Lost in Translation: Decoding New Engineering Team Members

· 4 min read
Lost in Translation: Decoding New Engineering Team Members

Have you ever been in a situation where you manage someone but don’t know how to evaluate their performance? That’s one of the trickiest problems of being a manager. Initially, I thought that if you know how to do the job yourself, you’d know if the person you’re delegating it to is good enough. But it turned out that it was not entirely true. For example, even though I’ve worked as a senior engineer for years when I started managing the team, I had this problem.

Types of Team Members

There are a few types of people you work with as a manager.

First, you have your top performers. Working with them is pure joy — no matter how vague you describe the task, it gets done. Top performers will ask you follow-up questions, update you on problems and roadblocks, consult you on tough decisions, and do everything they can to help you and get things done.

Top performers take the initiative beyond just their assigned tasks. They offer creative ideas and solutions, motivate and lift up other team members, see the big picture and understand how their role fits in, and are passionate about and engaged in their work. As a manager, top performers make your job easy and inspire and motivate you.

The second extreme is obvious underperformers. They’re the complete opposite of your top performers. They come late to meetings or miss them altogether. They take on tasks without asking any follow-up questions, deliver subpar work, and then blame everything but themselves for not getting things done right.

Underperformers do the bare minimum to get by, make excuses, play the blame game, resist feedback and coaching, disrupt group harmony and morale, are late on deliverables, and miss deadlines. As a manager, underperformers drain your energy and require extra oversight and management.

Finally, there are people who are doing ok. They’re not top performers who are engaged and are personally invested in the work they do. And they’re not underperformers where issues become obvious. They’re doing their fair amount of work, and you can’t say that the output is inherently wrong or they’re constantly late.

This middle group reliably completes core tasks but wants specific direction and expectations. They are less likely to develop breakthrough things, require monitoring and management, and their output is satisfactory but rarely wows. As their manager, you must regularly check in on tasks and timelines and express appreciation for their reliability while providing clear guidance.

Typical ratios reflect about 20% top performers, 20% underperformers, and 60% in the middle group. Effectively managing each type and keeping all individuals and the team on track is a challenge for any manager.

Challenges With Evaluating New Hires

When you hire people, especially when working as a small team of just a handful of engineers, it’s tricky to figure out where the baseline is and who’s who.

First of all, performance evaluation is always subjective. No rulebook describes every role possible and how to evaluate the person in this role. For example, the evaluation criteria used for a software engineer will differ greatly from those of a system architect or a QA engineer. Trying to create a definitive guide laying out unambiguous evaluation standards for every imaginable role is unrealistic.

Second, you can’t compare people who’ve been on the project for a long time to someone who’s just joined. Project knowledge builds up over time and makes it easier for people to work with new tasks that you give them using prior knowledge of the system, domain, stakeholder needs, wants and expectations, etc. An engineer who has worked on a product for 2 years will have much deeper knowledge of the codebase, technical architecture, product requirements, and use cases than an engineer who just recently joined. This domain expertise built over time gives longer-tenured team members a significant edge when tackling new features.

Third, you can’t compare people who’ve been on the team for a while with those who joined recently. Teams, just like projects, tend to have a lot of unspoken and unwritten rituals and rules that newbies need to learn. There may be norms around communication styles, autonomy expectations, or scheduling meetings that are implicit practices ingrained through working together over an extensive period. Failing to conform to these implicit ways of working will seriously affect newer members’ evaluations.

Trial Period Framework

What I’ve found working best is the combination of a well-structured trial period and a time for correcting any issues identified during that trial.

The trial period serves multiple benefits. It allows both employer and candidate to determine if there is an alignment on work ethics, culture fit, communication styles, quality and timeliness expectations, and other fundamentals before making a long-term commitment. It also provides adequate time for the employer to assess the candidate’s skills, abilities, independence, response to feedback, collaboration potential, and problem-solving capacity using concrete metrics like on-time project delivery, fixed bugs, satisfaction scores, etc.

During this initial 2–3 month timeframe, the focus should be on objective evaluation of the candidate against these crucial criteria. It is also crucial to provide coaching and feedback early on — weekly check-ins, hands-on training sessions with mentors, and personal improvement plans should be a must. This prevents problems from accumulating until later.

The end result of the trial period should be a document that summarizes the strengths you see and improvement areas. The next 3 months can then be an intensive correction period for mentorship targeted to those growth areas while continuing to monitor progress through milestones each month at the very least.

If you see substantial improvement on the initially identified issues, then after six months, you can congratulate yourself — you now have a new long-term crew member. No improvement in key areas despite all the time investment indicates deeper alignment issues. In the latter case, you’ll have to make some tough decisions.

Originally published on Medium.com