Two people at a desk with a laptop and a large screen, both of which have lines of code on them symbolising software development.
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Best practices for software development managers

24 Feb 2022

PlusPlus’s Marko Gargenta explains why not all software developers should be managers and what it takes to lead a team successfully.

Attracting and retaining tech talent has always been a challenge. In the current climate, it has become significantly harder. Nearly 75pc of digital workers are expecting to leave their current role soon, with advancing their careers the main driver for 63pc of those planning to move on.

That data does highlight a major issue that businesses are going to lose their valued tech talent, but it also suggests that those employers that can support career advancement are more likely to retain staff.

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Many organisations pride themselves on their ability to develop talent internally and, certainly in growing businesses, there is usually a significant opportunity to acquire new skills by moving to different positions.

But there are pitfalls to simply giving the best talent different, supposedly more important, responsibilities. This is particularly true when that change actually means an end of doing the work they were good at and the need to learn a whole new set of skills.

Look at professional athletes. Few of the world’s biggest stars, in any sport, automatically become great coaches. And in journalism, what makes a great reporter does not necessarily make someone a great editor as well.

It’s the same in software development. Successful software developers do not automatically make successful managers. In fact, quite often the very thing that made a high performer successful in their last role could well get in their way in the new position. That’s because the thing that made a great developer – technical prowess – is no longer the primary attribute of a successful manager.

Of course, it’s important to have the right understanding when leading a team of tech specialists, yet simply being the best at creating new products or fixing complex bugs is not going to inspire a variety of personalities.

That’s because they will have their own motivations, preferences, strengths and weaknesses, all of which need to be navigated and handled in the right way in order to coax the best performance from both individuals and the collective team.

What it takes to manage developers

That’s before we consider how those individuals work and how their roles influence how best to manage or lead them.

To do that, managers need to understand the types of people in their organisation. Everyone might be unique, but there will be certain characteristics, defined by their roles, which can help provide insight into how best to lead them.

For instance, if we consider programming disciplines, systems, user interface/experience and database programmers will all have different ways of thinking about problems and solutions.

Or a manager might have a team made up of both permanent employees and contractors, each with their own concerns and approaches.

In addition, there could well be both cowboys, charging in at the very last minute of a project to save the day, and farmers, who just steadily plough through the task at hand. Both will be required to make a product successfully and both will respond to different types of management.

Challenges of building software development teams

Of course, to get to that point, managers need to have built a team in the first place. And while every organisation is different, there are a number of common challenges that anyone that has worked in a technical function will be familiar with. Specifically, recruitment, onboarding and knowledge sharing.

We’ve already noted the great upheaval attracting and retaining talent is going through and it’s important to note that, while many people are willing to move, there is so much competition that no employer should think it will be easy to recruit the right staff.

That’s particularly true for engineering teams that are often always hiring as one of the fastest growing functions in an organisation. Many managers make the mistake of assuming recruiters, whether external or internal, can handle the whole process. But if candidates are to be properly assessed, their leaders and indeed prospective colleagues need to be heavily involved.

For one thing, a recruitment function that has to serve the whole business is unlikely to have in-depth knowledge or experience of reviewing someone’s ability to code. For another, while they can run company-wide tests to check cultural fit, the intricacies of smaller teams will only be truly understood by the people actually in that team.

Sourcing opinion and ideas from existing team members can help create an assessment process which is fair, balanced, replicable and more likely to identify candidates that will gel quickly with other employees.

Ignore onboarding at your peril

Once a candidate has been chosen, they need to be onboarded. While this is one term, it’s actually two processes.

First, there’s the part conducted by human resources. The employee orientation might include all the paperwork, processes and compliance lists needed to turn a candidate into a legal part of the business.

Second, and more important from a productivity and engagement perspective, is functional onboarding, which is focused on getting new joiners up to speed as quickly as possible. That’s about having a welcoming culture and access to the right equipment and services straight away.

Yet it’s constantly surprising how many organisations spend tens of thousands of dollars and many hours attracting and recruiting new employees but spend a fraction of that on onboarding.

Employers cannot assume that signing a contract means they can take their foot off the gas. They need to ensure that the onboarding process is smooth and reflective of the business.

If they don’t, they could lose those new employees they spent so much resource acquiring in the first place. One study found that employees who had a negative new hire onboarding experience are twice as likely to look for new opportunities soon, while one in five new hires are unlikely to recommend an employer to a friend or family member following their onboarding.

There is also another issue with onboarding – how it can create organisational drag. This is where adding new bodies slows down output, as everything becomes exponentially more complex.

While growing businesses need to bring in new staff to maintain progression, if they do not have clear processes and a culture set up to bring people up to speed as quickly as possible, they can actually find they suffer from a dip in productivity.

Creating an environment of shared understanding

This all comes down to the issue of sharing knowledge. Communicating and collaboration is crucial in having a successful team, and it’s as valuable to managers as it is to team members.

Leaders must listen, while also creating an environment that prioritises knowledge sharing. This is especially true in the increasingly remote working world many find themselves in. It goes beyond simply sharing information within a team, but also extends to how teams communicate with other functions, departments and business units.

Some managers might feel that they risk over-communicating. In today’s environment, that’s not possible, but it’s important to remember that listening is as much a part of communication as talking is.

What there can be a risk of is over-communicating less valuable information. Everyone has a unique perspective or knowledge that is not readily available to others – leaders need to find ways of being able to access that understanding and share it with relevant people across the organisation.

This is where knowing individuals on the team, what their preferences are and how comfortable they are communicating comes in. It’s no good pushing an introvert to give a company-wide presentation when they might be more comfortable, and therefore more effective, in sharing understanding with small groups or on a one-to-one basis.

Succeeding in 2022 and beyond

It is challenging for technical organisations at the moment. Businesses need to be able to harness technology to succeed in today’s marketplaces and engineering teams are under pressure to contribute to that goal.

In this environment, managers need to be hyper-focused on supporting their employees to perform effectively, which in turn puts the focus on these leaders and how they guide, develop and motivate their teams.

From recruitment and onboarding to individual guidance and how knowledge is disseminated across the organisation, managers are in the driving seat for helping software development teams hum.

By Marko Gargenta

Marko Gargenta is the CEO of PlusPlus, a productivity platform for technical teams.

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