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Adapting During a Recession: Strategies for Engineering Leaders

José Caldeira
José Caldeira
February 20, 2023
5 min read

I recently spoke with Frédéric Cerdan, VP of technology and engineering at Amenitiz, as part of our Engineering Insights Series. In our chat, we explored some key strategies engineering leaders can embrace to adapt and build resiliency in 2023 and beyond.

Today I’ll share some of the key takeaways from the conversation with Fred, along with some of the questions we got from the public.

Here’s the TL;DR:

As an engineering leader, balancing quality and velocity is crucial in delivering high-quality products on time.

By establishing metrics, investing in growth initiatives, and promoting empathy, you can future-proof your org and weather any challenges.

Prioritizing team metrics and velocity helps with communication and alignment, and assigning numbers to initiatives can make a huge difference.

Now, let’s dive in! 

Quick Definitions of Some Key Terms

Everyone uses the words “efficiency” and “quality” when talking about their work. But what do these terms actually mean to us?

Quality: How satisfying your delivery is based on customer expectations. When I asked Fred for his definition of quality, he said it means “fulfilling customer requirements and exceeding expectations in a reliable, efficient, and cost-effective manner.”

Velocity: A measure of your organization’s ability to take an idea and get it all the way out to customers. From the moment a ticket gets picked up, to the moment we decide to start working on something, ‘til it finally reaches your end user. 

You could deliver something super-fast but at low quality. And this might get you some customers, who are looking for a short-term solution. But at some point, they’ll realize the shortcomings of your product, and they’ll jump.

Or you could deliver a high-quality product, but deliver it slowly. Anyone who uses your product will love it. But your customers will get tired of waiting for you to deliver. And your investors and stakeholders will begin to wonder when they’ll ever see a return on their investment.

Efficiency means you’ve struck that ideal balance between velocity and quality. It means you deliver quality at high speed.

What Challenges Does the Tech Industry Face in 2023?

How can you keep delivering a high-quality product when the market appears to be crazier than ever?

Engineering organizations used to struggle with hiring. It was hard to find good engineers. Following the pandemic and the rise of remote working, we had to adapt. We had to get more creative in the way we manage our team and our work. 

But now that the market’s in chaos, things are different. We’re seeing layoffs everywhere. Nobody likes it, but times of turmoil could create an opportunity for engineering firms to focus on what really matters: Efficiency.  

The Link Between Efficiency and Quality

Velocity and quality are the two main metrics that engineering leaders should track. But engineering leaders face a constant trade-off between quality and velocity. And velocity should never compromise quality.

It’s all about finding the right balance between the two. We can occasionally go fast. But we need to understand that if we go too fast, we’ll only increase our tech debt. And you’ll have to pay for that one day.

👉 As an engineering leader, you need to make this compromise clear to engineers. We must never invest entirely in quality, but nor should we ever invest entirely in velocity. 

Inclusive Orgs Are Resilient Orgs

Make resilience part of the DNA of your engineering department.

This starts by encouraging continuous learning and professional development. Helping your engineers build their skills and knowledge will make your organization as a whole more resilient. You’ll be better placed to find and consider multiple solutions to challenges, and pivot from one solution to another.

🥰️ Maintaining a positive and inclusive culture is also important. Create a working environment that is supportive and inclusive. Promoting personal well-being can help boost the resilience of the whole team.

But the key to resilience is alignment across your teams. And good communication is crucial for this.  

The Role of Engineering Leaders in Striking a Balance

Being an engineering leader can be lonely. You exist in two different worlds, and you’re constantly having to build bridges between the tech and the business. 

In some ways, being an engineering leader is like being a full-time translator. You have to explain techy things in a way the business side of your organization will understand. Then you have to explain business things in a way your engineers will understand.

Ultimately, everyone in an organization wants the same thing. Whether we’re involved in tech or in business, we all want to deliver a high-quality product to our customers. So the role of the engineering leader is to establish the metrics that will allow the organization as a whole to pursue this goal. 

Engineering leaders must define the metrics, establish goals based on these metrics, and convey these goals to different stakeholders.

This is usually a question of where we invest our time and resources:

  • Do we focus on adding new features to attract and retain new customers? 
  • Do we focus on maintenance, to streamline the processes and reduce churn? 
  • Or do we invest in scalability, so that we can grow at a sustainable rate?
👉 All of these things matter. It’s the role of the engineering leader to identify and communicate the initiatives that will help the organization as a whole achieve its goals. 

Visibility Can Shift Mindsets

At times, engineering leaders have to help engineers shift their mindsets. 

You need to help your team understand why they’re being asked to prioritize one thing over another, for example. 

Increased visibility can make a difference here. 

When you have a clear overview of your data, you’ll be able to see where the bottlenecks are in your software delivery pipeline. This will help you establish where your teams should be prioritizing their time – whether that’s in building features, in maintenance, in tech debt etc.

Clearly establish where your engineers should invest their time, and you’ll establish a rule.

Once you’ve set and implemented this rule, over time, you’ll see a change in mindset. Everyone at all levels will come to understand what they’re doing, and why. Most importantly, they’ll understand that they’re doing this to help the organization as a whole grow. 

👉 Keeping everyone in the same frame of mind and context is key to building alignment across your organization. 

The Importance of Empathy

As an engineering leader, you have to wear multiple hats. And you often have to context-switch at breakneck speed. 

Empathy is one of the most important traits an engineering leader can have:

  • You need to empathize with the executives, who will have concerns about the product they’re delivering, and where they’re investing their money. 
  • You need to empathize with the customers, who may have frustrations about certain inefficiencies and other shortcomings with your product. 
  • And you need to empathize with your engineers, who might wonder why you’re asking them to invest their time in such a way, and who might have opinions of their own on how you can maximize velocity and quality. 

This need for diplomacy and empathy becomes particularly important during times of economic downturn. 

When things are going well, it can feel like anything’s possible. But when times are tough, and tension increases, you need to prioritize your goals and align your teams like never before.

Doing More With Less Can Futureproof Your Org

Times of economic downturn force us to assess the way we do things. We all want to be more efficient. But why? 

When the economy’s strong, we might strive for velocity and quality just because we want to be the first past the finish line. 

But downturn makes you take stock. 

Maybe we already have all the engineers we need. Maybe we already have the processes in place to help us deliver a high-quality product, but they just need a little fine-tuning. 

👉Times of economic downturn can make us look for ways to do more with what we already have. 

If you invest in efficiency now, your organization will be more equipped to weather whatever the market brings. Then, when things show signs of improvement, you’ll be in a much better position to scale your organization and compete in a way that’s sustainable for the long term. 

👉 Investing in efficiency is a step towards investing in continuous improvement.

How Do You Measure Efficiency?

Is there a metric that will help you understand how well you can perform with the resources you already have? And when the economy’s in good shape, what metrics will help you understand if your organization’s scaling effectively and sustainably?

  • Focus on team metrics rather than individual metrics. If you’re monitoring throughput per developer, you will have a high throughput per developer. But will it have an impact on your business? Probably not. Instead, of building an organization full of high-performing individuals, aim to build an organization full of high-performing teams.
  • Prioritize velocity as a metric. But what you do with the metric matters. Use it to open a discussion with every team, to invite them to discuss their pain points and their bottlenecks, and to help you determine the initiatives that will benefit the whole organization.
  • When it comes to quality, context matters. You might measure quality in terms of the number of bugs, or the number of tickets you resolve. But context is everything. Decide what matters to your organization and use this to assess the trade-offs you’ll have to make to get there. 
👉 Measuring efficiency is ultimately a question of having the right conversations with the right people. 

Assigning numbers to things can make a huge difference. For example, you might wonder whether to invest time in building a specific feature or fixing a specific bug. 

If you have an idea of how many customers will value this feature, or of how many customers are being inconvenienced by this bug, you’ll have a better idea of whether it’s worth investing the time into the initiative.

And these data points can make alignment easier too. You’re essentially showing your work, which will help both engineers and executives understand just why you’re prioritizing what you’re prioritizing.

This is why visibility is vital for engineering leaders. It pays to see where you’re investing your time and money and where your bottlenecks are. 

With data, you can identify areas for improvement, and give full context to your strategies to improve communication and encourage alignment. 

👉 Here are some resources we shared during the talk: 

5 Steps For Building High-Performance Teams by José Caldeira

How to tackle technical debt by Frédéric Cerdan 

Product Discovery Basics: Everything You Need to Know by Teresa Torres

If you want to watch the replay of my conversation with Frédéric Cerdan, go to our Engineering Insights Series homepage

Interested in learning more about Athenian and how we can help you help your teams autonomously improve? Let’s chat

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