software development team

The essential guide to building a large development team in a short timeframe

date: 5 November 2019
reading time: 8 min

Building a large development team is definitely no walk in the park. Why? Because a team is more than just a bunch of random people. It’s a group of specialists who work well together and are all clear on their roles and responsibilities.

Sounds simple, but creating a big team that actually manages to operate like a well-oiled machine is a challenging task — even for experienced managers. And the bigger the team you want to build, the more complicated it is to set up in a short amount of time.

Future Processing – case study

In the beginning – 3,5 years ago – my development team at Future Processing was just a small bunch of 3 people, that gradually expanded to 9. Then, within a span of only 8 months, we grew to 25 team members, including two leaders as one definitely wasn’t enough. This was quite a challenge, especially since every time there was a new addition to the team, we all had to go through every stage of the team-building and development process again. What a ride! At our peak, there were nearly 40 people, each with different areas of expertise and years of experience.

Now, we have all our professional positions covered, from developers and designers to product owners and project managers. We can easily scale up and down, according to project needs and requirements. Team members with years of experience and vast knowledge cooperate with newbies who are just learning, also taking care of their onboarding process, according to their areas of specialisation. Everyone knows who’s responsible for what, and it’s been like this for a while now.

But how was it at the very beginning? And what are the real challenges facing those who are thinking about building a development team? Let’s have a look.

Challenges to be faced

The problems generally pertain to three different but intersecting areas: people, management and the work environment.

People

  • Hard and soft skills
    You need to find people who are not only specialists in specific areas but who also have some universal social skills, to ensure smooth cooperation.
  • Roles and responsibilities
    A clear allocation of responsibilities and labour that is meaningful and comprehensible to every team member is super important, yet harder to achieve than may be expected.
  • Teamwork and engagement
    It can also be a challenge to get the team to work together and towards mutual success while maintaining good levels of engagement and motivation

Future Processing – case study

For us, the “people” challenge was the most difficult, as we needed to hire a number of professionals specialised in quite a narrow field of IT, i.e. the node.JS framework. The supply of people with this type of expertise profile is pretty low, especially since we also wanted them to have good communication skills, which made our mission even more difficult. How did we deal with this situation? We decided to hire people who — in our opinion — would be the best fit for the team (even if they meet only one of our requirements), and then we spent a lot of time training them and working on their weak points.

Management

  • Leadership
    Management styles and selected methodologies can be decisive factors in the team-building process as poor leadership may hold a team back, create confusion, and bring the entire project to failure.
  • Communication
    Good communication largely depends on the leaders – their openness, honesty and ability to work with different characters and get them to work well with one another.
  • Conflicts
    The more people you have on your team, the more potential conflicts may emerge along the way. Handling them is one of the hardest management tasks.
  • Evaluation
    Employee evaluation is also challenging, as every piece of criticism should be constructive, while all weaknesses and vulnerabilities have to be addressed in order to be mitigated.

Future Processing – case study

Our team is made up of many individuals of strong character, which can be difficult to manage; we all had to learn how to cooperate with one another. Even today, whenever a new person joins the team, we need to find just the right place for them in our small ecosystem, in order to ensure flawless collaboration. Sometimes things can get pretty tense between teammates, and sometimes everything runs smoothly, but there’s always something to work on and improve.

Work environment

  • Infrastructure
    There are also some technical details that need to be taken care of whenever you build a team, such as preparing proper workspaces and providing professional tools for collaboration and communication, or giving access to crucial data.
  • Training
    Your focus on constant learning and improvement is absolutely necessary and should be reflected in, for example, employee training sessions or participation in industry conferences or hackathons.
  • Atmosphere
    The team-building process is only effective in an atmosphere of openness and support among everyone, regardless of their place in the hierarchy.

Now that you are familiar with the most common challenges that often occur when building a development team, it’s time to show you how to overcome them and make your project a success.

Building a development team: a step-by-step guide

Bruce Tuckman identified the 5 main stages of the team-building process: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning. However, I will focus on the first three phases only, as they are the most important in the very beginning.

5 steps of the forming stage

  1. Define your needs: team size, goals, detailed project requirements.
  2. Establish your values and principles of cooperation.
  3. Create a proper work environment.
  4. Select the right specialists, e.g. juniors + seniors + leader (project manager/scrum master).
  5. Introduce your chosen management methodology.

Future Processing – case study

As I mentioned earlier, our team grew significantly in a span of just 8 months, and every time a newcomer joined us, we repeated all of the team-building stages over and over again. But once our team became more or less fixed, we ran a workshop to lay down the main principles of teamwork. We developed a written contract containing a set of rules for the cooperation, communication and knowledge transfer processes. Every team member had to sign it, and every newbie has to do the same today.

5 steps of the storming stage

  1. Have leaders get to know their team members better: their individual skills, differences and personalities.
  2. Assign tasks in accordance to individual predispositions.
  3. Identify obstacles and find ways to overcome them.
  4. Address potential conflicts between team members and deal with them constructively.
  5. Be flexible and ready to adjust.

Future Processing – case study

When people started feeling more confident in their roles, the division of responsibilities according to individual predispositions and skills presented itself naturally. We focused more on handling problems that, previously, did not seem to have any clear cut solutions. Minor conflicts were resolved between team members, and only major ones required consultation with team leaders.

5 steps of the norming stage

  1. Establish some sort of consensus.
  2. Work within certain procedures in order to let everyone know what to expect.
  3. Focus on cooperation and collaboration, following the rules of your selected management methodology.
  4. Strive to improve overall performance.
  5. Track your progress.

Future Processing – case study

The transition to this phase was so smooth and natural, that it was virtually unnoticeable. Now, we follow clear and simple rules — rules that everyone knows, comprehends and respects. As leaders, we collect as much data as possible to track our progress and improve our work. Our communication skills are also on an excellent level – both among team members, and between us and our client. We are also proud of our flawless and efficient onboarding process, where every new team member receives a massive amount of support and is able to quickly learn how we work.

Of course, while going through all of these stages, there are some other things you shouldn’t forget about, as they can make your cooperation more pleasant, less stressful, and also much more enjoyable — such as:

  • organising team-building activities,
  • celebrating small wins,
  • always encouraging open communication that builds trust.

Benefits of using this approach

One of the main benefits of using this approach is being able to establish a well-functioning development team – in a relatively short amount of time and while working as a whole. This also includes:

  • increased work efficiency,
  • greater employee satisfaction and motivation,
  • less frustration,
  • higher likelihood of project success.

There is also one more thing that sounds promising for the entire company: a well-organised development team is far more likely to carry out many more successful projects, together.

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