Managing software teams can be a challenge.
You need different skills to deal with the strong personalities, competitiveness, and the monotonous nature of coding. Plus, the work itself presents different demands.
Knowing how to build software isn’t the same thing as knowing how to manage a team. Often, powerhouse developers find that their technical skills don’t translate to leadership ability.
The good news is that you don’t need to be a software superstar to lead a successful team.
What makes managing software teams difficult?
Managing software teams comes with its own set of unique challenges, such as:
- Developer burnout – Coding is monotonous work, and it’s often done in relative solitude. If you’re not careful, it’s easy to miss the signs that a team member is burning out.
- Lack of prioritization – Building software involves lots of different tasks. It can be difficult to prioritize, especially when everyone wants their personal projects to get the most attention.
- Managing remote work – Remote software development is popular for good reason. Working remotely is great for focused development work, but there’s also more risk of remoteliness and communication problems.
- Developer turnover – Software companies are notorious for high turnover. This means that you’ll have team members come and go all the time, making it harder to develop a strong company culture. It’s also difficult for a new developer to pick up on half-completed code.
Leadership is always challenging, no matter what kind of team you manage. The tips in this article are designed to help people who lead software teams, but they apply to most areas of expertise.
Why do you need to improve the way you lead your software development team?
Improving your leadership skills is always a good idea.
When you lead a technical team, though, it’s especially important to create an environment where people can perform at their best.
Little things like inefficient communication and unhealthy competitiveness can severely impact your results. Poor leadership is expensive when the fate of your software is on the line.
That means that the reverse is also true. On a software team, great leadership leads to fantastic results.
The tips and advice in this article will help you level up your leadership skills so you can give your team the best guidance and support.
8 tips for managing software teams
At Hubstaff, we’re 100% remote. These tips are all tested and proven to be effective by remote leaders.
They work great for in-office teams, too, of course.
As you read through the advice in this list, remember that great leaders never stop building their skills. These are long-term habits to build, not just quick fixes for your management problems.
1. Develop your soft skills
As a manager, it’s your job to help your team perform at their best.
Being a great software developer yourself isn’t going to help anyone on your team get better at their job. Your technical skills are important, but your soft skills are non-negotiable.
Here are some of the most important skills to work on:
Empower your team members to make decisions on their own. They should feel confident solving problems and taking initiative without your permission.
Telling your team that it’s okay to make decisions is not the same thing as empowering them. That’s just the first step.
Empowerment is about trust and confidence. Every decision is a risk. Your employees won’t take that risk unless they know you’ve got their back.
Reward and recognize team members for taking initiative, even when their idea doesn’t work out the way they hoped. They should trust that if they make a choice that doesn’t work out, you’ll stick up for them instead of blaming them.
This is more difficult when their choice is different than the one you would have made. Be careful — if you criticize your team for their independent decisions, you’ll discourage them from doing it again. Offer guidance when it’s necessary, but don’t nitpick.
A great manager understands the strengths and weaknesses of each team member.
If you want to manage your software team better, helping your people improve their strengths and address their weaknesses.
Offer courses and workshops to help upgrade important skills. You might consider an online course subscription that includes a variety of topics that your team finds valuable.
One-on-one meetings are a more personal opportunity to help your employees. Share feedback about what is going well. Tactfully suggest areas of opportunity, then make sure you offer the resources to help people reach their potential.
Be a good listener. Pay attention to what team members tell you.
Listening is more than just hearing. Great listeners take the time to consider, and they use clues in body language and tone to fully understand what is being said.
For your team, this often means considering people’s suggestions and ideas rather than making decisions on your own. Ask for input on how you should do things.
Even more importantly, try to implement their suggestions where appropriate.
Once team members understand that you value their opinion and that you’ll always hear them out, they’ll be much more likely to be proactive and make suggestions in the future.
Think about the word “encouragement” for a second. It literally means “to give courage.”
Encouragement is all about supporting, inspiring, and giving confidence to your team. When you’re good at it, your team feels great about the work they do.
Get better at this by putting this Benjamin Franklin quote into practice: Speak ill of no man, but speak all the good you know of everybody.
Yes, it’s your job as a manager to talk to people about the areas where they can and should improve. Sometimes, you’ll have to have tough conversations. However, it’s too easy to focus on that hard part of your job and forget that praise and recognition are just as important.
People don’t need to go above and beyond for you to compliment them on a job well done. Recognize people for regularly hitting deadlines, always meeting project requirements, and writing clean code that doesn’t need a ton of work during QA.
In other words, make sure your team knows how much you appreciate that they do what they’re supposed to.
2. Improve communication
Every leadership article you’ve ever read has talked about the importance of good communication. We’re going to talk about it, too.
When you lead a software team, your communication challenges are a little bit different. It’s not a good idea to interrupt a developer’s deep work time for updates and meetings.
Plus, if your team works asynchronously (which is a good idea for software development), it’s even harder to keep everyone on the same page.
Improving team communication does a lot of good. Relationships get stronger, employees stick around longer, and team projects are a lot more effective.
Here are some things you can do today to start communicating better:
You can tell people that you’re open to feedback, but that’s not enough.
Ask individual team members for their thoughts and opinions. Make it a habit.
The more you actively invite your team to talk to you, the more they’ll do it.
Create a communication manifesto
At Hubstaff, we have a communication manifesto that describes exactly how we expect our team to operate.
It might sound like a lot, but since we work asynchronously, we need clear guidelines.
Our manifesto covers things like which tool to use to ask questions, how quickly you should expect a response, and how to handle urgent requests. Some departments even have their own, more detailed version, and that’s a good idea for your software team.
Your communication manifesto is one of the ways that you protect your team’s ability to do deep work. It sets clear boundaries and empowers team members to turn off notifications sometimes without worrying that they’ll miss something important.
Invest in a communications training course
Want to seriously upgrade your team’s skills? Consider a specialized training to learn some mad communication skills.
This is a great idea if your team has a lot of different issues that stop the flow of information.
Your challenges may be part of your team culture, or they might be a combination of little problems that add up to a bigger mess. Either way, a professional training will help address those issues.
Plus, offering training is a great way to invest in your team and build more trust.
Break down silos
The silo approach is one of the biggest challenges for technical teams.
It happens because software development requires a lot of focused, uninterrupted work. Other departments don’t need to be involved in coding and testing, so dev teams are often disconnected from the rest of the company.
If your developers are constantly distracted by chatty marketers or support agents who keep asking the same questions, that’s a problem.
However, if your developers never connect with frontline employees, that’s also a problem.
Make sure that your team has opportunities to talk with other people at the company, both professionally and socially. Involve other departments in key product decisions, and make sure your support staff have a way to pass along customer feedback.
3. Hire the right people
It’s a lot easier to manage your team if you hire the right people from the start.
Apart from technical skills, great team members also have these attributes:
Some industries are full of passionate people, while others are less inspiring. For example, if you make video games, you’ll have an easier time finding passionate applicants than a business specializing in supply chain management.
In either case, look for people who are passionate about doing great work and solving interesting problems, not just people who are excited about your product.
They like to learn new things
Great coders are self-learners who enjoy learning and picking up new skills.
Look for people who display a self-learner attitude when hiring new members of your team. Ask about what courses they’ve taken in the past year, which blogs and websites they follow, and how they find answers to new questions.
You’re hiring a team member, right?
Especially in software development, you’ll find a lot of talented people with a “lone wolf” mentality.
Look for people who are good at working alone, but also thrive in a team environment. Especially if your team is remote, you need to feel confident that everyone will work well together.
They take responsibility
While it might be hard to determine how accountable and responsible a person is before you hire them, you should still look for signs that your potential hire is someone who can take care of all their responsibilities in a timely manner.
In the interview, ask your candidate to tell you about projects that didn’t go as planned.
The details of a failed project aren’t important, but the way they talk about it is.
Watch out for people who blame others or complain about their previous teammates and managers. That might be a warning sign that your candidate has a hard time taking responsibility.
4. Document all your processes, procedures, and workflows
If someone has a question about procedure, do they have to ask you directly?
That’s not an ideal way to operate. What if you’re busy or out sick? Work stops until you’re available to answer.
Instead, give your team somewhere to go where they can answer their own questions.
You can do this by creating documentation for all your processes, procedures, and workflows. This documentation should contain step-by-step instructions on how team members should perform each task.
If you don’t provide team members with this type of documentation, you increase the chances of them making errors or taking more time than necessary to complete tasks. Plus, training new team members takes longer because someone needs to sit with them until they learn.
Answer all of the following questions in your documentation:
- What resources are needed to complete the process?
- Which team members are involved in the process, and what are their roles and responsibilities?
- What steps team members need to go through to complete the process?
- What’s the output of the process?
It’s labor intensive, but this process also helps you improve communication and empower your team to be more independent. The effort you put in up front saves you a lot of time for years to come.
5. Provide your team with all the tools they need
Software teams need a variety of specialized tools to do their best work. This might include specialized hardware, software solutions, or both.
Some of these tools get pretty expensive.
You might be tempted to cut corners, but beware. Using the wrong tool means projects take longer and might be lower quality than you expect. Your team will also have to work harder to produce an acceptable result, which increases the risk of burnout and poor job satisfaction.
That doesn’t mean that you need to bust your budget on processors and premium software. It means that you should listen to your team when they tell you that your current setup isn’t cutting it.
Include your team members when deciding which tools to get and which you should skip. After all, they’ll be the ones using them.
6. Measure productivity
A productive software team must meet all of these criteria:
- They consistently hit their deadlines
- They create good quality results
- They finish work in a reasonable amount of hours
Productivity is an important metric because it’s directly linked to how effective and profitable your team is.
Think about it this way:
If your team hits deadlines and creates good results, but they have to put in overtime to do it, you’re probably spending more on labor than you budgeted.
At the same time, if your team can work 40-hour weeks and meet all their deadlines, but the quality of work suffers, you’re going to disappoint your stakeholders.
You can track your most important productivity metrics with a tool like Hubstaff.
How productive is your software team?
Find out with Hubstaff.
7. Find a great project manager
On top of managing all your projects, your project manager also:
- Manages shifting priorities
- Sets realistic goals for your team and manages stakeholder expectations
- Watches your team members for signs of burnout
Sometimes you don’t have the budget for a dedicated PM, so you have to take on that job yourself. If that’s the case, consider offering resources and training so everyone on your team can develop their own project management skills, too.
Whether you have a dedicated project manager or you’re taking the DIY approach, software like Hubstaff Tasks makes it a lot easier to keep the team on track.
It can simplify collaboration and allow you to delegate tasks more easily. It’s also a great way to improve communication so you can spend your time on more important things — like managing workloads and building relationships.
Effortlessly manage your software team workload.
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8. Enable deep work
Development teams can’t operate at peak effectiveness unless they have focused, uninterrupted time to get things done.
Technical work is mentally demanding. Make sure your employees have all the time they need to concentrate by fighting the most common distractions.
Working remotely is ideal for this kind of deep work because a developer only needs to turn off notifications to stop coworkers from interrupting. Your team can use status notifications to alert the team that they’re in deep work mode.
Even if you work in a noisy office, you can still enable focused work time for your team.
Unused conference and meeting rooms are great when someone needs an hour or two to solve a sticky problem. Create an office-wide rule that if a team member takes their laptop into a meeting room for focused work, you can’t interrupt them unless you’ve reserved that room.
Developers often use noise cancelling headphones to drown out distractions in shared workspaces. Treat headphones as a signal that it’s deep work time and make sure that everyone knows to wait until the headphones come off to ask questions.
You can even set aside a designated block of quiet time in your office. Maybe 2 PM until 4 PM is deep work time, and everyone must keep conversation and noise to a minimum.
What’s your approach?
Managing software teams effectively is challenging but doable.
What kind of issues have you run into when managing your software team? Do you have any advice on how to manage a software team effectively?
Let us know in the comments.