Portraits by Matt Peet
Software development is a team sport—and just as in basketball, rugby or tag-team wrestling, communication is a necessary skill that often goes unpracticed. A team of engineers could practice coding and reviewing 16 hours a day. But if they never once work on how to communicate their efforts, intentions, strategies and states of mind, their collective work won’t reach its full potential.
Tech leaders are the coaches in this scenario. (We’ll wrap up with the sports metaphor. Promise.) It’s up to them to implement the strategies and practices that, over time, will lead to powerful communication and a team, as the saying goes, greater than the sum of its parts.
In our recent Perspectives interviews with tech leaders, many of them discuss their approaches to building collaboration through better communication. So we compiled the experiences and insights of Tech Lead Academy’s Patrick Kua; Dan Pupius, co-founder and CEO at Range; Edwige Robinson, the VP of Mobile Engineering Services at Comcast NBC Universal; Skullcandy’s CIO, Mark Hopkins; and Agile coach Dragana Hadzic. Their contributions explore various aspects of communication and collaboration in engineering organizations, from inter-team conversations to company-wide, alignment-building strategies.
Create continuous feedback between all members of the team
The first time Patrick Kua took on a formal tech lead role, he jumped in without any real training—or any real idea what he was doing. And he ended up overwhelming himself by taking on too much responsibility. He could have spoiled his emerging leadership career. But his project manager averted that disaster by offering him some frank feedback. It wasn’t about Patrick’s “bad” approach to managing, but about how he could change the situation. Patrick discovered he was not even aware of the problem or how to change it, and that conversation altered his trajectory.
“What I have tried to do from that point on is build a culture where feedback is continuous and more ad hoc,” he says. “And that feedback doesn’t have to come from the person in authority. It’s a continuous process amongst everyone.”
This approach shifts away from the typical quarterly or semi-annual review which is both formal and too infrequent to implement anything incrementally or continuously. Patrick aims to offer feedback to team members every week or two. For that continuous feedback system to work, he has to establish the conditions for it, and develop systems to implement it.
“You have to first teach people how to give and receive effective feedback,” he says. “You can create that environment, but if people aren’t prepared to give and receive feedback, they can get upset by it.”
The good news is that many engineers—and tech leaders—already know how to take in various forms of feedback.
“As engineers, they’re getting feedback constantly through tests, code reviews and customer satisfaction impact,” Patrick says. “You see numbers move. And they’re all different types of feedback.”
Often the best feedback doesn’t come down from above. So Patrick creates opportunities for people on his teams to create feedback for each other. Sometimes this happens serendipitously, but his role is to build the culture of continuous feedback.
So he implements the visual representation of the “pair stair” for feedback within a team. Picture a spreadsheet with all the team members listed along both axes. Mapping out pairings between people forms a stair.
“Over the course of say a month or two, depending on how big the team is, you set the expectation that everyone should be swapping feedback with everyone else,” Patrick explains. “They should be doing it on a weekly or bi-weekly pace. By the end of that time, they should have given some piece of feedback to everyone else.”
Patrick creates that space but does not enforce it. It’s up to his team members to pick out who they want to talk with, offer feedback to and solicit feedback from. He suggests some useful mechanisms for enabling this feedback: regular calendar invites for slots of feedback or a recurring block of time each week.
“It’s up to you to work out who’s the most appropriate person to get feedback to and from,” Patrick says. “It’s really about personal growth from all perspectives.”
Build stand-ups in rounds to carve space for everyone to participate
For many engineering teams, accountability and communication happen in the daily stand-up. The format is remarkably similar in most every organization: teams get together for a short amount of time and run through what each person did yesterday, what they’re working on today and anything that’s blocking them.
But Dan Pupius is in favor of ditching meetings as vehicles for mere status updates. He holds that teams can derive much more value out of their stand-ups by building the discussions in rounds. It’s a system that he finds creates more breathing room and more openings for everyone on the team to participate.
“The purpose of our stand-ups is collaboration,” he says. “We actually call it ‘collab time.’ I recommend naming meetings based on the purpose or outcome you’re driving vs. basing it off of the attendees or format.”
These are some of Dan’s tactics for making meetings more efficient and valuable for his team:
Start with a check-in round
This first round can be an ice-breaker question (such as one of these 200 used at Range), or simply people sharing what’s on their mind. Whatever the topic of discussion, the act of going around the team levels the playing field—everyone has already spoken up once, and research shows that underrepresented groups are more likely to speak up if they speak up earlier in the meeting.
“Plus, it helps us as humans,” Dan says. “It helps us empathize with each other and provides a more accurate lens through which we interpret each other’s actions and behavior during a meeting. If we come in cold and start talking and then you're a little bit short with me, I may interpret that as you being upset with me, but maybe it's just that you're super tired because you were up all night with a sick child. The check-in round sets a really important foundation for the rest of the meeting.”
Create a round-robin agenda
The second tactic is a round (or multiple rounds) of building an agenda. Again, every person must speak each time around—and if they don’t want to add anything, they still have to vocalize their “pass.”
Dan finds that people may pass on the first or second round of round-robin agenda-building, but by subsequent rounds they remember or choose to bring things up for discussion. Going around multiple times allows team members to build confidence to speak up, as well as giving them multiple chances—whereas a quick “What topics are we going to discuss?” is likely to raise only the most urgent ideas, or those ideas from the most confident people in the room. “It creates space for people who aren’t as confident or don’t have as much social presence,” he says.
Keep discussion relevant to everyone
One of the keys to keeping everyone engaged and included in a stand-up is to keep the stand-up relevant to them. Such stand-ups, in this sense, are ideal for small teams, because these meetings are only useful if team members are actively collaborating together (at least for the duration of the meeting, if not beyond).
“If there is a discussion that's not relevant to everyone,” Dan says, “then, yeah, those people should connect offline.”
Permitting a time for intentional collaboration reduces informal collaboration outside of the stand-up, Dan notes. “Creating space to encourage collaboration is essentially an inclusiveness practice. It forces you to have conversations or discussions in a formal setting where everyone can benefit from it,” he says. “It's not to say that you shouldn't have your informal communication; it's just that by making a space for formal communication, everyone can benefit from it and it balances the information flow.”
Forge accountability and clarity to weather challenging times
The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the ways many organizations communicate and collaborate, but it could not touch one of Edwige Robinson’s core tenets: whether her team is co-located or working from home, they always have each other to lean on. “We keep each other accountable and focused by keeping the line of communication open and being clear on the actions required,” she says. “Only then can we move forward to deliver effectively.”
Edwige paves the way for her team to do real-time problem solving in meetings, where everyone is encouraged to offer feedback. For her, though, the key in team accountability starts with owning her own errors to create a cascade of trust.
“When I make mistakes, I won’t make excuses for them,” she says. “I apologize for them. Because my team trusts me, they will understand. And I will do the same when they are in the same situation. I will give them the benefit of my understanding. A leader who is ‘never wrong’ never gets the truth from others. Yet, when a leader timely apologizes for being wrong, it’s a powerful catalyst to build or rebuild trust.”
Open, free-flowing communication is the base ingredient for that intra-team accountability. Achieving such accountability without clear communication and alignment is difficult enough when business is running as usual. But during a crisis, it is paralyzing. Edwige leans on two strategies to adapt both strategic and interpersonal communication to stressful times, whether those are global or personal:
Over-clarify and over-simplify. “I over-communicate, over-collaborate, and over-align on the priorities that lead to the creation of our products and services,” she says. “I simplify the priorities, and then simplify them again, so everyone understands what is needed right now. Too many details can be overwhelming, so I keep people focused on what is needed to support our customers.”
Offer extra doses of compassion. Edwige makes certain to bring empathy and understanding to the table—for her team members as well as for herself. “I make an extra effort to make every interaction count,” she says. “I listen deeper to hear the unsaid. We will all remember who was there in the smallest moments. We will remember the extra pauses, the extra calmness and the extra thank-you note.” She believes that we might be transformed through challenging times to unveil our better selves—and a touch of extra kindness may well be what helps our teammates weather times of uncertainty.
Open doors between tech teams and the greater organization
The communication between tech teams and the other groups in an organization—Sales, Marketing, executives, Customer Success, you name it—often has to cross cultural boundaries. Not only is the lingo different, but the ways of thinking and problem-solving are sometimes entirely foreign. Nobody likes having outsiders critique their work, and it can feel insulting to have non-tech savvy colleagues explain to software engineers and IT professionals what they need to fix.
But Mark Hopkins and his team don’t see it that way. On the contrary, he welcomes anyone to challenge their decisions and deliver feedback. To ensure the company understands this, he and his team make an effort to show their openness.
“We really want IT to be embedded with the business.” Mark says. “If people don't want to approach you, that's a complete failure because you're missing all kinds of opportunities, so trying to be open and collaborative with the business is something that I try to foster.”
In his experience, Mark finds that creating a collaborative aura around IT and engineering teams requires having and hiring people who have diverse experience in aspects beyond the technical knowhow.
“I think what works really well is having a mix of team members that come from different backgrounds,” Mark says. “You obviously need technical skills, and there's training and effort required to learn those skills. I’ve had very good luck hiring technical people and teaching them about the business so they understand the business and develop a curiosity about the business and how to apply technology to it. But because of the path that I took, I know that it also works really well to take up someone that worked on the business side that has a desire to learn technical skills.”
By understanding other departments and how engineering and IT teams plug into them, it becomes much easier to empathize with the needs throughout the rest of the company and bridge the divide between business needs and software solutions.
Link development teams to strategy, and vice versa
The relationship between a company strategy and a sense of purpose is symbiotic. Delivery teams tend to succeed when they find motivation in the company strategy, and strategies tend to succeed when they are something teams can actually care about.
Connecting development and strategy may come more easily in smaller organizations. At scale, and especially when particular pieces of development work are outsourced, linking the two requires special attention. “A team operating as only one link in the overall product delivery chain can have reduced visibility in the strategic or product direction,” Dragana Hadzic says. “They need to be aware of how their tasks fit in the big picture.”
She highlights how teams who understand the grander scheme of their work feel connected to their company’s strategy, which in turn brings additional purpose to their work. The responsibility for communicating this sense of purpose falls to leaders—both at the upper tiers and on a managerial level.
“Leaders play a big role, because good leaders support each other in sharing this understanding with their teams,” Dragana says. “The total success of an organization comes down to this synergy between delivery and strategy.”
Communicating this sense of purpose to teams requires more than articulating the company strategy. Leaders must also convey a strong understanding of how any particular team fits into the entire chain of a product’s development, from concept through to client use.
“It’s really about communication and it’s about collaboration,” Dragana says. “Everyone in that setup needs to be aware that the connection between delivery and strategy is dynamic. There are usually a lot of underlying assumptions that need to be validated. The landscape needs to be frequently revisited, and everyone needs to be aware of what’s going on.”
Improving communication is an ongoing practice for development teams, and it’s up to tech leaders to coax the best collaborative skills from their teams. The payoffs of clearer communication manifest on every level, from an engineering team itself to its alignment with the company-wide strategy.
The five tech leaders we interviewed turn to these strategies and insights to achieve better communication on their engineering teams:
Create continuous feedback between all team members by establishing the safety to share freely, and developing systems to facilitate it on an ongoing basis (like the “pair stair”).
Build stand-ups in rounds (such as doing a check-in round and building an agenda round-robin style) in order to hold space for everyone’s participation and to keep the conversation relevant to all involved.
Establish accountability by modeling as a leader that you can both make mistakes and remedy them, and establish simplicity and compassion to clarify a team’s direction—especially in challenging times (whether universal or personal).
Break down the walls between the tech organization and the rest of the company to facilitate greater diversity of thought and stronger alignment with business needs.
Connect developers to organizational strategy to better communicate the company’s vision, motivating engineers by allowing them to understand the bigger picture their work contributes to.
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