Building a Strong and Productive IT Team

To achieve a high performing team, the aspects of the team and the environment must be addressed in a concerted effort where the leadership team:

  • define a compelling vision and set the right goals, expectations and behaviors
  • establish high performance team principles as the norm for their group
  • evaluate and select the right talent
  • actually build the team and the culture as well as move to the right site and staff mix
  • or prune and improve as required
  • and refine ongoing coaching and development to sustain a high performance team

This page maps out how to build a highly productive and well-balanced team at the same time you are constructing a culture that matches your organization’s goals and reinforces a high performance approach. The long term tactics are straightforward and are based on attaining a staffing mix that is composed of a balance of top performing staff and contractors or third parties who, for your company, are in the right geography and at critical mass sites.

Some key IT staffing truths that should be recognized and understood before setting out to build such a highly productive team:

  • top performing engineers, typically paid similar as their mediocre peers are not 10% better but 2x to 10x better
  • having primarily only senior engineers and not a good mix of interns, graduates, junior and mid and senior level engineers will result in stagnation and overpaid senior engineers doing low level work
  • having a dozen small sites with little interaction is far less synergistic and productive than having a few strategic sites with critical mass
  • relying on contractors to do most of the critical or transformational work can be counterproductive and result in a loss of control, key knowledge and can result in potential difficulty to retain or attract talented staff penalty
  • line and mid-level managers should be very good people managers, not great engineers, otherwise you are likely to have difficulty retaining good talent and developing staff
  • engineers generally do not want to work in an expensive in-city location like the financial district of London (that is for investment bankers), instead university towns or thriving suburban towns near a major metropolis are more attractive locales
  • enabling an environment where mistakes can be made, lessons learned, and quality and innovation and initiative are prized means you will get a staff that behaves and (out)performs like that.

With these truths in mind, and having completed the first two steps, you can set about building the team. The first build step is to define an effective capabilities and workforce strategy that matches your goals and your company’s scale and position. The first art of the workforce strategy is to map out those functions that should be handled in-house and those that you should outsource or have contractors perform. I recommend the following rules of thumb:

  • IT strategy, planning and high level systems design and innovation should almost always be done in-house. Given the increasing importance of IT in nearly every market (and thus company’s) products, you should be reticent to lose ownership and competitive advantage here.
  • If you are a small to mid-sized company, consider out-sourcing most of your infrastructure and IT operations because it will be difficult to achieve the economies of scale possible otherwise. You should consider doing this on a task or function basis rather than using a sole provider as your ability to negotiate or achieve recourse in the event of poor performance is greatly minimized otherwise. Maintain or develop senior talent to oversee such third parties if you take this path.
  • For project work, particularly development, testing or integration, you should look to substantially augment your development staff (perhaps 30-40%) so that you if a reduced or greatly changed portfolio is in order for meeting budgets, you can do so with minimal staff reduction
  • Project managers and analysts should be mostly in-house staff. These are key touch points with your customers and control points for the contractor expenses and performance.

If you are a larger company, you should have the size and economies of scale to match most contractor or third party rates, especially given their costs must include a 20% margin (and taxes or VAT). Leverage contractors to provide discretionary or ‘bubble’ resources, allow you to more quickly build up some skills, or handle those few areas where you do not have similar scale.

Once you have settled on the appropriate in-house to contractor/third party mix, you can now outline the size, scale and locations of the team. It obviously should correspond to the size, scale and reach of your company. If your company is global, you will need a global workforce. If it is domestically focused, be domestic but look at near shore engineering locations as well. Ensure your locations match up to where you can draw talent. As mentioned above, minimize expensive in-city locations. Choose instead locations with good commuting, very good nearby engineering universities and vibrant nearby town centers. You will be rewarded with better quality engineers and lower attrition. Do you have 12 locations each with 50 to 150 engineers? Consider consolidating to 3 or 4 sites each with 300 to 500 engineers. And one or two should be global or near shore sites. Ensure you set it up so any significant IT function is done in at least two locations (thus eliminating the cost for business continuity and establishing opportunities as the team matures for work handoff between the sites yielding faster time to market). Partner with nearby universities with strong intern and graduate programs.

You must also review the staff mix between junior, mid-level, and senior staff as well as different roles. In some cases you may be overweight engineers versus managers, analysts or relationship staff (or the reverse). Or it may be that you have too many senior staff for the workload and not enough junior and mid-level. You must analyze your team against the current workload as well as where you expect to be in 12 to 18 months. Consider leveraging the hybrid model to ensure you are organized effectively.  Once you have mapped out the right mix and sites, then you can initiate changes to move to your target workforce strategy. For example, if you are overweight with senior engineers, ensure that your new hires are graduates or junior engineers (even if by mandate). As you compose the plan, engage your senior business leaders to ensure you have support for the changes and potential synergies with other business sites or locations. Ensure they understand you will always locate client-facing personnel with the client, but IT ‘back and middle office’ staff will be where it is best to recruit and retain IT talent.

Generally, what I have found is that in neglected or low performing organizations, there is a surplus of senior talent and much of that group is not energized or up-to-date on their skills. Further, there is has been little leverage of the flow of work approach and thus too many senior staff are doing routine engineering work that either junior engineers should do or it should be packaged and automated for the IT operations team to execute. And often, there are too many ‘facilitators’ or ‘relationship managers’ that do not have the engineering knowledge to actually drive the work to successful completion. Ensure that as you rebuild you put a premium on technical knowledge as well as other key attributes (energy, initiative, team and influence skills, accountability, willingness to work hard, and ability to find solutions) that are hallmarks of high performance teams.

With this analysis done, and a workforce strategy in hand, you now know who you need, with what skills, and in what locations. Once you have established this target, your management team should then define the proper transition to these sites. In some cases, where you have primarily contractors at sites to be discontinued, you may be able to move quickly. In other cases, you may need to have a longer time period to leverage attrition and accomplish training. Then it is a matter of investing in your recruiting as well as coaching and development to get the talent in place. For your recruiting, I recommend leveraging the previous material on ‘Evaluating and Selecting Talent‘. Remember that recruiting is one of the most important tasks that a manager does, and you must spend the time and investment to outperform in this area. And as for all the talent you currently have on board, make sure you draw out a constructive path for them so that you fully leverage and develop your current team. This is often a missed opportunity as invariably, management in a IT organization can improve how they handle coaching and development. Because most of the managers are engineers, their ability to interact firmly with another person in a highly constructive manner is typically under-developed. I will be writing a page on Coaching and Development shortly that you should be able to leverage for improving this practice.

With the workforce strategy set, solid transitioning and recruiting complemented by coaching and development, you should be on your way to building a high performance team.

Best, Jim Ditmore

Footnote: Remember though, even if you execute your workforce mix and your recruiting and performance management flawlessly and you do not align your goals and rewards you will not get the change you desire. Quite simply, your smartest team members will observe what you reward, and if you do not reinforce the values you are looking to achieve (productivity, quality, initiative, etc), you will not get appropriate change. So, do not neglect the step of setting the right goals and expectations, then aligning the incentives and modeling the behaviors as leaders. Please reference the Setting the Right Goals page for more insight.


4 Responses to Building a Strong and Productive IT Team

  1. Rimantas says:

    Hello again,
    Continuing with outsource reasoning theme we are facing with need to calculate as much as possible correctly economies/losses we will have going towards outsource. As you mention here outsourcing finally should give us savings/economies. On the other hand, if development side, starting from analysis ending testing and integration, is left in-house, hopefully this part of IT will also need some resources. And that will be not only ‘pencil and paper’. Almost all testing infrastructure should be available for final package creation and preparation for outsourcing. And even when some operations will be outside, some hidden costs are also inevitable such as adequate know-how skills workforce finding, adaptation and keeping in place. It means, that IT division value even after some part outsourcing will not become small. Don’t you think, that “Outsourcing: to be or not to be? Concentrated” would be interesting theme for your next article? And again about outsource reasoning. Looking at worldwide giants view, majority if not all IT shops in my country are small. However at local scale, some of them are big enough. Therefore the question what does it means ‘above scale’ and what does it means ‘below scale’ is still open. Wouldn’t be possible to measure meanings in more concrete numbers?
    Best, Rimantas

    • Jim D says:

      Rimantas, Very good questions and I have been thinking about how best to answer your questions and suggestions. I think I will put together a post on out-sourcing as I have had several other questions or comments on this topic. But in the interim, before the post, a few thoughts:
      – I agree that you should retain the architecture, high level design and integrations, requirements AND final testing to ensure quality and that you retain the key IP.
      – I also agree the scale is relative both to geography and industry. And where the primary costs are personnel (versus SW, hardware and maintenance) you can achieve scale easier in smaller entities.
      In the post I will try to put in concrete numbers even if just ranges. Best, Jim

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