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How Upskilling Helps Retain Top Engineering Talent and Build High-Performance Teams

Hillary Nussbaum

By: Hillary Nussbaum
February 24, 2022

Team member taking notes while collaborating

Recent headlines might lead one to conclude that it’s more difficult than ever to build a high-performing team. Hiring is increasingly competitive, salaries are on the rise, and a growing number of people are choosing to switch jobs or exit the workforce entirely. But building a stellar team is about more than just recruiting great talent — it’s about investing in the talent you have. And that’s not investment in the financial sense (though salaries and benefits are important!), it’s a commitment to coaching and upskilling your existing team. 

Focusing on professional development is a win-win. Helping developers excel will boost team performance. Ensuring that developers feel both challenged and supported will increase their job satisfaction and make them more likely to stick around. 

How Can You Help Developers Upskill? 

Of course, helping engineers level up their skills is a multi-layered process. Time and money set aside for learning is important, but it’s not enough. As a leader, there are things you can do to create a culture where positive feedback is welcomed, missteps are seen as learning opportunities, and developers feel comfortable openly discussing their professional goals. Once the cultural foundation is set, you can make adjustments to incorporate coaching into your team’s processes and help ensure that it remains a priority. 

Culture Is Key to Leveling Up 

Psychological safety is a prerequisite to the success of any coaching or professional development initiatives. In order for developers to have honest conversations about their career goals, or to be comfortable receiving feedback, they must trust that they will not be penalized for aspirations that are out of alignment with current responsibilities. 

Though psychological safety is essential, it is just a baseline. An organization looking to prioritize professional development may also benefit from adopting elements of Continuous Improvement. In Continuous Improvement, every member of a team is on the lookout for opportunities to make incremental improvements. The underlying belief is that even small changes to processes, products, and more can have a big impact. 

At the individual level, it would be detrimental to engage every team member in a conversation about one engineer’s professional development. The critical takeaway from Continuous Improvement is that improving should not be a top-down process. When it comes to coaching, it’s important to empower individuals with an active role in their professional development. They can actively contribute by identifying areas of incremental improvement, making plans for their own development, and setting and tracking progress toward goals. When they are involved in making plans, they’ll be more likely to see them through. As they realize the value of making small, positive changes, they’ll be motivated to keep learning. 

Create Regular Touchpoints 

At the process level, effective upskilling requires consistent check-ins and conversations. Regular 1:1s are a great opportunity to surface opportunities for upskilling, and to evaluate progress toward goals. Come prepared with observations and discussion points, and encourage your team members to do the same. Give them the chance to raise their questions and concerns first, so you can get a more complete understanding of what blockers are impacting them the most, and what skills they’d most like to improve. Make their goals a priority whenever possible, and seek out opportunities to challenge team members to envision how their goals align with business priorities. 

These touchpoints will be most effective when a baseline of safety has already been established, though it’s still important to be proactive about reinforcing trust during 1:1s. Practicing vulnerability can help establish the right tone. You may also want to remind team members that 1:1s are not meant for work-related status updates, but for bigger picture conversations about their role, skills, and aspirations. 

Leverage Data To Coach More Effectively 

Leaders can supplement qualitative conversations with Engineering Intelligence data from a platform like Velocity. With the help of objective data, it’s possible to cut through biases, check assumptions, and more accurately assess how a particular developer is working. 

For example, you may observe that a particular team member rarely contributes in meetings, and only speaks when spoken to. You may conclude that this team member is not engaged or invested in their work, or that they don’t value collaboration. Engineering data can help you test that hypothesis. You might find that this same team member is an active participant in Code Reviews, frequently leaving thorough, impactful feedback for their peers. Where you once might have encouraged this team member to be more collaborative, you can now offer more specific feedback around participating in meetings. Alternatively, you may decide to accept their participation in reviews as evidence of their commitment to teamwork, and instead, work with them on another area of growth. 

You can also use engineering data to identify specific units of work that may present learning opportunities. For example, if you notice that a developer has an abnormally large or long-running PR, you can have a conversation about the circumstances that are drawing things out. This allows you to surface potential anti-patterns or areas of weakness that may benefit from coaching. You may learn that the developer is having an issue with that particular area of the codebase, or you may find that they would benefit from coaching around coding hygiene. 

It’s important to remember that metrics are not diagnostic, and quantitative data must always be placed in context. Different projects will naturally progress at different speeds, and non-code-related factors can impact the data. One engineer may appear to be struggling when in reality, they’re simply working through a tricky problem. Another engineer may be adding value through glue work that isn’t as recognizable as shipped code. If you’re gathering relevant context and having open, honest conversations with your team, you’ll be able to determine whether a concerning data point has a reasonable explanation, is an anomaly, or indicates something that needs to be addressed. 

Data can do more than help you surface potential areas for improvement. It can help you make those improvements a reality. Goals are more effective when paired with objective data. Metrics make it possible to set and track progress towards specific, actionable targets, which will set your team members up for success. You and your team members will be able to align on exactly what they’re working toward and see how effectively they’re getting there. If progress seems to stall, you can check-in and re-evaluate your tactics — or the goal itself. 

Upskilling Is Key to Building a High-Performance Team 

Coaching and professional development take time, but they’re critical to driving success and retaining your top performers. It’s not enough to simply hire talented people, as even the most skilled developers will be looking for opportunities to keep growing. With a mixture of cultural and process-level adjustments, you can help create an environment that encourages development while still advancing business priorities. 

To find out how to leverage data from Velocity to upskill team members and boost retention, speak to an engineering data specialist

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