The biggest challenges facing developer managers today

The software development industry is one that is rapidly shifting and evolving. With new technological advancements coming onto the market everyday, managers of development teams need to be adaptable in their management style as well as persistent in overcoming roadblocks.

As a manager, dealing with and overcoming challenges is inevitable. The real question is: which challenges are the most pervasive and how do you overcome them with the least amount of lost productivity?

According to Ronak Rahman, developer relations manager at Quali, whose software looks to tackle infrastructure complexity, the biggest challenge facing managers right now is learning to trust their team in order to avoid micromanaging.

“We are employing fully baked developers… and then we’re trying to tell them how to do the thing that they are experts at and that causes a lot of friction, especially when you have managers that don’t understand that,” he said .

Rahman went on to explain that he views developers as creatives. Because of that, team members often feel a heightened investment in the software that they are building.

According to Rahman, it is essential to give them the space to explore that creative instinct or else they will wilt and productivity will ultimately suffer.

“Micromanaging and telling them how they’re going to deliver this work of art, this thing that they are pouring themselves into, can sometimes just be a little bit too much to bear,” he said.

He explained that the manager’s job is really just to remove roadblocks for the developers on their team so they are enabled to produce the best end result possible.

However, many managers fall into the trap of not trusting their team fully and thus get sucked into the trap of being a helicopter manager.

Fostering team loyalty

Josep Prat, open-source engineering manager at the data infrastructure company Avien, expanded on this, saying that he believes a big challenge to have to overcome is being able to build this trust.

Creating loyalty and a team mentality is not an easy task for any manager and, unsurprisingly, it has gotten even trickier to foster that kind of environment in a world without physical offices.

“We are in hybrid or completely remote environments, so that being said, having a team that feels that cohesion is really hard right now and that may be one of the biggest challenges at the moment,” Prat explained.

Mike Morris, co-founder and CEO of the remote work developer productivity organization, Torc, built on Prats sentiments, saying that he feels that creating this loyalty is pivotal when it comes to retaining good employees, a common struggle for many managers.

“[Remote work] has totally opened people’s eyes to the fact that there are no boundaries,” Morris said, “They can be working for any company… that flexibility has made people really cognizant of the fact that they can work from anywhere and on any project… and now there is very low overhead with switching jobs.”

Communicating with remote teams

The transition to remote work has proven to be a challenge for several managers as they struggle to maintain productivity and communication in a workforce that has changed so much in such a small amount of time.

Morgan Logue, VP of research and development at the low-code/no-code organization Outsystems, touched on this, saying that communication and proper context is a challenge managers must overcome in order to run productive teams.

“Companies are very used to synchronous communication and in-person standup meetings… When you move to a remote workforce – even if you’re all in the same time zone – people do not work the same hours… It requires that you make a shift from processes where context is driven through personal communication to one where context is driven through documentation,” he said.

Even with written documentation though, Prat believes that intentional conversations and one-on-one meetings are crucial to helping remind the developers on your team that they are not working in a vacuum.

Morris also touched on this, saying that human connection within the team will help to make developers feel less alone and also foster a culture of loyalty to the organization.

“A lot of times [in person] this would have been the ‘water cooler conversations’ or an employee softball team or just general morale events, and that still has to happen, virtually even,” he explained.

Morris went on to say that forging this human connection also means a shift in the way that meetings are run.

He said, “You might jump on a 15-minute standup with somebody but you really have to take the time to say ‘Hey, how are you? What’s going on? What’s new in your life?’ and if you don’t do that, then you’re going to miss when there’s something that’s wrong.”

Prat that stressed taking note of the needs and suggestions of team members helps to create an environment where every member of the team feels appreciated and heard.

Log added that it is more important than ever to listen to your developers and get to know your team in order to learn how they best receive and retain information.

“How does your team better communicate? Some teams are very written in the way that they communicate while [some] tend to be more visual,” he said. “So, making sure that you understand how the team members communicate and how they process information is critical to the success of a team.”

Unfortunately, it can sometimes be an obstacle to strike the right balance between maintaining active and open communication while still avoiding a micromanagement style.

“It’s a fine line that each manager has to be sure to tread carefully. I need to give developers autonomy but I also need to give them the tools to perform the work that they need to do,” Prat said.

Morris mentioned that one way to do this is to provide developers with tools that will offer them the data they need to track how they’re performing rather than the manager having to constantly tell them.

“Just saying, ‘Here is this developer productivity tool, it’s your data and you can do what you want with it but we’re going to give you the ability to see how you’re comparing to other developers that are similar to you’ … It has the same effect as using an Apple Watch to track your activity,” he explained.

Morris went on to say that these types of tools are useful both for trying to maintain developer productivity while avoiding micromanaging, as well as for developers to see what areas of their work they really excel in and enjoy.

Measuring team success

Quali’s Rahman said that a major reason some managers still struggle with finding the balance between managing too closely and being too hands-off is because they are measuring success in terms of throughput and only focusing on the volume of software being pushed to production.

“From my experience, deadlines just don’t move,” he said, “I think that’s a wrong-headed approach, managing according to a date using Agile methodologies without empowering the developer.”

Prat emphasized that the main job of a manager is to empower and enable their developers.

He said, “You need to create spaces and opportunities for the team and unlock them to basically remove all of the obstacles in the way of the people they manage so that they can reach their full potential.”

Rahman also said that deadlines aren’t met, managers who micromanage oftentimes seek out solutions for a specific pain point rather than addressing the long-term issue of the developer not being able to be the “controller of their own destiny”.

In order to overcome this challenge, Prat emphasized the importance of asking for help from those around you.

“Try to find some training or talk to a senior manager in your company. Find somebody who can mentor you and can see what your gaps are or what you need to improve on,” he said, “And talk to the people that you manage and ask them for feedback, that should be happening in every one-on- one.”

This constant team member feedback is especially useful with the ever changing nature of the remote workforce.

Logue explained, “There has not been enough time for there to be best practices for how to do the rapid evolution of agile to an asynchronous form of agile… People who are used to the following patterns that have been well established in the industry are at a loss right now because there are no patterns for this.”

Tackling developer burnout and “heroes”

A challenge that Ronak Rahman, developer relations manager at Quali, touched on was preventing developer burnout.

He explained that in the past, developer burnout was almost built into organizations because after one developer got burnt out, another was eagerly waiting to take their place. However, this is not the case in today’s world.

“That burnout model doesn’t look as good anymore, and now we care about whether or not developers are burnt out because we can’t just throw one away and get another one in line,” he said, “I need a full stack developer because the world is so complicated from commit to release that they have to know everything and there are less people who can do that now.”

In order to combat these challenges, Rahman said that managers have to start managing towards outcomes rather than measuring success on being able to see the amount of work being completed daily.

This works to prevent developers from burning out because they will not feel the added pressure of needing to update managers at every turn. In addition, this style of managing lends itself to a more hands off approach, helping to avoid micromanaging as well.

“It’s lazy to manage based on how you can see people in the office…manage towards real outcomes that are delivered instead of who you see the most and who spends the most hours working,” Rahman said.

He went on to say that this management technique also helps to prevent employees from developing hero complexes. This is because with less focus on trivial details, there will be less of a need for a “hero” to come in at all hours to perform half-way fixes on perceived problems.

“That hero is actually preventing improvement from happening. The business does not have the motivation to move forward if there’s a hero in the way that’s willing to do whatever at whatever time of night. You know they’ll never do it perfectly, so you’re really setting for a worse outcome by allowing heroes,” Rahman explained.

Managers and the Great Resignation

Morris also discussed the ways in which the Great Resignation has made many people rethink their management style in order to avoid the loss of employees in such a flexible workforce.

“I think the Great Resignation is really just proving the point of how easy it is to switch jobs. It’s not that people stopped working, it’s that everyone is just switching jobs and a lot of people are moving from a 9-5 to being a freelancer so they can pick the projects they want to work on,” he explained.

He expanded on this saying that while it was a struggle at first, this can actually turn out to be a somewhat positive thing for managers because it forces them to reevaluate their relationship with the developers on their team.

According to Morris, forcing managers to adapt to the new transitional nature of the workforce will ultimately help them to look inward to try and understand why their team keeps shifting.

“Right now, people are able to say ‘I’m going to work on this project for the next three months and then I’m going to go find my next thing,’ so, they’re in control,” he said, “I think that’s a great thing as long as organizations get comfortable with that… it’s a different way to look at your talent.”

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