Quarterly Questions

Taking the pulse of your engineering team

I didn’t realize that one of the hardest problems I would face as a manager would be to accurately judge the pulse of my team and its members. I learned quickly that people are harder than code. Code can be unit tested and doesn’t have complex emotions (yet!). But people are different and learning what someone thinks, feels and aspires to is not as simple as: “Please, tell me what you think or feel”. That may work sometimes for some people but often they don’t know or don’t have the words to answer that question.

With this in mind, I was determined to learn how my engineers were doing so that I could best support them. In one-on-one meetings, I tried many different questions to take this pulse…but none were working.

Are you satisfied with your work? Sure.

Do you feel challenged? Yea.

Are you happy? Think so.

Donuts or Bagels? Either.

I wasn’t gaining insight into my engineers mindset or goals. To be an effective manager I needed to understand how the team felt and what they wanted, and to track how that changed over time. This led to a change in my approach: the Quarterly Questions.

These are questions I ask every 3-months which attempt to discover how my engineers feel about their job from multiple angles (job satisfaction, compensation satisfaction, career goals). The inspiration for this approach came from one of my former managers who employed a similar strategy on his team.

Quarterly Questions
1. Job Satisfaction
a. Score: (1 - 10)
b. Biggest contributor to satisfaction?
c. Biggest detractor from satisfaction?
2. Compensation Satisfaction 
a. Score: (1-10)
3. Push/Pull
a. What factors could push you away from our team/company?
b. What factors could pull you away from out team/company?
4. Career Goals (short and long term)
a. What are they?
b. Are you making progress toward them?

Job Satisfaction

The first thing I ask is for them to score their job satisfaction (1–10). This may seem silly: “But Matt! Netflix recently got rid of their 1–5 ratings so why are you doing it?”

I am interested less in the number and more in change of that score over time. This helps catch swings in how people feel that they might not consciously realize. I record their answer each quarter so I can look back and ask: Why do you feel you are a 6 today while you were an 8 last quarter? Multiple times this has led to very useful conversations and uncovered how they are really feeling. If I just asked “Are you satisfied?” they would say: “Yes”. But when prompted with the delta in score, it forces them to think and reflect.

I follow up by asking them to list the biggest contributors and detractors from their job satisfaction. Unless someone is a 10*, I expect there to be something that they would like to change or improve. Getting this information gives me something that may be actionable. Sometimes, the feedback may not be something I can change but often I can bubble up the feedback to my boss.

*You should always question if someone says they are a 10 since there should always be something to kvetch about!

Compensation Satisfaction

Similar to job satisfaction, I ask for compensation satisfaction (1–10). A change from a previous quarter does not mean their pay got worse. It typically means they feel that are contributing more and are not being remunerated adequately.

Ideally, when an engineer feels this way they are ready for promotion. If they are not, this is a great prompt to discuss why and form a plan on getting there. This can lead to an important long term career conversation on career goals.

Push/Pull

The next pair of questions tries to unearth what team members dislike about their current environment and what their ideal environment is.

What would push you away from the team?

The goal here is to see what things in the current team are grating on them. Is the build too slow? Is there too much process to make a change? Often, they will tell you something and then say that its not that big of a deal. That may be true but if I hear the same thing from multiple team members, I know there may be a real problem to be solved.

What would pull you away from the team?

This is trying to discern what truly motivates them. This is what they would leave your team for if another company offered it to them. Is it more money? Is it working with a specific technology? Is it more design work? Finding this out helps gain a better understanding of what they are looking for.

I have had employees express an interest in a certain technology currently outside the scope of my team. While I can’t magically fix that, I keep that information on my radar so I can direct that employee towards changes or opportunities that might help them feel more satisfied.

Career Goals

The last thing I ask is for their short term and long term career goals. I define short term as within the next year and long term as 3 to 5 years. Discovering what their immediate goals are and how those goals are changing each quarter helps me better understand what I need to do to support them. Do they want a promotion soon? Do they want more SQL experience? Knowing these goals, I can help lead them towards some concrete changes in that direction.

The picture of their long term goals helps make sure we are building the skills for their career path. Do they want to be a manager? Do they want to change disciplines? This allows me to funnel opportunities their way that can help them explore these ideas.

One thing you may notice in the questions is that some seem to overlap with others. This is by design — think of the personality tests that ask the same questions from different angles to get a more accurate perspective on preferences. A variety of approaches in my questions lets me understand where there may be conflict or inconsistency so I can probe further.

Evolving questions

These questions are not set in stone. There is value in having a core, consistent few, but at the same time, being able to add, alter or drop questions allows you to personalize the quarterly conversation or dig deeper into the particular climate in the office.

In fact, I may try out a new question (which I read in this Signal v. Noise article) for the next quarter: “Have you seen something recently and thought to yourself ‘I wish we’d done that’?”

I am confident that taking this pulse on a quarterly basis has made it possible to meet my employees’ needs and support a mindset of growth and commitment in the team.