more command and control and other people strive to enable people to be decision makers. Sometimes we may also need to make decisions that might not be popular, and issues mandate that need to strike a balance there to still maintain that authority, clarity and communication are important.


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Denison Wright

VP Engineering at Sonatype


Engineering LeadershipEngineering ManagementTechnical ExpertiseTechnical SkillsCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionCareer LadderIndividual Contributor RolesStaff EngineerPrincipal Engineer

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