Software Engineer Job Satisfaction: A Leadership Guide
Posted by Ben Rogojan on January 27, 2020
Table of contents
Leading a team of software engineers is not just about getting projects finished and code deployed. Software engineering managers or CTO's also need to focus on helping their developers feel satisfied in their work.
Ensuring software projects are finished while at the same time managing the growth and software engineer job satisfaction is a delicate balance. It can be tempting for managers to micro-manage every detail and un-empathetically demand deadlines to be met.
This can lead to burned out and unsatisfied engineers who become stressed, spiteful and start looking for other jobs.
In order to avoid this, managers need to help grow their employees’ skill sets and confidence. Part of job satisfaction is knowing that you are valued and capable of making decisions without the need of an all-seeing eye. This requires managers to trust and delegate tasks to their teams and help unblock work.
Providing a clear path forward that allows the engineers the ability to do what they do best while working on projects that have value helps ensure that the engineers are less likely to have a reason to be unsatisfied. In the end, managers that are trusting, empathetic but also driven on helping their engineers can provide value and increase job satisfaction.
Allow Your Team To Make Choices But Don’t Let Them Go The Wrong Way
Giving autonomy is great. It allows your team members to challenge themselves and grow in confidence. Instead of relying on some other person to tell them how to write every line or how to run every meeting, it is important to provide enough space that the engineers can think for themselves. When there is too much process and micro-management, it can just lead to people switching off and not applying themselves.
On the flip side, there are times as a manager or leader that you will see that from a big picture perspective, things are going the wrong way. Not issues like, someone has a bracket on the wrong line kind of issues (although they should be consistent), but issues like if you design it that way we will have to redo all the code in a few months or maybe the engineer is doing work that provides no value.
If you think an engineer is going the wrong way, then you should try to first understand why. There could be a good reason for their decisions, or perhaps they have misunderstood the goal of their current project. But even in these cases, immediately assuming the engineer is wrong might not be the best route.
Taking away people’s confidence probably won’t improve their performance. Instead, they will probably just become more reliant on you to help them make sure they are going the correct way. That is why you want to develop people who feel confident in making their own choices.
Sometimes engineers can get so stuck in the technical details. It can be hard to see the big picture and what is holding them back when they are also dealing with low-level technical issues.
This can lead to engineers getting blocked and it can be hard for them to see how to get unblocked. Even if it seems simple to you as a manager, perhaps a quick call or message to another team, it might be near impossible for the rest of the team that is handling the technical aspects of the project. So coming in and gracefully unblocking the team, or providing the tools to unblock themselves is a great way to ensure your team stays motivated and continues moving forward.
This is actually very important when it comes to leading software teams. At the end of the day, roadblocks can stop projects for weeks, maybe even months, if not solved right away. This can then lead to teams being pulled into other projects or being forced to recall what work they were doing months prior. In turn, just further impeding your team’s impact and their job satisfaction.
Provide Learning Challenges And Coaching
One of the harder things to provide engineers after an engineer has a decade of experience is growth opportunities. Not all engineers want to keep learning, and in some cases prove more difficult. This can be a result of there is a lot of software work that is maintenance and/or very focused work. Teams are often very focused on a specific set of tasks. Perhaps infrastructure, an API that manages a specific type of interaction or an automation framework. This can make a software engineer feel stuck.
In the end, most of the engineer’s work might just be updating small bits of code here and there and just fixing the occasional bug, depending on the team, size of the software, and the age of the software.
This can become boring for some engineers who got into software because they desired to continue learning.
The question here becomes how does one balance learning which often doesn’t provide as high of productivity with actual work. The answer is never easy here.
You can provide the option for your workers to take courses but this might not be sufficient if you then don’t provide somewhere they can apply their skills. At the end of the day, in order to provide an opportunity to learn you need to provide new real work challenges. This could mean looking for other teams your employee might do well on, looking for projects from other teams that don’t have enough resources or allowing your team to take on a small side project (so long as it doesn’t take away from their actual work).
In addition, you might look into coaches to help grow your team’s skills outside of engineering. Not all engineers want to stay engineers. So if you have team members who show an interest in managing, consider providing options for learning in that area. This could be coaching or taking on small initiatives, etc.
The truth is, not every engineer is the same. So creating a single path for your software engineer job satisfaction is not possible. Instead, it is important to figure out where each engineer wants to end up and what you can do to get them there.
Take Time To Know Each Team Member
At the end of the day, all of your engineers are people. They have feelings and external stresses that will occasionally impact work. So taking a moment to acknowledge them outside of merely being an employee can help them feel like more than just a cog in a big machine.
We are not saying you need to know each engineer's favorite color. In fact, probably, some of them just want to go to work and focus on their work and go home.
But that is part of taking the time to know each engineer. Some engineers enjoy talking through the work they are doing and want a sounding board for a few minutes, others just want silence. Having the occasional 1:1 to just treat your teammates as human beings where they can speak their mind cordially, can provide a lot of insight.
Sometimes you will learn about some external or internal stress that you as a manager might be able to relieve. Perhaps one of your engineers has a new dog and needs to come in later a few days a week, or maybe one of your teammates is having a hard time understanding a specific benefit but doesn’t feel comfortable asking out in public. Even being able to alleviate small stresses can have a big impact.
Delegation And Trust
Many leaders and managers of tech teams are themselves, ex-software developers. This means they will know how to configure and deploy applications and write code themselves.
That can make it tempting to take on tasks you don’t feel comfortable allowing the rest of your team to take on. However, often as a manager, you will need to spend a lot more of your time making sure your team is growing, projects are moving and your team is aligned with the rest of the company.
So not only does taking on too many technical tasks (taking on the occasional task is actually good) limit your time to manage, but it can also signal a lack of trust. This is often one of the harder things managers recently transitioning from engineers have. However, in order for engineers to feel satisfied with their jobs, they need to feel confident in their jobs. If they feel like their manager is constantly making them look bad or doesn’t trust them to perform a task they will more than likely respond negatively. So in order to avoid this, you need to trust your team is capable of the technical work and let go of things that you feel they are incapable of doing your way.
Balancing both the technical aspects as well as the people aspects can be a fine balance as a manager. However, if you want to keep your engineers happy with your work then you will have to do it. Only focusing on the technical aspects will often lead to engineers feeling like they are just a cog in a big machine so finding out what you can do to provide increased job satisfaction will be key. This means providing your engineers space to make their own decisions, getting to know your teammates and getting to know what drives them.
If you as a leader can show that you also care about your team and not just your project, it can play a major role in your team's job satisfaction. There is no cut and dry way as every team and person is different. So do take the time to figure out what you as a manager can do to help your team!
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Ben works as a data scientist and technology consultant helping companies design, develop custom software as well as make good decisions on their future tech strategies. He enjoys writing and teaching others about all forms of technology wether it be about automation and machine learning models or CMSs.