Headcount planning basics

Although the tech industry continually evolves, successful approaches to building and growing high-performing engineering teams haven’t changed much since I joined the fray almost 20 years ago.

Headcount planning & management across an organization can be a fairly intense and iterative process. It should be — it’s a huge investment, and your org’s success depends on your hiring decisions. In a changing environment like tech, current and forecasted headcount requires regular revisiting in light of changes in strategy or direction, level & type of work load, the changing work force landscape, budget, and goals & growth plans for individual team members.

So how do you make the most of the headcount and budget you’re granted? As a starting point, I’ve included the main questions I ask myself when evaluating current and future state. These questions don’t just apply to increasing headcount. Like it or not, contraction is sometimes a necessity (or just smart) if you’re running your organization like a business and you want to succeed. I’ll focus on growing an existing team here though. It’s a happier thought. :)

Truer words…

What does the current team look like?

In order to evaluate your headcount plans and make any decisions on potential course corrections, you need to understand your current state. Most good HR business partners will facilitate “talent discussions” regularly, usually in preparation of the regular performance review period. (If you’re not having them, implement it yourself!)

  • Do you have a plethora of specialists? Mostly generalists? A combination of both?
  • Is your staff a mix of experience levels? Or are you heavy on seniors or juniors?
  • What are the goals and career path for each member of the staff?
  • Are any key people planning on moving on within the next 12 months?
  • Where are your human single points of failure?
  • If you have a global team, are you balanced across sites appropriately? Does it matter if teams are imbalanced?

This exercise may take considerable effort the first time you complete it, and it should. Every revisiting is easier, assuming extensive time hasn’t passed and the organization hasn’t drastically changed. Discuss it with your peers and customers to get their perspectives, and make sure it’s documented to avoid reinventing the wheel.

What is your current workload?

The second piece of the pie (mmmm… pie…) is to analyze your work load. I’m not talking about knowing what your work load looks like, but actually understanding it. Throw your metrics from projects, tickets and interrupts into a spreadsheet, then use a handy-dandy pivot table to slice and dice the data if that works for you.

One piece of advice: don’t rely on anecdotal information for this. When I canvassed one of my teams early on in my career for what they were spending the most time on, they complained about the tasks they just didn’t like doing. When I fact-checked it against actual ticket data, those tasks comprised less than 5 percent of their day-to-day. The team was perfectly happy spending more than 50 percent of their day manually adding load balancer configurations because it was easy. But automating and self-servicing that task freed them up for projects that would support their career growth (not to mention much happier customers and far fewer config errors).

Some of the questions that have helped me understand the profile of my team’s work:

  • If you lead a technical team, is the majority of the work technical? Are ‘soft’ responsibilities such as planning and project management usurping time from actual engineering?
  • Are there any staggering imbalances? For example, do you have 20 senior engineers on your team, but 20 junior engineers’ worth of work?
  • Does a large percentage of your work load fall onto the shoulders of a small portion of your team? If so, do you really need to expand your team? Or just cull the ‘dead weight’?
  • Is there busy work that should be automated away or just removed entirely? Do you have the right skill set to address any automation efforts?
  • Does all of the work your team is doing belong in your team? Or should it be distributed to other teams in the organization?

Really, you just need to answer the simple question, does your current staff actually serve your current organization well? Depending on the number of surprises you encounter during these first two exercises, you may need to refactor your work load or quickly re-organize the current staff to alleviate immediate concerns. Just make sure that you’re not making changes for the sake of change, and that the moves you make will serve the needs of the organization for a while to come.

Where are you going?

Now it’s time to think longer-term. Where should your team or organization be in 12, 24 or 36 months in terms of headcount and skill set? This requires visibility and foresight into company and industry direction. If you don’t have a well-defined 3-year plan, it’s okay. Who does? Make solid estimates through the length of the well-codified information you have, then extrapolate from there, keeping an eye on potential changes or demands in the industry regularly.

  • Do you have the requisite skill sets and the proper number of people to cover the major initiatives on the horizon?
  • Do you have redundancy and contingency in technical and leadership skill sets?
  • How many of your current employees are likely to remain in their current roles — or even within your organization — in the next 1–3 years?
  • Will efficiencies or other environmental factors play a role in the required skill level in the future?
  • Are there new developments in the industry which could change the mix of skill sets in the future?

So now you know what resources you might need in order to address your forecasted work load. But how are you going to facilitate the potential growth and the ongoing management of it?

Can the Recruiting Landscape support your plans?

Let’s say you’ve now figured out that you need to double your work force over the next 12–18 months to hit your mid-term targets. How do you know if that headcount ramp is realistic?

  • What does the recruiting landscape look like? Is there a dearth of engineers with the skill set(s), knowledge or experience to fill the gaps? If so, how will that impact your ability to cover the forecasted needs for the team?
  • Do you have the resources to recruit and interview enough candidates to hit your targets? Interviewing puts a strain on your current team, so remember to build that into your road maps, etc.
  • Can you create your own recruiting flywheel? Does it make sense in light of your forecasted work load? This is my favorite option by far. If you have the opportunity to hire junior engineers or managers and grow them within your organization, it’s a viable option for various reasons: it’s an opportunity for mentoring for your senior managers and engineers, shows the org you believe in career progression, and provides you a chance to positively influence a new manager prior to them moving into a position of greater authority or influence.
  • Does it make more sense to augment your staff more quickly with contractors or interns for specific roles? If utilizing interns is a viable alternative to bolstering your work force, then great! Give them challenging and meaningful work so that they want to come back and work for you afterward. It’s a great way to kickstart that recruiting flywheel.

There is substantial investment in just getting candidates in the door and through the interviewing process. The same can be said with managing interns or contractors on an ongoing basis. If your org can’t handle that additional work load along with the responsibilities already on your plate, then it might be time to re-think your forecast.

How will you support your new hires?

Planning for growth isn’t just about how many engineers you need and how many you can realistically hire. There has to be a framework to support the people you bring in.

  • What changes must be made to your leadership staff to accommodate the growth? Do you need more managers? Does your current management staff own the proper knowledge or experience to lead a larger organization, which inherently has different challenges?
  • Do you have sufficient manpower to train your new hires while still making progress against the road map?
  • Do you need to consider creating another level of leadership to accommodate expansion? Perhaps you don’t need more managers, but rather team or technical leads to act as a buffer for more of the day-to-day activities. If there are changes or additions to be made, make sure those are fed back into your headcount estimates. Keep in mind that if you promote a more senior engineer into a lead role, you will lose some or most of their productivity, and they will most likely be replaced by someone either more junior or less familiar with the environment.
  • Will the infrastructure, facilities and HR processes & tools support a significant increase in headcount? If not, who owns making sure those grow along with the organization?
  • If there is an increase in projects along with headcount, do you have sufficient capability and staffing to accommodate the management of those projects?

Once you’ve answered these questions, ask yourself again, is your headcount ramp realistic? If not, what are you going to do about it? It might be time to gather your information into a coherent argument based on the numbers and deliver the tough message to senior management that the forecasted work load just isn’t reasonable.

A note about “Rock Stars”

While this isn’t a post about hiring specifically, I’ll add a word about hiring exceptional people. “Rock stars” don’t just exist at the most senior levels. Juniors who come in with a great fire & attitude are at least as valuable, since they may have a longer life span within the organization, have a fresh perspective, and are usually more malleable. Regardless of their skill level, every person in the organization needs to be continually challenged and given growth opportunities. If you can’t cover that, then don’t hire them. There’s too much investment in hiring, training and coaching to make that mistake.

Happy planning!!