Using the framework and lessons learned from a workshop led by VP of Engineering Anthony Mayer, discover how you can align your technical vision and company principles for a growing engineering team.
As engineering teams grow, it becomes increasingly important to ensure that everyone is aligned on the technical vision for the company and the principles that guide team collaborations. Without this alignment, polarization will appear within engineering teams, as well as lengthy code review cycles and technical discussions.
Hosting a workshop can help mitigate this risk. The workshop hosted by my company did just that, bringing everyone together to discuss and agree on the company’s technical vision for the next two to five years, the guidelines needed to achieve it, and the team principles.
The workshop structure
When our company set up a workshop, we decided to do it in person, since our usual hybrid model meant some people worked remotely and some in our offices. This allowed us to break away from the day-to-day routine and focus on something different, while also giving everyone the opportunity to have face-to-face conversations.
The workshop was structured into three main sessions:
- Pinpointing the overall technical vision of the company.
- Discussing which technical avenues might be most helpful in achieving them.
- How our team principles would ensure we remain successful.
After presenting the topics for the sessions, the team split up into breakout groups where each discussed and collected their ideas on the subject.
After the fact, each group then presented their thoughts with some Q&As. To round out the day, I presented my own ideas that I had come up with ahead of time with other engineering leaders. During this section, live feedback was provided, comparing and contrasting with points the groups had made with throughout the entire workshop.
It’s important to be aware that the last step could be perceived as “overriding” what the groups came up with in their sessions. But, if done correctly, it can help bring everything together.
Workshopping the company’s goals
A good place to start in your workshops is by asking your team to think about where they want the company’s tech to be in the next two to five years. Focus on specific goals and features that they believe the technology should be able to achieve in this time frame. Allow them to present their ideas and discuss the pros and cons of each. On the back of this, determine which ones align with your overall vision.
As much as you can, try to group the ideas into themes. In the workshop I led, this step was really useful because what we found was that most of the team was thinking in the same direction, but at very different levels of abstraction.
Some people came with high, vision-level ideas. But some ideas were more focused, proposing purely technical improvements or tech-debt projects (eg., migrating to a different cloud provider) – and in this context, these suggestions weren’t to do with the larger vision.
During this stage of the workshop, a lot of people said that they found this really challenging as they were not used to thinking so broadly. This is good because the whole point of this exercise is to encourage people to think about things that are not part of their day-to-day.
Workshopping the company’s technical guidelines for achieving its vision
The first session works to frame the overall goals of the company, but the second looks toward its technical trajectory.
For the workshop I oversaw, we focused on ideas that had been raised in the first session. We discussed the various challenges and considerations that will need to be taken into account, such as scalability, security, and maintainability. We also talked about the technical standards and guidelines that we need to follow in order to ensure that we are building a solid foundation for the future.
This exercise was challenging but fruitful. We honed in on what we wanted to achieve and distinguished these things from our team principles (which are more about how we work together). A couple of examples of these guidelines are:
- With everything we build, we need to think about what data needs to be collected. This should be baked into our capabilities.
- When working on any of the core platform pieces, it’s critical to make sure we’re building it correctly and scalably; it’s more important to build it correctly than to build it quickly.
This was the most valuable exercise of the whole workshop; it aligned the overall and technical vision and revealed how many people were making assumptions about what’s important or not when writing code. Pinpointing these gray areas helps with better clarifying or documenting how we want to make decisions and what we prioritize.
Workshopping your team principles
Zeroing in on the wider technical vision and the technical strategy to achieve it is important, but neglects to address the teams implementing these measures. As such, turning attention to the principles governing how everyone works together is paramount.
In this workshop exercise it can be helpful to discuss topics such as communication, collaboration, and accountability; explore specific ways that these principles can be embodied in the team’s day-to-day work.
This was by far the simplest activity performed in the workshop I organized. For the most part, all the suggestions from the breakout groups aligned with each other and, better yet, lined up with the thoughts I’d prepared on this topic ahead of time.
We interspersed these sessions with fun on-site activities to mix things up and keep everyone engaged. These included team-building exercises, outdoor activities, or simply taking a break to socialize and have some fun together.
Overall, workshops allow you to identify gaps in your understanding and come to a greater level of alignment on your technical vision, guidelines, and team principles. It’s also a great opportunity to let everyone be a part of the conversation (rather than just management), helping to inspire all team members to think about these topics.
In the few months since the workshop held at our company, we’ve found that it’s resonated with people – discussions from the breakout room sessions are still being referenced. Though the process reaped positive results, we continue to look out for methods on how to better this alignment process in the future.