Lessons Learned from rapidly ramping up 3 teams in a year: Part I


One challenge I have repeatedly faced is ramping up a new team in a new product space. The pandemic, remote work and geographical differences provided a rich spectrum of learning opportunities and lessons – I had to learn many techniques quickly.

Some quick stats:

  • Geographic spread: Two continents
  • Domain spread: Three products
  • Team size: 24+ engineers
Fun fact: I have not met any of my reports since March 2020.

This series describes the lessons and techniques from rapidly ramping up these teams. The posts would cover the steps, the reasoning and provide strategies for four different onboarding scenarios. Use this as a guide for rapidly ramping up new teams.

The first, second and third times

The entire organization got reorged to a new product space. As is typical with reorgs, there was an attendant shuffling of teams – my team swelled to 8 engineers (doubling from an initial size of 4). After the dust settled, the priority was to get the team ramped up in the new space.

A few months later, I had to rebuild the team after massive attrition frittered away ~40% of the organization. The org-wide churn hit my team, and I had to backfill three empty slots. After extending offers to new hires, it was time to onboard the new members again :). The second attempt was smoother since we had now developed some in-team expertise and had better documentation. The latest batch of hires, all seniors, were integrated into the team in 8 weeks. 

The third time was a bit different: I moved to a new position. The role required leading an entirely new team and posed new challenges: 50% of the hires were new to the company and tech stack. This third attempt provided an opportunity to verify the past approaches via controlled experiments. The good news is that it worked! Most of the new hires had an impact and developed some familiarity within three months.

First things first: Table stakes for rapid onboarding

1. Get to know the people on the team

The starting step is to establish a trusting relationship with every person; this takes time (weeks at least). Invest energy and time as failure here will mar the team’s success. Accelerate the process by writing an about me document that describes you, clarifies your leadership style and reveals your principles. Read this post for more details.

Next, set up weekly 1:1s with everyone. In addition to the weekly 1:1s, make yourself readily available to answer questions, chit-chat and know your team. The close interactions are critical to understanding the team’s new members and crucial to building a good working relationship (especially since both parties only just got to know each other). 

Aim to know each person: their passions, skills and career interests; their hobbies, aspirations and triggers; their goals, wants and needs. Do not rush to provide answers, do more listening. Do not rush to conclusions, do not jump to solutions, listen and then listen some more.

Ask the more senior developers about their aspirations. Do they want to be managers? Architects? They don’t know yet? These are fine responses but start having these conversations to get to know the folks on your team. Eventually, you’ll understand and see new perspectives.

At the end of this phase, you should know what excites and what drains the team.

2. Make a skills matrix

A skills matrix provides a visual representation of the domain requirements and the team’s current capabilities. Does the team have the right set of skills to succeed in the area? Or do you have to invest in training? 

Creating a skills matrix

Start by identifying all the technical and soft skills needed for success. Engage with experts, ask around and know what your team truly needs to be successful at what they do. Create a spreadsheet and then share with the team; have everyone fill in their current status (novice, proficient, expert). The transparency of this approach further helps to bond the team. 

Using a skills matrix

When completed, the skills matrix will reveal risks and bottlenecks in the team’s distribution of expertise. A high-risk area is one with a few experts; such experts can easily get overwhelmed with multiple tasks, and there is a more significant risk if/when they leave the org.

It is normal to have a mix of over-subscribed and under-subscribed areas. Leverage this information to prioritize training for knowledge gaps, build a deep bench to minimize the bus factor, and carve out new opportunities for the over-subscribed areas.

A skills matrix is also invaluable during recruiting periods since it shows the missing complementary skills. This simplifies specifying job requirements and tailors the search to folks with the missing skills.

Skills matrix are excellent for the following reasons:

  1. They reveal the capabilities required for building a high performing team with the requisite technical and soft skills.
  2. They make it easy to align individual interests and passions with opportunities.
  3. They provide a structured way to track learning and growth in new areas.
  4. They enable leaders to build a deep versatile bench, thereby boosting resiliency.

3. Have a big picture vision for the future 

It takes about six months for a new team to jell and become proficient. Use this window to develop a long-term vision for the team. Forming a clear vision and getting team adoption are among the highest leverage activities leaders can take. It gives everyone a target and concretizes tactical steps thereby accelerating team jelling and simplifying accountability.

Refining the vision will take several iterations. So start early and incorporate feedback rapidly. Here are some catalyzing questions:

  1. Where do you see the team in a year? In 2 years? 
  2. What will success look like? 
  3. What strategic steps will get you there?

At this stage, you already know the team and have a skills matrix showing constraints and risks. With this knowledge, explore the domain to identify opportunities. The goal is to work towards the vision while simultaneously addressing the inherent risks and limits. Issues to consider:

  1. What plagues the team? Leaky delivery pipelines? Under-skilled engineers? Low morale? Low quality?
  2. What leverage points exist for resolving the pain points? 
  3. How would you structure the team to achieve versatility, a deep bench and career aspirations?

These constraints ground your strategic vision in reality.

Define the team Structure

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Babe Ruth

The ideal team setup facilitates synergistic workstreams. A team in which the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. Identify two or three interdependent workstreams that offer vast growth opportunities for their constituents but still accentuate the output of other workstreams in the team.

Run experiments to pair folks up to see the right structure and where they will fit. You want to be sure people match up and passions align to value streams. As the leader, you want to integrate talented folks from diverse backgrounds into a cohesive whole.

Once done, share the vision with the team – everyone on the team needs to see how their efforts contributes to the big picture. Re-emphasize the vision and continue to tweak it as new information emerges – it always has to be clear to everyone.

Frequently Asked Questions during Phase I

Here are some questions that might arise at this phase and potential answers for them.

1. Why do we need a skills matrix?

Some members might be worried that they are being evaluated based on the skills matrix. Solve this by making the skills matrix a team effort and clearly dissociating it from performance evaluation. The goal of the skills matrix is to build a well-rounded team not to evaluate performance.

2. Why is everyone working individually?

This might arise during ramp-up and before the team structure is finalized. Explain the team structure efforts and provide a timeline for when it’ll become available. Also, some amount of personalized ramp-up is inevitable in the early days of ramp up.

3. Is this the right vision?

Listen carefully to the concerns. There are two possible reasons:

  • The team does not understand the vision – work on communicating the vision clearly.
  • The vision has blind spots – work on improving the vision based on the feedback.

Conclusion

Onboarding is an incredibly high leverage activity that pays off in the long-run. You can’t go wrong by investing heavily in this area. Three things to keep in mind at the start:

  1. Get to know the folks on your team
  2. Set up a skills matrix
  3. Define a vision

The next post in the series will dive into 4 different ramp-up scenarios and the applicable strategies.

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