How to grow & motivate your team during a pandemic

Tips from the Director of Engineering at the NY Times, Said Ketchman

As an engineering leader, have you thought, “Is it okay to not be growing right now?”

Typically, the answer would be “No, it’s not okay.” At most organizations, managers are expected to both deliver work and grow their engineers.

But hasn’t the pandemic changed these expectations? According to Said Ketchman, Director of Engineering at the NY Times, it is somehow possible to help your team grow (and as a result, stay motivated) during these crazy times.

Step 1: Understanding Why Your People Want To Grow

Growth and motivation go hand in hand, and before starting to analyze your engineers, it’s crucial to understand what inspires them to grow. Growth can be bucketed into three categories.

  • Growth For Career Progression: Your engineers might be striving for growth to achieve a new title, better salaries, or additional responsibilities. So they’re pushing themselves for their career development.
  • Growth For Influence: Your engineers may have a title, but not necessarily the authority or influence that comes with it. They may be looking to be asked, heard, or even included in important conversations.
  • Growth For Self-Confidence And Expertise: For an engineer, this could mean more in-depth technical expertise in a specific area, or broader understanding of the whole system they are contributing to.

Step 2: Understanding The Motivating Factors

If your team is motivated, it will grow! But what may have worked for them in a pre-pandemic world might not work in today’s circumstances. So, you need to re-assess the incentives that your engineers value. Motivation can be categorized into these three types:

  • Motivated by The Challenge: Engineers are sometimes motivated by testing their ability. They want to challenge their skills and validate that they’re prepared for that challenge.
  • Motivated by The Impact: Engineers want to work on things that other people care about. Let’s say, working on something that could have a significant business impact. If we’re working on things that matter, that have a big impact, then we feel like we matter.
  • Motivated by The Learning: This is when you specifically don’t have a skill, and you want to gain it. Let’s say you know three programming languages and you want to learn one more.

All these motivations lead to your team’s growth. If we pause for a second and think about this pandemic: In our minds, the pandemic halted everything, changed the world, and it caused people to stop in their tracks. But the big question engineering leaders should be asking is, “Can this pandemic actually help fuel motivation and growth?”

Step 3: Analyze How The Pandemic Is Affecting Your Team’s Performance And Provide Support

We need to reflect on the consequences of the pandemic, like working remotely, being part of a distributed team, losing a loved one or a family member, and work-life balance conflicts that can become overwhelming.

To understand this, you need to take a step back and examine each of your direct reports and think about their career development. “Where are they in their career?” and “Are they struggling with growth?”

Take into account the expectations that you have on them and that they have on themselves. And it’s essential to level-set based off of the current circumstances today. There are three different performance levels:

  • People Who Are Growing: People in this category are hustling and growing. They are finding motivation as well as opportunities, even in these challenging times. These people can perform well under constraints and support other team members in need.

TIP: Be careful and don’t assume that everything is and will be fine! Make sure that these team members are adequately recognized for their work and carefully manage their burnout.

  • People Who Are Just Getting By: These are people who are semi-motivated. They are not motivated for huge career growth, but do a good job and don’t fall behind.

TIP: As their manager, you need to recognize and celebrate their wins (pushing them isn’t exactly going to motivate them). Ensure you set proper expectations and provide proper feedback, so they don’t become demotivated.

  • People Who Are Hanging On: People in this category are generally demotivated and regressing in their performance. Often, there might be an engineer or a direct report who was amazing in the past but now falls in this category.

TIP: To manage these team members, you need to spend time with them, break down their struggles, and plan resolutions. These conversations will not be easy but will ensure trust and honesty between you and your report.


Don’t let this pandemic make you forget that you have a responsibility for the long-term. Give your engineers the room to focus on the difficulty of today, but that doesn’t mean you get complacent and stop thinking about them tomorrow. If you have people struggling with career growth, closely watch them to ensure these struggles won’t impact them forever. And lastly, don’t forget about yourself! Because the same analysis you will be doing for your engineers, you should be doing it for yourself. Analyze and ask yourself: “Am I growing or am I just getting by?” and “How has the pandemic impacted me?”

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