Being parachuted into an inexperienced team can be a great opportunity for you to share your expertise and help individuals upskill.
Everyone anticipates encountering new challenges and growing alongside colleagues when they enter a new team as an engineer or tech lead. However, you may find yourself in a situation where your peers, and sometimes even managers responsible for your professional growth, have less experience.
In situations like these, there are several ways to leverage your expertise to increase team maturity, establish more efficient processes, and help others grow faster. You must be mindful, however, that not everyone will be receptive to your ideas, no matter how beneficial they are.
Collaborate closely with your manager
Your manager, even if less experienced than you, is interested in building a strong team with high productivity in a healthy environment, so the better you coordinate your actions, the more significant your results.
Upon joining a team, familiarize yourself with the current team state and identify areas of improvement. Set a reoccurring 1:1 meeting with the manager to share your observations. Explain which issues negatively impact the team, which solutions would yield the best results, and which would be ineffective based on your past experiences.
Sometimes, managers unintentionally create bottlenecks. A less experienced team compels the manager to make decisions for every running project, reducing the team's autonomy and slowing development. As a result, the team loses the opportunity to gain experience, creating a closed loop.
In these cases, suggest tasks to your manager that can be delegated to teammates with minimal loss of quality. Support your proposal with benefits for both your manager and your colleagues. For instance, if all project communication with other teams happens only with the manager, share how introducing the role of a feature owner can help engineers grow through new challenges. Try small experiments where you take a leading role if the manager finds the changes too extensive. If successful, and with your assistance, other engineers will be able to start taking on similar tasks from the manager, using your approach as a model.
Inspiration through example
Teammates with limited development experience may struggle with taking action to solve identified issues. Here, you can help by demonstrating the right approach to an issue.
Choose a task that affects everyone in the team, like long deployment or outdated dependencies. Clearly outline goals and an action plan, and share it with the team for feedback. Involve them in every project stage. Let them evaluate your design, provide code reviews, and become testers. This approach not only raises their awareness but, importantly, allows everyone to see how to tackle similar problems.
Share the results of the exercise, even if they could be better. Many engineers find it challenging to accept failures, but observing experienced colleagues openly discussing setbacks promotes resilience.
Listen to your teammates
People work with enthusiasm when they do what inspires them and receive the appropriate recognition. Regular 1:1s allow you to understand each of your peers better, how challenging they find the ongoing projects, what makes their work ineffective, and which changes they would prioritize.
Try to find out about their sources of inspiration: preferred technologies, which part of the feature delivery process they find most challenging, and what they've wanted to work on. Your experience provides you with a broader understanding of team scope and a longer planning horizon, allowing you to map future projects to your colleagues' interests.
Typically, the manager usually assigns tasks according to the engineer's expertise and skills, disregarding the engineer’s personal interest in the given task. But, going about it this way can slow down and compromise the quality of task completion. When engineers tackle assignments they're not keen on, they tend to procrastinate and come up with subpar solutions. Your coordination with the manager in this regard will be highly beneficial.
You can similarly leverage your relationships to help engineers face issues related to tech debt or inefficient processes which are rarely prioritized by management. By acting as a bridge between these two groups, you can improve both productivity and employee satisfaction. But be careful when formalizing the message. Only share information related to the project or process, and avoid talking about individuals. If you don't, it may lead to a decrease in trust and candor.
Avoiding counterproductive practices
Overpowering by experience
Having more experience helps identify unsuitable solutions for current problems and their long-term scalability. However, it's important to know when intervention is needed to prevent future issues and when it only saves a few weeks of development. Too much interference can make colleagues reluctant to share their ideas with you, leading them to either do things their way without you or leave everything to you, avoiding responsibility for what happens. Moreover, whenever you intervene by proposing a better solution, you deprive colleagues of the opportunity to grow through their experiences.
Instead, you can challenge their ideas. Provide alternative use cases to original designs, prompting them to find a more adaptable solution. If a solution has already been implemented, evaluate its impact retrospectively with them and devote a session to finding a better approach and making necessary changes together.
Inform your manager about potential implementation changes to mitigate the negative consequences of rushing deadlines. If it’s done in advance, you can allocate additional time for development. This way, the team won't have to resort to keeping an unsuccessful version, reducing technical debt and making future challenges easier to solve.
Lack of patience
A temporary velocity decrease is expected when the team first adopts changes. What may seem convenient for seasoned engineers can be a real challenge for their less-experienced colleagues, especially when the changes are significant, like transitioning from single-stack development to full-stack. Even if high-quality training is provided and comprehensive documentation is available, it takes several iterations for the team to adapt to the new format.
This scenario can be a breeding ground for micromanagement. Though you may genuinely want to see everyone's growth as quickly as possible, frequently checking on progress and even offering your advice does not contribute to a teammate’s quality professional growth or productivity. Furthermore, it negatively impacts the team’s atmosphere, especially when you are neither a manager nor a project leader. Make it clear that you are available, share a few tips that helped you achieve success in similar projects, but leave the choice to those responsible.
Pair with your manager to determine when and under what conditions someone may need to intervene. However, try to keep this as a last resort – it’s better to anticipate additional risk and allocate a bit more time in advance.
Juggling multiple initiatives
An ineffective approach to implementing change is doing it all at once, even if the problems being addressed are important and need improvement. Whether you want to start something from scratch or introduce improvements, multitasking is a questionable practice, and not everyone can balance multiple active streams without compromising quality.
For a team with limited experience, such an initiative can only confuse and reduce productivity, leading to anxiety and burnout due to the inability to focus and track all changes. Moreover, monitoring each of these initiatives and assisting colleagues with emerging questions will fall on you. Considering other commitments, you’re likely to become a bottleneck. Ultimately, you risk laying an unstable foundation for less-experienced colleagues, teaching them how to initiate changes but not how to achieve success, and increasing technical debt due to half-baked solutions.
Instead, focus on one problem that the entire team will work on solving. Ensure you have explicitly defined the problem, set achievable goals, and created a clear plan, ideally visualized in a dashboard. And then, regularly discuss progress, adjust the plan, and observe improvements together. It's important to help them learn a pattern so that next time they will easily scope and address the issue without your intervention.
Investing in your growth
As you help others grow, you also contribute to your own development, cultivating communication, mentoring, and delegation skills. What about skills for advancing careers that are difficult to learn without nearby experienced colleagues? For this scenario, there are several approaches you can take while remaining in your current job.
Go beyond your role
If you need to acquire new skills and are stuck in a routine, it's time to discuss with your manager how to maintain challenge in your work and keep your motivation up. Consider which skills you'd like to develop and look for opportunities among active or planned projects in your team. This could involve addressing a problem within a product that moves slower than expected, collaborating on a project with another team, or even creating a platform solution for the entire company.
Regardless of your choice, it's essential to agree with your manager on how to track and evaluate your new activities. Determine what percentage of your time will be dedicated to this work, how you'll report progress to the team, and what will be a successful outcome. Try to communicate how this change will be coordinated with other team members so everyone understands the reason for your reduced capacity in future planning.
Consider opportunities outside the team
If finding new challenges within your team is difficult, it's time to look beyond it. Ask your manager or peers about internal groups and communities where you could expand your horizons. For example, committees that develop standards for the company, create shared services, or support abandoned projects. Such groups often lack participants willing to contribute actively, so you'll quickly find action-oriented projects.
Take advantage of the opportunity to seek mentorship from a more experienced colleague, as even very busy individuals, including C-level leaders, recognize the importance of mentorship as an effective tool for increasing company expertise.
Potential mentors may not be familiar with your work, so prepare a brief introduction before the first meeting. Share what you do, your strengths and weaknesses, and which skill you want to improve through mentorship. This will help the mentor tailor a program specifically for you, maximizing the benefits of each session.
Grow outside the company
There are instances where growth within the company is not possible due to organizational constraints or a lack of expertise. In such situations, professional communities come to the rescue, offering assistance in various forms. Try and join Slack channels that cover multiple topics, attend local meetups and international conferences, pursue personal training, and sign up for professional courses.
The primary responsibility for finding and organizing training will fall on your shoulders. Even in this case, the company may help finance your participation, especially if you offer to share the knowledge you gain with colleagues by organizing internal learning sessions.