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Managing a Software Engineering Team Through Turbulent Times

Insights from Costas Basdekis Experienced leader and software engineering manager

In the constantly evolving landscape of technology, managing a Software Engineering team demands a resilient approach, especially during turbulent times. Drawing insights from the expertise of Costas Basdekis, an experienced Engineering Manager in weathering the storms of today’s industry, this article navigates the complexities and challenges inherent in steering an engineering team through turbulent times. As disruptive forces reshape the technological horizon, the strategies and insights shared here offer a guiding light for fellow managers striving to lead their teams with agility, empathy, and unwavering determination.

Introducing Costas Basdekis, a professional well-versed in the software industry with over a decade of experience. “Being already an avid hobbyist and studying it, I entered as a Software Engineer,” Costas reflects, describing his early immersion in the field. As he progressed, he naturally gravitated towards leadership and management positions, “filling team gaps” that led to these transitions more permanently. A pivotal realisation in his journey was recognising that software development transcends mere system building; it revolves around “understanding the customers’ and users’ needs and delivering working solutions.” This core belief has consistently guided his strategic planning and performance across the various roles he has undertaken.


Lessons from Experience

Reflecting on past challenges, Costas underlines the significance of first acknowledging and accepting a team’s struggle: “The first step is, surprisingly, realising and accepting that your team is going through a difficult time.” He highlights the psychological barriers that often hinder this acknowledgement, such as embarrassment or stress, highlighting the importance of fostering a culture of psychological safety within the team.

Once this initial hurdle is surpassed, Costas notes that subsequent steps become more manageable, providing several options like taking temporary shortcuts, adjusting scope, or even pivoting the project entirely.

However, he is clear that such decisions necessitate collaboration between the technical and product teams and alignment with broader business objectives. Drawing from experience, Costas stresses the importance of early and transparent communication with both internal and external stakeholders: “A big lesson in my experience was that internal and external stakeholders are very understanding when something doesn’t go in the right direction if they are informed and consulted at the earliest stages.” He contrasts this with the adverse reaction when stakeholders are only apprised of problems at the eleventh hour, highlighting the value of proactive communication in managing challenging periods effectively.


Leadership Approach

Costas emphasises the significance of maintaining consistency in communication and environment during both smooth and challenging periods. “Offering psychological safety to my team members and reports, as well as being open about the difficulties I face at these periods makes a big difference in allowing everyone to band together and face the challenge”, he shares.

He underscores the importance of stability in the human aspect while advocating for adaptability and flexibility in technical decision-making. According to Costas, “reevaluating technical decisions, roadmap, and even business objectives” is crucial during turbulent phases to avoid wasteful efforts and potential failure. He warns against persistently marching against an uphill battle without exploring alternative, potentially more efficient routes.


Communication Management

Addressing communication during turbulent phases, Costas stresses the need for openness without inducing unnecessary panic. He promotes maintaining transparency to uphold trust and alignment within the team. “Being open about the difficulties I face at these periods allows everyone to band together and face the challenge”, he encourages. Costas believes that this approach fosters an environment where team members feel safe to discuss their own concerns and collaborate on solutions.


Motivational Strategies

Costas, reflecting on managing Software Engineering teams during difficult phases, champions intrinsic motivation as the linchpin for success: “Intrinsic motivation is the main force that leads to good and great results.” Acknowledging the challenges posed by shifting targets and business hurdles, Costas advocates for redirecting the team’s focus toward overarching business outcomes instead of fixating solely on technical projects. “Focusing on the bottom line and business outcomes is the best way to motivate them towards meaningful achievements.” This approach, he contends, fosters a shared understanding of decision-making processes and constraints, minimising the need for punitive measures. “Giving them enough autonomy within those constraints diminishes the necessity for the proverbial ‘stick’.”


Balancing Skill Development

Costas draws a parallel between managing a team and tending to a complex machine while acknowledging the team’s organic nature: “In some aspects, a team is like a machine, like a car or an aeroplane, and needs good fuel, good inputs, and continuous monitoring and maintenance.” However, he also underscores the team’s dynamic and evolving character, likening it to a garden or a lake where people move in, move on, and grow.

For this reason, Costas advocates for regular and ongoing skill development as a fundamental practice, emphasising that it should not be treated as a sporadic event tied to an allocated education budget. “Continued skill development and maintenance should be seen as a regular, every-week activity” he asserts, highlighting the importance of consistently honing skills rather than viewing it as a one-time effort.

He promotes the idea of rotating team members between duties, recognising it as a strategy to help individuals maintain existing skills, acquire new ones, and ensure redundancy in abilities. Costas believes this approach not only uncovers gaps in understanding or processes but also prepares team members for enhanced performance, potential promotions, and the ability to fill gaps resulting from such advancements within the team structure.


Establishing Support Systems

Amidst the challenges of managing a Software Engineering team in challenging periods, Costas highlights the pivotal role of leadership in fostering a supportive environment. He underscores that effective leadership lays the groundwork for a culture that thrives even in adversity: “The first step is for the leader to give clear messages… and be willing to help whenever you can.” Costas asserts that these actions not only set the tone for the team’s culture but also establish a benchmark for behaviour within the wider organisation.

Advocating for consistent feedback in individual and group settings, he views this as a mechanism to shape behaviour and culture over time. When implemented effectively, Costas believes this approach nurtures trust among team members, fostering a culture where seeking and providing support to colleagues becomes second nature, a critical asset in navigating turbulent times within a Software Engineering team.