How to Build and Scale a Successful Engineering Team

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Rafael Timbó
By
Rafael Timbó
|
Chief Technology Officer
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A director of engineering is responsible, in part, for building and scaling engineering teams. Tech teams must adapt to changing demands, meet tight deadlines, and deliver high-quality products. This article outlines building a team from scratch according to these requirements.
Published on
March 20, 2024
Updated on
April 18, 2024

Engineering teams play a crucial role in many organizations, from e-commerce to tech companies. A strong engineering team relies on positive momentum to get things done and encourages all the members to continue innovating at a steady velocity to accomplish the company’s goals.

But engineering leaders need to hire the right people for their tech team to achieve these wins and gain momentum — and building an engineering team from scratch comes with its own set of challenges. The work, time, and resources required for hiring, training, skill development, and retention of candidates and employees are substantial.

This article will outline what it takes to develop a strong engineering team. We’ll start by discussing engineering team structures and continue through the process of scaling engineering teams.

Why Building Great Engineering Teams Is Integral to Organizational Success

Engineering teams are responsible for a variety of tasks integral to organizational success. Within tech companies, software engineering teams are responsible for software design, coding, testing, debugging, and deployment. In other businesses, engineering teams tackle product development, design, optimization, testing, and deployment.

Project managers might work with a director of engineering or chief technology officer (CTO) to determine what kind of product to launch. But the engineering team handles bringing that vision to fruition. As a result, the strength of an engineering team is directly tied to the strength of the organization as a whole.

Development teams have to be agile. Strong problem-solving and decision-making skills are key to designing products that meet the needs of their clients. Members of engineering teams may need to take on distinct roles, from front-end developers to data engineers. Organizing these roles in a structured hierarchy can keep the team running like a well-oiled machine.

Common Engineering Team Structures

If you’re trying to learn how to build a team from scratch, the first question to ask yourself is what kind of team you need. Engineering team structures vary based on organizational types, needs, and ideologies.

Designing your team structure lays the foundation for current team dynamics. But it also serves as a basis for scaling teams in the future.

Here are some of the most common engineering team structures and how they support different types of engineering teams.

Functional Team Structure

Functional teams are perhaps the most traditional example of a team’s engineering structure. This structure organization bases itself on engineering team roles. For example, a software development team would have one project manager or team leader, while a quality assurance team would have a separate leader.

Functional teams allow individuals to specialize in a particular role and become deeply familiar with their duties. This can lead to efficient software development.

However, separating software engineering teams by their functional roles has some drawbacks. Research shows that groups with more diverse backgrounds tend to be more innovative. Individuals on functional teams can become overly focused on what their team is in charge of while losing track of the bigger picture. This can cause silos and communication challenges between various product teams.

Cross-Functional Team Structure

Cross-functional teams (or integrated or interdisciplinary teams) are a direct contrast to functional teams. They promote collaboration between different engineering disciplines. This structure brings individuals from various areas together on one team.

Bringing together team members with rich experiences and expertise can enhance creativity and innovation. And because each team member is responsible for their portion of the project, it can encourage individuals to feel more ownership in their work.

The downside of this engineering team structure is that managing workloads can be challenging. Certain members may be more busy than others during different periods of a project’s lifecycle. This can make project and product management difficult.

Project-Based or Product-Based Team Structure

Project-based teams are similar to cross-functional teams. The biggest difference is that project-based teams are temporary. Once the team members complete the project, they leave the organization or take on other projects.

A project-based team lends itself well to having consultants, freelancers, or contract workers. This can solve the problem of managing workloads that crop up with other cross-functional teams.

Geographic Team Structure

Another common way to structure a team is according to geography. This is especially common for larger organizations with offices in different cities around the country or the world. For example, these organizations might have a “New York Team” and a “Los Angeles Team.”

Geographic teams allow organizations to address local needs and keep a beat on specific communities. However, it can lead to a lack of collaboration — or even competitiveness — between teams in different locations. This can cause discordance within the organization as a whole.

Popular Models for Building Teams

Team structures determine who is on a team. Team models determine how those team members work together to complete a project. Known models provide engineering directors or CTOs with strategies, theories, and best practices. Some of the most well-known models for building engineering teams include:

  • Agile Team Model: Agile teams work in short cycles called sprints, followed up by retrospectives where team members assess the sprint’s performance, processes, and outcomes. An agile team model aims to provide incremental improvements over time.
  • Scrum Team Model: This model is similar to the agile team model. However, it has more clearly defined roles. These roles include Product Owner, Development Master, and Scrum Team. Additionally, at the end of each sprint, the goal is to deliver a new, shippable product rather than to improve upon an existing one.
  • Kanban Team Model: Kanban teams use a visual board to track tasks as they move through various iterations and stages of completion. This framework focuses on visualizing the overall workflow. It limits the amount of work being done at a given time while optimizing each stage. This model is particularly effective for managing workflows with high variability. It can help engineering managers identify and eliminate bottlenecks.
  • Lean Startup Team Model: Popularized by Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup, the lean startup model motivates teams to focus on building minimum viable products (MVPs). This strategy allows teams to test ideas and validate market demand quickly based on the results of engineering key performance indicators (KPIs) and metrics. This model is well-suited for startups and early-stage companies because it helps minimize risk when designing new products.
  • Holacratic Team Model: A holocratic team model is a self-managed model. This means that you distribute authority and decision-making throughout the organization. This model fosters agility, adaptability, and employee empowerment. However, it requires a great deal of trust in your team.

In addition to well-known models, engineering teams can create their own models for projects. Developing a new model for a team allows CTOs to tailor the process for their specific organization and can foster creativity and innovation. However, building a team model from scratch can also take time. And because the model is untested, there’s the risk of inefficiency or ineffectiveness.

Characteristics to Look for When Building an Engineering Team

When building an engineering team, focus on more than whether resumes suggest that individuals have held similar roles in the past. Strong CTOs look beyond this, seeking candidates with characteristics to support the organization’s overall needs.

Consider the technology stack, project scope, and timeline to identify the areas developers need to excel in. Additionally, assess the organizational culture and values to ensure alignment with potential candidates’ attitudes, work styles, and interpersonal skills.

Some of the top characteristics to look for when building an engineering team include:

Technical Proficiency

One of the first things to consider in this leadership role is whether candidates possess the technical skills to perform the job. Look for candidates with a strong foundation in programming languages, frameworks, and tools relevant to the project and the organization’s technology stack.

Assess each candidate’s ability to solve complex problems, write clean and maintainable code, and demonstrate a deep understanding of software engineering principles and best practices. You can even consider conducting technical assessments or coding challenges to evaluate these skills in real-time.

Collaboration Skills

When building an engineering team, it’s critical to consider the team as a whole. Strong programmers are great, but only if they can work together with other members of their team. Evaluate soft skills like communication and collaboration, looking for engineers who can meet the technical demands of the job and play nicely with others.

Adaptability

The technical landscape is constantly evolving. A strong engineering team adapts to emerging technologies and changing project requirements.

Seek candidates who are flexible, resilient, and able to thrive in ambiguous or changing circumstances. Look for evidence of past experiences where candidates have successfully adapted to shifting requirements or project constraints and demonstrated the ability to remain focused and productive under pressure.

Problem-Solving Skills

Problem-solving ability is a critical skill for developers tasked with overcoming technical challenges and delivering innovative solutions. Look for candidates who demonstrate a strong aptitude for analytical thinking, logical reasoning, and creative problem-solving. Consider presenting candidates with real-world scenarios or case studies to evaluate how they would tackle challenging technical problems.

Cultural Fit

No two engineering teams are the same. Cultural fit impacts team dynamics, morale, and overall productivity. Seek candidates whose values, work ethic, and personality align with the organization and engineering team's culture and values. Consider conducting behavioral interviews to gauge candidates’ alignment with the organization’s culture and assess their potential for long-term success and contribution to the team.

8 Tips for Scaling Engineering Teams

As organizations expand, engineering teams need to scale alongside them. This means more than just hiring more team members to keep up with growing demands.

Scaling an engineering team requires addressing complex challenges and delivering high-quality solutions. The team needs to work well together, have a consistent structure for managing workloads, and have the capacity and infrastructure to support increasing demand for production.

Let’s look at eight tips for scaling engineering teams and how to implement these tips to deliver quality software and products as an organization grows.

1. Focus on Building Momentum

Momentum is essential for maintaining productivity, achieving goals, and driving progress within the team. When teams stagnate, it’s usually because there’s insufficient momentum to drive them to succeed.

You can build momentum on a team by providing frequent opportunities for teams to achieve goals. These small wins build upon themselves over time and can drive individuals to work harder to accomplish the next goal.

2. Establish Clear Communication Channels

By fostering transparent and open communication channels, teams can minimize misunderstandings and ensure everyone is working towards common goals. Tools like Slack, Microsoft Teams, or Discord enable real-time communication and collaboration among team members, regardless of location. Regular stand-up check-ins, sprint reviews, and retrospectives allow team members to share updates, discuss progress, and address any challenges or roadblocks.  

3. Foster a Culture of Learning and Development

Continuous learning and development are essential for scaling engineering teams sustainably. Encourage team members to pursue ongoing education, attend conferences, and participate in workshops or training programs to expand their skill sets and stay abreast of industry trends and best practices.

4. Implement Effective Onboarding Processes

Effective onboarding sets the foundation for long-term success, empowering new team members to contribute as soon as possible. You can improve your onboarding process by providing comprehensive documentation, training materials, and access to relevant tools and systems. Additionally, consider pairing new hires with experienced mentors or buddy teams for guidance, support, and feedback.

5. Encourage Cross-Functional Collaboration

Fostering a collaborative environment allows organizations to harness their teams' collective expertise and creativity. Break down silos and promote a culture of collaboration by organizing regular cross-functional meetings, workshops, or hackathons where team members can collaborate on new projects, share insights, and learn from each other’s experiences. Additionally, leverage tools and platforms that facilitate cross-functional communication and collaboration, such as shared documentation systems, project management tools, or collaborative coding platforms.

6. Invest in Scalable Infrastructure and Tools

Organizations can future-proof their technology stack by investing in scalable infrastructure and tools. Evaluate existing systems and technologies to identify potential bottlenecks or limitations that may hinder scalability. Then, invest in scalable technologies and databases so systems can handle increased workloads and traffic without impacting performance.

7. Monitor and Adapt to Changing Needs

Regularly review engineering KPIs such as velocity, cycle time, and defect rate to identify areas for improvement and optimization. Solicit feedback from team members through surveys, one-on-one meetings, or retrospectives to understand their experiences and perspectives. Based on this feedback and data-driven insights, adjust processes, workflows, and resource allocation strategies to optimize team performance and maintain momentum.

8. Create a Diverse and Inclusive Culture

By cultivating a diverse and inclusive culture, organizations can tap into a broader talent pool, drive innovation, and build teams that are more adaptable, creative, and effective at solving complex challenges. To achieve this, implement diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, such as unconscious bias training, mentorship programs for underrepresented groups, and inclusive hiring practices to attract and retain diverse talent.

How to Build a Team From Scratch

Building an engineering team from scratch requires careful planning, strategy, and consideration. Once you establish how to structure your team, the next step is to source top talent.

One of the more traditional approaches for sourcing talent is manually searching for qualified applicants through platforms like LinkedIn, professional networks, and industry events. This method involves actively seeking candidates with the specific skills and expertise needed for the team. It also requires you to evaluate their qualifications and experience and engage with them to gauge their interest and fit for the role.

This process can be time-consuming, especially when you add the time it takes to vet referrals. And even when you do everything right, hiring someone who looks good on paper but doesn’t integrate well into the company’s culture is still possible.

Another option for building an engineering team is to partner with outsourcing companies when you need project-based hires or talent marketplaces like Revelo that specialize in recruiting and staffing full-time technical talent. These firms have access to extensive networks of professionals and can help streamline the hiring process by sourcing, screening, and presenting candidates who meet the team’s requirements.

Build Your Engineering Team With Revelo

Building an engineering team from scratch is a big job. In addition to designing the structure and model of your team, you also have to hire top talent capable of understanding and implementing your vision. That’s where Revelo comes in.

Revelo matches US businesses with time-zone-aligned developers from Latin America who have been pre-vetted for technical and soft skills and English proficiency. We also provide support throughout the developer’s lifecycle with a company and assistance with contracts, payments, benefits, taxes, and local compliance.

Hire top talent with Revelo and get your custom engineering team off the ground as soon as possible.  

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