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How to Unlock the Potential of Your Average Engineer

Personal growth
Productivity
Team processes

23 February, 2021

Paras Doshi, Engineering Manager (BI & Data) at Amazon, discusses how to unlock the potential of an average-performing engineer and encourage them to be more proactive and autonomous.

Problem

I had an engineer on my team who I felt was not realizing their full potential. In addition, a customer they closed worked with backed my belief that they have more to offer than they were delivering at that moment. Double-clicking on that, I found out that they needed a lot of hand-holding during requirements gathering phase; whenever requirements from a customer or stakeholder were given to them, they were acting reactively. They would wait for the business to define what the output should look like and never had any questions about execution. However, they always did quite a good job during technical execution.

The technical competency of the engineer was never an issue, on the contrary. But I was a bit concerned about them not being proactive, not asking questions, not challenging other solutions, etc. Considering their solid output I was curious if they could handle taking on more scope and having more impact.

Actions taken

During one-on-ones with my average-performing engineer, I tried to understand how they perceived their role, what they wanted to do to improve their impact, where they saw the opportunities, etc. One of the things that appeared with astounding clarity throughout the conversation we had was that they saw being proactive not as a part of their role but as stepping on other people’s toes. Referring to the role guidelines, I tried to explain that being proactive was highly important if they wanted to grow in their career. Once we both realized that their distorted understanding of proactivity was at the root cause of all other problems, I recalibrated my approach to focus on actual reframing. I used concrete examples to showcase how they should approach requirements, challenge them from a customer’s point of view, throw their ideas as someone closest to technology and knew all the gotchas, etc.

It took a while because it was not easy to build their confidence overnight and have them speak up. I also realized that they weren’t invited to biweekly product sync meetings. By including them in those meetings, they had an opportunity to see what other people were talking about, how they were contributing, what their impact was, etc. We used this mechanism to build their confidence and business acumen but also have them be more visible and part of the discussions around customer experience. I strongly believed that bringing them to a forum like product sync meetings and having them participate in the discussion would be crucial to unlocking their potential.

Over a period of six months, they went from being reactive to becoming highly involved in the requirements gathering process, delivering feedback, sharing their ideas, etc. Their performance rating also improved, and the average engineer was transformed into a key contributor on the team who had an enormous impact.

Lessons learned

  • Different companies have different mechanisms to steer up the performance discussion, and every manager needs to find the right mechanism to encourage their average engineers to be more proactive. Once you identify the right mechanism to unlock their potential, all you need to do is include them into those conversations.
  • Start with sensing the pulse of your team and how they perceive their role. I use a Flow Graph mechanism, a two by two matrix with complexity and comfort as the axis. The team should quarterly identify where their project falls in terms of complexity and comfort, and the balance between them should be maintained. As a manager, I should calibrate the projects to provide my engineers both, therefore empowering them to grow. In this particular case, all projects this engineer was working on were around their comfort zone with not many opportunities to improve their soft skills.
  • Don’t wait for annual reviews to rate people and instead give them opportunities in real-time. As a manager, you should know at any given time who is a top performer, who is lagging behind, who needs what kind of support, etc. The problem is that most managers focus on the extremes leaving out the largest, middle layer of average-performing engineers. This middle bucket deserves equal attention, if not more than the extremes, because they are largest in numbers.
  • Be careful how you will deliver your feedback because most average-performing engineers have a confidence problem and tend to underestimate their performance. I would set the stage by reassuring them that they are doing great and that I only want to help them perform even better. Emphasize if needed that it is not a performance management talk but a talk about their growth.

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