It remains a rocky time for the tech industry, with many companies continuing to downsize or operating with tighter budgets amid economic difficulties. Having a well-designed, efficient team can make all the difference in achieving or maintaining profitability in 2024.
In the latest instalment of our CTO Playbook webinar series, Nick van Noordwyk, Engineering Manager at OfferZen, chatted to Steve Bissett, Senior Engineering Manager at Zappi, about strategies to build high-performing teams and overcome current challenges in the tech industry.
Tech industry challenges in 2024
When structuring your team, you need to take the most pertinent market trends into account to plan effectively. Here are three major industry challenges you’ll likely face in 2024, according to Steve:
Tightening economic landscape
The global tech industry has seen a significant slow down in 2023 despite stronger-than-expected economic growth. As we head into 2024, inflation pressure, tighter monetary policies and lower business confidence promise to put even more pressure on tech businesses.
With less funding available, rising costs and concerns that the industry’s rate of growth over the past few years was unsustainable, we expect to see less available funding in 2024.
We’re seeing a strong switch from rapid growth, into sustainable growth and increased profitability. Along with this, there is increased pressure for every new hire to make an impact on a team.
Mass visibility and consumption of AI
We’ve seen a rapid buzzword switch over the last 5 years from ‘Big Data’, to ‘Machine Learning’, and now to ‘AI’. Through the introduction of ChatGPT, we’ve seen the widespread adoption of AI as a daily tool among many professionals, along with AI taking over many dinner table conversations.
We’re seeing a mass of AI tools hit the market for many varied use cases (Dall-E & Midjourney for Images, RunwayML for video, Elevenlabs for voice etc., Co-Pilot for Software Development), with a race to ‘Co-Pilot for X”, and introduction of LLM’s and other models into mainstream business tools (Notion AI etc.).
“We’re just at the beginning, and I expect AI to alter and increase the rate of change of the information age,” adds Steve.
Changes in the tech landscape
Tightening of the economic and funding landscape, along with consumer rollout of AI, transitions the bulk of the tech industry from a ‘peacetime’ to ‘wartime’ environment.
“What this means in practice in a change is increasing need for leadership, with different leadership traits. This usually increases the need for decisivenes, resilience, and more authoritative leadership styles, providing clear direction in uncertainty,” says Steve.
“When things tighten up, we need to make high stakes decisions swiftly, and we need to focus on getting things done faster. That might be due to an increased competitive landscape, tighter funding, or market disruption.”
Setting the stage for a productive team
“When designing your team with limited resources at hand: Remember, it’s usually 20% of the work that produces 80% of the results,” says Steve. “Your role as a leader is to find the 20% and point people towards it.”
Here are some strategies to ensure you’re building your team on solid foundations and setting them up to win:
- Understand what productivity is: Utiliization is about time spent on tasks, but productivity is about the output and outcomes that are generated. Understanding the way your team solves problems and how this can be optimised can help to create efficiencies that drive greater productivity in the long run. Maximising utilisation can often lead to burnout and reduced quality of work, as creative thinking, problem solving and learning are crucial in software development.
- Bare motivators in mind: Knowing individual team members’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivators – as well as their strengths and weaknesses – ensures that your team works optimally together even when under pressure.
- Build trust: Trust is the most important component for empowering and helping your team make good decisions. A lack of trust can drive team members to conceal weaknesses or avoid conflict, which can thwart continuous improvement over time.
- Break down silos: Help your team to think beyond the team, and how to increase their impact.
Steve references Satya Nadell’s top leadership principles which have resulted in almost 9x valuation growth under his leadership at Microsoft:
- Create clarity: Defining expectations about outputs; ensuring that your team has a single mission that feeds into the company vision and mission; and clearly outlining roles and responsibilities all go towards building a more productive team where everyone can work autonomously.
- Generate energy: Energy is contagious. Bringing and creating positive energy within a team can quickly rub off on individual team members, leading to positive attitudes that better position you to solve problems.
- Deliver success and make things happen: When clarity and energy are present, that can be matched with execution, which helps us achieve the outcomes we set out to.
3 tips for building a productive tech team
1. Understand who you have and who you need
If you’re hiring this year, it’s even more important that you find the right fit for your team from the get-go and avoid expensive hiring mistakes.
According to Steve, understanding your current team members’ skills and ambitions will ensure that you’re able to “enable them to their highest point of contribution and create that environment where you’re getting people’s best work and thinking”.
By cultivating this understanding and embracing diversity when designing your team, you’ll be able to more easily identify where there may be knowledge or skills gaps and hire more effectively.
“It’s really about leveraging the strengths of the team. When you’re building a team with limited capacity, it’s not about building a team of people that don’t have weaknesses, it’s about making sure the team as a whole covers each other’s weaknesses with the strengths of others.“
2. Prioritise the pull factors
Developers are more inclined to stick in their existing roles when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the industry. To attract top talent, Steve notes that hiring managers need to focus on the most attractive ‘pull factors’ that your business offers candidates, as the best candidates may have very full push factors. They are likely to be skilled, well-compensated and enjoy what they’re doing.
“What are the technologies that you work with that may interest people? What’s your mission? What’s your work environment like in terms of the flexibility or the perks that you offer?
“Find out what their unmet needs are. People ultimately seek employment to meet some needs, so you need to show them that your environment can provide them with a better opportunity to meet those needs.”
3. Provide a great candidate experience
OfferZen’s State of the Developer Nation reports has repeatedly shown that candidates’ experience during the hiring process is a critical factor in determining whether they’ll accept a job offer.
Nick pointed out that developers especially value being given a clear overview of what to expect during the interview process. “If they understand what the process is like, it really gives them a great candidate experience at the end of the day,” he said.
For Steve, all of the factors that go into designing a productive team – like building trust, creating clarity and understanding your team’s needs – can pay off here, as existing team members might be inspired to recruit new developers.
“We’ve found that word-of-mouth referrals are quite successful. One of the reasons for this is the candidate has upfront context about the work environment, the interview process, and where we’re at in general. Then there’s also someone actually vouching for that person in terms of role fit,” he said.
Resources for building better teams
“Leadership and management have been around for a while. They do change as culture and society changes, but there’s so much work and research out there. We have the ability to stand on the shoulders of giants. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel,” Steve said.
Here are his top reading recommendations to build effective teams:
On changing and building habits
- Atomic Habits, James Clear
“You don’t rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems. And your goal is that desired outcome and your system is the daily habits that will get you there,” said Steve. “It’s about how you can introduce habits steadily and consistently within your teams to improve things over time.”
On Productivity & Organisational design
- The DORA (DevOps Research and Assessment) programme, just released their 2023 report
“One of the takeaways here is around the rates at which you deploy and release code and what effect that has on the team and organisational performance. They also talk about Westrum organisational culture and how we should be aiming for generative culture that’s performance-oriented.”
- Team Topologies is a clear, easy-to-follow approach to modern software delivery with an emphasis on optimizing team interactions for flow.
- Reinventing Organisations
On finding multipliers
- “Amp It Up is a book from Frank Slootman, the CEO of Snowflake. He talks about drivers and passengers – he got the concept from a VW campaign and the drivers are the multipliers in your organisation. It’s all about trying to make sure that the right people are on the bus to make things happen,” said Steve, adding a quote from the book:
"Passengers are people who don’t mind simply being carried along by the company’s momentum… Drivers, on the other hand, get their satisfaction from making things happen.”