Assessing the health of an engineering organization

Advice from Pooja Brown (VP of Engineering at Stitch Fix) and Luc Vincent (EVP of Engineering at Lyft)

It's hard to think about productive teams without happiness and psychological safety. All organizations strive to be healthy, and to achieve this, your employees need to be happy.. It is a well-known fact that diversity leads to happiness, which further leads to higher productivity. Let's look at other ways of measuring the health and productivity of an engineering organization.

Measuring with OKRs

Establishing strategic OKRs (yearly and quarterly) and giving your team leeway to position themselves, gives them the flexibility to correct, make decisions, learn, iterate, and make improvements. Based on this, you can assess healthy metrics for achieving success by answering these questions: "Are we achieving our targets?" "Are we hitting our OKR goals?"

In the OKR framework, the hierarchy cascades down starting from the company, then the team, and then personal objectives. We also need to understand that a happy team that does not deliver for the business is not necessarily a healthy team. There should be a balance across the three layers.

Setting and defining OKRs

OKRs are a critical part of running a healthy organization. They are a great way to communicate important issues and bring alignment. As they are typically measurable, good OKRs need to have metrics that can be tracked. If these are overly aggressive, then your engineers may not believe in them, and if they are too timid, then your team may be sandbagging. If your team is consistently behind, then it means that there is something wrong, so a good aim should be to define your OKRs as "just aggressive enough."

Measuring with HR and other odd metrics

As a healthy balance leads to more productivity, some HR metrics and ratios can help evaluate your teams' health. These few ratios can be highly insightful:

  • The ratio of engineers to engineering managers – Well-functioning organizations aim to have 5-10 engineers for 1 manager, with 7 being the golden ratio.
  • The ratio of junior vs. senior people in each team – If you have too many junior members, there is not enough context and perspective, and If you have too many seniors, they may step on each other's toes.
  • Having the right ratio and alignment between the product organization and the engineering organization leads to more clarity and faster decision-making.

Hitting balanced ratios

Unique situations demand unique arrangements, and such ratios can change based on different areas and functions. When we talk about junior to senior engineers’ ratio, a good rule of thumb is half and half. We can also have a bell curve distribution where, on one end, we have early entry-level engineers, and on the other end, we have experienced leaders.

Measuring happiness of your teams

Engagement is one of the top indicators to measure happiness. Measuring the engagement score and assessing it compared to where it was before can be useful for leaders. Pulse surveys can also help keep track on a more granular basis in understanding how teams are doing.

Tips on restoring your organization's health

As engineering leaders, it is our responsibility to hear and address the issues of our dissatisfied teams. With many teams being remote and distributed, it is helpful setting up 15-minute check-ins at a regular cadence. Having forums where you can get that hallway chatter is a great way from a manager's perspective to learn about what is happening in your organization. During these times, when the water cooler chats do not exist, we need other ways to simulate that.

If you are a part of the team where there are product issues, people leaving, leaders not being empathetic, you need to make sure that the right people are aware of these issues. The first step would be talking to the right people because If people don't know the problem, they can't resolve it.

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