When you work as a software developer at a small startup, you wear many hats and have many responsibilities. You don’t benefit from having clearly defined product requirements handed to you. At best, you get general ideas from clients or product managers with a vague sense of what they want.
As the engineer, it is up to you to ask the right strategic questions to develop detailed requirements. You need to think ahead about potential future iterations and changes. You also must test your code thoroughly since there is no separate quality assurance team and document what you’ve built thoroughly so that you can understand the code months or years later.
On one hand, this breadth of responsibilities allows you to understand business needs at a deeper level than an engineering specialist might. Since you are involved in requirements gathering and high-level strategic thinking, you learn more context about the customer pain points and how your software addresses them.
The downside is that you may not develop deep expertise in specialized technical areas like an engineer at a larger company might. For example, it would be hard to keep up with the latest cloud infrastructure best practices or get extensive experience with CI/CD pipelines — you’ll likely need some PAAS solution for this and focus on writing code.
Your coding skills may get rusty or outdated as well since you spend significant time on non-engineering tasks like requirements elicitation, documentation, and testing, which means that the only time you have to try new shiny libraries and approaches is your personal time.
The Challenge of Transitioning Big Team Engineers
In larger companies, engineers specialize in specific aspects of the software development lifecycle. They follow industry best practices around patterns, code style and organization, architecture, continuous integration, continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipelines, and cloud infrastructure. While skilled in these areas, they operate within structured environments that define their requirements and processes.
When you’re an engineering manager of a small team and hire an engineer from one of these larger teams, you notice that they often need more structure. It’s hard for them to listen to high-level requirements from a client and turn them into functional software. They don’t have the experience to probe open-ended requirements, map those to legacy system APIs, and deliver integrated solutions.
Having operated within specialized roles their whole careers, these engineers never needed to understand business objectives or how technical solutions fulfill them. They executed well-documented requirements instead of exploring vague ideas with stakeholders.
Without training, expecting these engineers to thrive in small teams is unrealistic. They require coaching on questioning skills to get actionable requirements from stakeholders. And they need opportunities to connect high-level business goals to technical implementation details. This likely involves some painful moments for both the engineer and the team as they align on processes and expectations.
With an intentional onboarding plan that develops key integration skills, large-team engineers can eventually adapt to small-team environments. However, this requires time and a lot of support during the transition. Finding their footing proves difficult.
Bridging the Gap Between Business and Technology
In a small team, you often don’t have dedicated business analysts who focus on gathering requirements. Instead, those responsibilities fall to tech leads, product managers, or project managers. These individuals document requirements at a high level for engineers to then implement.
As your team grows, bringing on a business analyst from a larger company can help improve requirements. However, this addition changes team dynamics. Now, product managers communicate stakeholder needs to the analysts. Analysts then investigate the specifics, document the details, and convey those to engineers.
But in your small, versatile team, the role of the analyst entails more than just writing detailed requirements. An ideal analyst also supports engineers through research and development efforts. They may document system architectures to aid implementation. Additionally, a skilled analyst works directly with data using low-code tools instead of relying solely on engineers.
By leveraging their business knowledge and technical skills, analysts in your team build bridges between business objectives and system implementations. Rather than siloing responsibilities, an analyst with both business and technical capabilities brings unity of understanding to meet stakeholder needs efficiently.
The Invaluable Swiss Army Knife Analyst
With teams stretched thin, analysts end up binding different worlds together. Rather than just writing requirements docs and passing them off, the most versatile analysts dive into technical hands-on work.
Take integration projects, for example. Say the business needs to pipe a few external data sources into an internal database. Rather than vaguely order “integrate System X,” their analyst jumps on the case. He starts poking around the APIs, interfaces, and security schemes for each outside system. He learns how data flows from Points A to B and documents the nitty-gritty details in a spec doc, mapping out step-by-step how to sync everything up later.
But does he finish there, throwing the imaginary stack of papers over the even more imaginary engineering team’s wall? Not the best ones. The flexible analyst tries putting together a basic prototype first, wielding simple low-code tools like Retool to work some magic. He sets up simple connections himself and transfers sample data from System X to the home database. It might be duct tape integration, but it shows what’s possible. This glimpse works wonders for gaining stakeholder support.
This willingness to explore technical integrations makes an analyst a Swiss army knife for resource-strapped teams. He understands both business objectives and engineering challenges and can speak both languages. The analyst translates coders’ project needs while lending some technical muscle when needed. By bravely bridging gaps, a single flexible analyst can make small, disconnected teams feel larger and more cohesive.
Scaling Up and Rebalancing Roles
As your startup takes off, those scrappy systems you duct-taped together often start creaking under the growth. The messy spreadsheet or manual process that worked last year may crash and burn if you keep piling on more data and people.
I’m sure you’ve seen it — the executive team wants some shiny new metrics added to the dashboard. To make it happen, you must pull data from multiple tools, clean everything up, and map it to the right categories. What used to be a quick formula becomes a hairball of workflows.
Luckily, new no-code platforms like Retool let non-engineers like yourself build reasonably robust systems. You can hook up APIs, ingest data, transform it, and pipe it where it needs to go. And you can create slick front-end views for users without burning too much midnight oil.
But there’s still a ceiling to what you can duct tape together yourself. At some point, your patched-up data plane starts leaking under the workload. That’s when it makes sense to loop in some engineering firepower.
The good news is you likely just need help on targeted components. Standalone microservices through AWS Lambda allow engineers to swap high-performance modules into your existing flows. So, rather than rebuilding from scratch, it becomes more about replacing the creaky wooden bridge with steel as the river swells below.
Over time, responsibilities shift. Analysts focus more on requirements, product needs, and data analysis, while engineers own the scales-to-the-moon architecture. Roles specialize but stay aligned. The key is keeping the left hand talking to the right as things scale up and spin out.
Originally published on Medium.com