Engineering Team Roles

Michael Krisher
May 24, 2019 · 4 min read
Photo by Max Winkler on Unsplash

Almost all of the engineers I have worked with have played some role in defining the to-do list of a project. Some engineers are more disciplined, some are laxer. Some like granularity others just want the big picture. Ultimately the team has to have a shared approach. Each member having a role on the team helps the team get to that shared approach.

Finding the perfect role may not always come naturally. This is the heart of developing talent. Depending on where an engineer is in their career, they may need some help learning a language or technology, but nearly everyone needs some help from their team finding their role.

For some, just giving them the opportunity to play a given role can unlock things no member of the team expected. Simply providing opportunities at playing roles can be a terrific way of developing talent. Many times people step up to the task at hand, especially when a team is depending on them.

As a manager, I play an important role in developing talent. Teaching new members the existing team’s methods is one part. Maybe pairing on designing a solution for a problem is another. But helping them find their role is near the top of the list as far as importance.

To use a sports analogy, a manager is similar to a coach. Most players want to be the point guard. They want the ball in their hands, directing the offense. However, some members due to height or just rebounding prowess, are better off as a center or forward. They aren’t going to play the role of the point guard. Sorry. Asking someone to play a role they don’t ultimately want can be tricky. But showing them the value of playing the center or forward role in the context of the team may help them understand how it betters the team overall. For some that don’t matter. For most, it makes a world of difference.

More senior engineers are better at finding and understanding their role sooner. At least typically. There are always outliers. Less experienced engineers need a little help. Not all. All of that probably goes without saying. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with all kinds of engineers and it’s always amazing to see someone join a team and just fit in naturally and understand their role from the beginning. That’s not to say that they hit the ground running, it’s just that they understand their role in the makeup of the team.

Once an engineer has fit into a role on the team, they can really develop as a talent the team can rely on. They can lead. They can deliver. Maybe they stay heads down and just tackle user story after user story. Maybe they are simply the best communicator on a team. Or the best at cleaning up technical debt. There are many roles, but once someone slots into their role, they can focus and excel. Once they are successful in one role, it can be easy to identify when they are ready for their next role, assuming the next role has more associated responsibility. Most engineers I have worked with look for this in a manager. They want the manager to recognize they are excelling and help them move into the next role. Obviously, there are not limitless roles so a manager has to be engaged and paying attention to the members of the team, the roles they are playing, and the roles they want to move into.

Not every engineer wants to move into a management role. Not every engineer wants to stay on the engineering track and become the Principle engineer or whatever high order an organization gives to accomplished engineers. It may sound simple, but the best thing a manager can do is ask. And ask repeatedly. People change their minds. Roles change over time. Keep tabs on it and simply ask.

Organizing a team via roles can be temporary, or longer lasting. Longer lasting creates consistency and sometimes comfort. Other times, roles changing can expose opportunities for improvement. A manager should be mindful of the team roles and if they need to change.

Helping team members find and understand their role can be challenging but it’s worth it to everyone involved. Knowing your role is crucial to its success. A basketball team without a coach assigning roles and positions would lead to confusion. Sure you may be able to score some, but everyone understanding their role is going to be more efficient and operate more smoothly. No matter the role a team member plays, they ultimately want the team to operate smoothly.

As a manager, one of your responsibilities is identifying roles. Not just positions on an org chart, but roles team members play. Do you have a list? If you asked the team, would they all agree on the roles each member plays? During 1:1s have you asked where the member sees themselves in the team or outside of it in the near future? 1:1s are a perfect time to get the sense of roles on the team as they are interpreted by each member. As a manager, I encourage you to ask about each members interpretation of their role on the team and identify areas where you disagree. Maybe there is an opportunity to level set on expectations!

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