4 Ways to Coach Your Software Team for Success

No one advances and develops their career on their own. Along the way, they have help and guidance from experienced colleagues, mentors, and leaders.

Now that you’ve risen through the ranks, you’ve found yourself in a position where you get to return the favor. You’ve got a team of software engineers who need more than a supervisor or a taskmaster. They need a coach, someone who can provide guidance and support their learning process.

While coaching is part of most managerial roles, software teams operate a little differently. Your group works on multiple projects, constantly producing code, testing it, and making adjustments based on feedback. Thinking through details, tracking all the moving parts, and working well with others are what lead groups to great achievements. These dynamics often require a unique training approach. Here are four ways to develop a talented software team.

1. Focus on Asking Questions

Parents fall into the trap of trying to rescue their children when they experience difficulties or hit roadblocks. Managers of employees in technical roles can be guilty of the same habit. Although it’s tempting and sometimes easier to take over, it doesn’t help your team learn. Instead, it teaches them to be dependent on you and doesn’t empower them to think through a problem.

Rather than spelling out solutions, try reframing your feedback as questions. This approach is known as the Socratic method, and it’s designed to help develop critical thinking skills. By asking software developers what they’ve tried before they approached you for help, you’ll set a different conversation in motion. While you’ll still be guiding engineers toward a solution, you won’t come across as a traditional command-and-control leader.

Your developers will sometimes learn that they do have the knowledge and skills to help themselves. Other times, they’ll see they have the ability to assess gaps in their expertise and determine how they can get assistance. Maybe that’s through a veteran on the team, you, or a group knowledge base. Employees may also realize they want to take a course or be mentored by a more experienced colleague.

2. Design Individual Learning Plans

Most organizations and have standard onboarding and training procedures. But the one-size-fits-all approach misses the opportunity to put a software developer’s professional development into their hands. Although you shouldn’t ditch the universal basics altogether, it’s worthwhile to ask engineers what they want to learn.

Individual development plans are something each team member can design with your assistance and feedback. New team members may need some time to get acclimated before they can formulate a plan. However, don’t be surprised if some come in with a list of career goals on Day One. Encourage your new hires to document and communicate what they hope to accomplish or learn.

As a team leader, consider holding entry interviews with individual team members. The purpose of entry interviews is to get employees talking about what they enjoy working on. These sessions help team members identify issues with processes and tools and express what motivates them. You’ll also learn how you can best support the overall team and each member of it. Entry interviews are traditionally designed for new hires, but you can tweak the questions for seasoned employees.

3. Provide Stretch Assignments and Mentoring Opportunities

After developers cut their teeth during their first year on the job, try to offer stretch assignments or projects. You can assign these based on your assessment of the person’s strengths and development goals. By now, you should also have an idea of ‚Äč‚Äčtheir interests and feedback about their work from the team.

You don’t want to just spring a new stretch assignment on someone, however. Get their input first and ask whether it’s something they want to handle. Find out what resources and support they think they’ll need as they work through the assignment. Be ready to provide those resources, including mentors within the department or organization. And be willing to modify the assignment if the person wants to tackle the challenge more cautiously.

Vets on the team also need stretch assignments to prevent boredom and disengagement. This could include becoming a mentor to new hires during onboarding or their first year. Mentoring opportunities could also include teaching specialized knowledge and providing guidance on pieces of a project. As with newer members of the team, present professional development opportunities to seasoned vets as both voluntary and open to modification.

4. Facilitate Project Collaboration and Goal Setting

Your job as a leader is to figure out how to get your team in sync. Providing an overall vision or direction for projects aligns each employee with a shared purpose. Every person has individual, important tasks to complete. But it’s not enough to get them done and move on to the next assignment. Team members need to see how they impact the project as a whole and their colleagues’ work.

Outlining the details and the big picture is a breeze with project management software and collaboration tools. Of course, you still need to communicate goals and expectations in kickoff and check-in meetings. However, management and collaboration solutions let everyone take in the project’s scope and measure progress.

Engineers can work on milestones together in real-time or exchange feedback when they’re available. You’ll be able to step in to provide suggestions on individual and group contributions. And as project needs shift, the team can raise questions, share ideas, and make adjustments in a centralized place.

Conclusion

Coaching is one of the more difficult responsibilities you have as a manager. Conventional ideas about leadership sometimes get in the way, and team members have individual needs and ambitions. Groups of software developers, in particular, require distinctive coaching methods because their work can become overly segmented. But by supporting and encouraging collaborative and individual progress, you’ll move your team toward group success.

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