Even in businesses with a positive culture, a strong desire for business and engineers to understand one other does not always exist. In terms of frame of reference, language, and expectations, they are worlds apart.
The vice president of engineering, who is both executive and part developer, is the only person who lives in both worlds and thus has the ability to translate between them. The finest of them see it as an important element of their day-to-day duties and one of the most effective strategies to help their organization succeed.
Knowing how to speak both languages isn’t enough to be an excellent translator. Here are four tactics that will assist any software development leader in converting development work into business value.
1. Connect development metrics with the overall goals of the business
The quantity of marketing qualified leads and sales qualified leads are displayed on dashboards for the vice president of marketing. Reports from the vice president of sales reveal how many deals are in each stage of the sales cycle. Furthermore, the vice president of customer success has a platform that displays customer engagement and renewal analytics.
Dashboards should be available to great vice presidents of engineering as well. Instead of focusing on outputs or trailing indicators like how many lines of code the team created or how many bugs were detected, the focus should be on leading indicators that monitor the quality of the process.
You may create a clear connection between development key performance indicators (KPIs) and the broader business goals using this information. For example, if you want to estimate how quickly you’ll ship new value to consumers, you can use cycle time, and if you want to anticipate how satisfied customers will be with the quality of the product, you can use pull request review coverage and review depth to illustrate the quality of the process.
Bringing regular KPIs to your weekly staff meeting will help transform the development process from a mystery to a well-understood business function.
2. Teach software development forecasting to your executive team
The most typical question a vice president of engineering is asked is about the release date of a new feature. This appears to be a reasonable and straightforward question to pose. But take a closer look. “Hey, are we going to hit our number this quarter?” the CEO no longer asks the vice president of sales, because the answer can be determined by looking at the revenue dashboard and seeing:
- The remaining days of the quarter
- The number of transactions and income that have already been closed, as well as the number of deals that are still open, and the overall contract value
- The total number of deals open at each stage of the sales cycle.
They can then compare this information to past quarters to determine whether they are on track, ahead of schedule, or behind schedule. Part of the duty of engineering vice presidents is to teach the CEO and other business leaders to view their department in the same light.
Data-driven intuition (yes, this is a thing; just read Malcom Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking) will grow over time among the CEO’s and vice president’s peers. They’ll be able to tell if you’re currently on a hitting, missing, or overachieving path. So, rather than asking, “Do we think we’ll make our deadline?” they’ll inquire, “It appears that you’re running a little behind schedule compared to the previous week/iteration.” What can I do to assist you?”
They can have faith that the vice president of engineering and the dev team leads would move resources to control when there are too many high-risk items open that build additional technical debt, rather than saying, “Customer ABC really wants the new feature to work, so no defects this time.”
That is the goal: to help the CEO and other executives understand how they see their business so they can become more involved and start assessing the software development process rather than just the end result.
3. Build cross-team relationships and empathy through data
Teaching someone to speak a new language takes a long time. Furthermore, if the language is not used in real life on a daily basis, people will lose the ability over time. The best vice presidents of engineering understand that this cannot be allowed to happen. It is vital for them to develop strong ties with their peers in order to establish a rapport that consistently reinforces the message.
When stakeholders simply want to know about KPIs like feature delivery deadlines or defects, exceptional engineering leaders show them how to look at software development in a new light. They can help company management understand why developers don’t respond to emails quickly by quantifying the impact of altering dev team priorities at the last minute. Understanding what inspires teams and what KPIs they care about most is critical to being an effective partner.
They also look at other leading indications like pull request pickup time and review time to see if there are any bottlenecks that could hinder the team’s current sprint and long-term performance.
They ensure that the entire team talks in a consistent language about what they do by utilizing uniform metrics to measure the dev team’s workflow. This is the first step toward being able to communicate with the rest of the company in a common language. It is critical for engineering leaders to communicate with their teams about business functions.
The ability to see things from the customer’s point of view and in the larger picture is a crucial skill for engineers to master.
4. Help teams gain skills with a shared lexicon, connect the dots between code and customers
The top vice presidents of engineering assist teams by establishing a shared language:
- The average time it takes a sales professional to close a contract is referred to as the sales cycle time.
- The average engineering cycle time is the time it takes a developer to deliver a work item.
- Deals that are high-risk for the company are those that may not close.
- The company’s high-risk branches are significant work items that may not be completed.
Many of these terms are interchangeable, which helps engineers understand how the rest of the company thinks about their day-to-day work.
Great engineers also make straightforward links between code and clients. Customers should be directly contacted by developers. If it sounds intimidating to company leaders, imagine relying on a developer to design a product for someone the developer doesn’t comprehend.
Great vice presidents of engineering may, at the very least, provide opportunities for the team to learn how customers use the product they’re developing.
Bridge the divide
When vice presidents of engineering grasp this translation, their teams provide more value to customers, and the firm as a whole thinks differently. The executive team acquires confidence that software development forecasting is viable, or at the very least can be as accurate as projecting marketing leads or sales income.
The executive team is curious about the software development process and metrics, and they are aware of the repercussions and trade-offs associated with their requests. Developers have the impression that they work for someone who actually cares about them. “Our engineering team really gets it,” the company as a whole believes.
Finding these critical measures and understanding how to demonstrate team, not individual, performance is the first step in communicating engineering to executives.
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