Managing Technical Employees: Learn From My Mistakes

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A founder with a strong business background but little experience working with technical folks explains where she stumbled at first and the seven-part system for effective collaboration she has developed.  

By Thayer Meicler (Co-founder & CEO, SaleSorter) 

In 2012, I took a leap and started SaleSorter, an app that displays real-time in-store sale information in your local area. My background in strategy enabled me to see and size a market opportunity, but I needed a technical partner to make our idea a reality. Once I found technical resources to take SaleSorter from business plan to functional product, I had to adjust my thinking about product management to ensure that our technical and non-technical resources had a parallel understanding and that we were building on everyone’s strengths.

When I first hired technical folks, I learned to work with our programmers to align expectations for product work. For example, I would assume a feature change was a small cosmetic tweak when the underlying code required significant overhaul. I learned that the key to success is creating structure so that the project scope is transparent, technical direction is clear, timelines are achievable, and work moves the product forward for customers.

The steps below outline SaleSorter’s method for productive teamwork. At the end of the day, it’s all about management fundamentals you can use anywhere.

Break Technical Work Into Discreet Projects

…and align upfront. By creating structure around all projects you organize and align your team. Have an initial conversation with the appropriate technical and non-technical resources and discuss the project’s purpose. In this open forum, let everyone share ideas of technical work that could be included to achieve the goal. Leave the meeting with clearly assigned next steps that will take the project from theoretical to implementable, as it is easier to track progress when everyone has individual responsibilities. Sounds simple, but this an essential and easily forgotten step.

Develop a Project Roadmap

After your initial team discussion, have the appropriate team members fully “spec out” the individual builds and modifications for the project on paper.  Having UI/UX ideas fully baked in writing are key to working efficiently.

Don’t Get Overwhelmed by a Long Roadmap – Prioritize It

It’s hard to tackle and measure against a laundry list, so prioritize roadmap features. Remember to focus on items that move the product ahead most obviously. For instance, if an app graphic bothers you or you want to tweak a feature, think it through carefully: will the graphic change the customer experience, or will the feature edit impact engagement? Involve data or A-B testing where possible (because if no one uses a feature, maybe you should scrap it!), try to be objective, and let the product managers do their job.

Align on Timelines With Your Tech Team

With a prioritized product roadmap, ask your tech team to estimate the time involved for each item. I recommend reprioritizing if you find small items are time consuming and to focus on bigger picture items that will most delight customers. Being clear that X feature will be ready in a day, Y feature will be ready in a month will likely impact planning across business functions.

Understand That Timelines Can Change

…and check in on project progress. It’s a startup – some things go well and some hit a snag despite best efforts. Once tech work starts, it’s important to check in with your technical team as timelines can shift because of bugs or hiccups that may cause more work than scoped. The bottom line: no technical time estimate will be 100% accurate.

By checking in regularly, you won’t be surprised by timeline shifts, and you can modify plans if you have a deadline or the technical work impacts non-technical work, like the marketing support of a launch.

Promote a Culture That Values Both Technical and Non-technical Talent

Whether it’s company happy hours, team lunches, or just all-hands meetings, communicating the impact of each function and celebrating the wins can help break down siloes and create camaraderie.

Listen to Your Engineers

Last but certainly not least, listen to project input from the technical team, as they are the ones doing the work and often have relevant experience and strong ideas!

What are your top tips for managing technical folks?

member_72999122About the guest blogger: Thayer Meicler is the co-founder and CEO of SaleSorter, an app that displays real-time in-store sale information in your local area. Before SaleSorter, Thayer worked at American Express, where she most recently served as a Senior Manager of Risk Management for Hong Kong and Thailand. She has an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Photo credit: Marta Manso via Flickr