Keeping a team engaged when they’re only working on legacy projects and technical debt.
6 December, 2017
Three years ago, I started managing a team in my current company. The team was mainly working on maintaining and fixing legacy issues. It was a very young and capable team with a couple of seasoned senior engineers and four or five others. After a year, while still mainly working on technical debt from other projects, the team started to get more assignments that were basically failed projects from other teams. The team was very productive and fast at solving all these legacy issues and ended up becoming the team that solved the other teams' failures. When a highly capable team has been only assigned to fix legacy problems or failed projects from other teams it's very difficult to keep its members motivated and engaged. Some of the engineers asked to be assigned to new and different projects. Unfortunately, some of these engineers were the only ones that were able to help with the legacy issues. They knew and understood the goals better than anyone else and were also more reliable and more productive when fixing the issues. Productivity started to drop in the team's second year, as engineers were not engaged and they were continuously complaining about not working on new stuff and being stuck in legacy code. They also started to question all the decisions that other teams were making, as they lead to failed projects that our team had to fix. They continuously ranted about other team processes, and its quality and effectiveness. Some of them started to talk about leaving the company.
Last year, I started a conversation with our senior management about this and asked them to give us a few new projects that we could work on. I also asked for them to let me bring members of my team to our Architectural meetings and other project planning meetings, to allow them to be more involved and to give them a chance to give feedback. The situation was not ideal, as there were other legacy issues waiting for us, but in the end, we managed to give the team take a small break from legacy projects by giving them a small project they would control all the decisions on. At the time, I thought that giving full control of the project would bring some fresh air to them and would give them the opportunity to experience and learn about the responsibilities of other teams. We presented the project requirements and asked my team to develop a solution in a given timeframe, with no process, product team or management involvement. The team was thrilled about the project and over the following three weeks superbly executed a solution. The engineers were engaged and happy throughout the process. However, after that, we went back to our routine because other legacy issues were waiting. While things were good for a while, and engineers were motivated and proud, it only took a few months for things to go back to how they had been before. In addition, engineers started to complain even more about the origin of the projects we were working on. It is still very difficult to keep the team motivated, as they want more attractive projects and can't wait for the next "break".
Legacy projects and technical debt are difficult projects in terms of team motivation. Being stuck in a team that only works on these types of projects is not exciting, and will crush any engineer at some point. I learned that as a manager, you sometimes focus on solving the wrong problem and end up only applying a band-aid to a major issue. I fought for a new project to give my team some fresh air, but I now realize that it was not enough. Instead of finding a temporary solution, I should have tried to change things permanently by fighting for a better team rotation and project planning. The core problem also stems from a lack of engineer involvement, leading to many project failures and legacy issues. I am now leading these conversations, to make a difference.
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