A CEO and CTO’s Guide to Effective Management

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Why are metrics in technology teams sparking conversations lately? Because every CEO and CTO knows that understanding the results gained from the investment in Technology and R&D is critical to success, especially in today’s economic climate. The numbers can be a game changer, but it’s not just about the numbers; it’s about the story behind them.

The most recent controversy was sparked when McKinsey published their recent article: Yes, you can measure software developer productivity. The backlash from the technology community was quick and fervent. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was. Maybe the tech community decided it was high stakes because….McKinsey?…and CEOs listen?

As a CEO, what metrics is your CTO tracking to measure performance? As a CTO, how do you objectively communicate the story of your team’s performance now and over time?

Here’s the truth…there’s a lot right in that article and a lot wrong. The backlash I’ve seen makes some very good points but also manages to miss many important points. There are problems with their approach, but there needs to be a better alternative to being in the dark about your Technology team’s productivity. The ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ emoji and “trust me” aren’t viable answers. Your peers, your investors, and your team deserve better. Luckily, there is a better approach.

I’ve implemented metrics and transparency programs and transformed the conversation around technology performance at places I’ve worked, leading to radically improved results and impact for my teams. This is a topic I’ve been focused on for five years or so, and I’ve learned a lot in the process.

Most importantly, measuring the effectiveness and impact of your technology team is not only possible but essential. If you are a CEO, you should be discussing system- and team-level metrics with your CTO and know what metrics they are tracking at the individual level. If you are a CTO, you owe it to your peers to be as objective and transparent as they are. You owe it to them to help them understand how your team is performing in an absolute sense and how your team’s performance is trending over time. You owe them a story about why the performance is what it is and what to expect going forward.

To be most effective, your technology leadership team should seek to be data-informed, not data-driven. This is true at the team level but critical at the individual level. The data should drive a conversation internally. The data should always come with a story and explanation when shared externally. The data is the start, not the end.

Used to inform rather than decide, individual-level developer metrics can uncover trends and lead to valuable conversations between leaders and individual contributors. As a leader, you should have a good sense of who on your team is doing well and who is struggling on a week-to-week basis. Data confirming or refuting that sense is valuable in driving the conversations into root causes and possible adjustments. There shouldn’t be a direct line between these metrics and performance reviews, raises, bonuses, or terminations. There shouldn’t be leaderboards, and there shouldn’t be comparisons between teams or individuals. It’s a team sport, but every team plays a different game to some extent, and every position on the team is unique to a great extent.

We showed every developer their individual metrics and how they compared to their team’s average. Several incredibly valuable findings came out of the process. We found teams where one senior-level person was the defacto reviewer, and every change waited for their approval. Incredibly slow, a terrible bottleneck, and a missed opportunity for others to learn, grow, and take on more responsibility. Even better, it’s an easy fix. We also found that our folks from underrepresented minorities could finally see, in cold, hard numbers, that their imposture syndrome wasn’t warranted, and many were among our top performers. I wouldn’t trade those results for the world.

People using metrics poorly can cause incredible damage. In the right hands, with the right mindset, metrics can be transformative for an organization. I’ve done it.

What metrics are you using to measure technology team performance? How have they changed how you manage your team? How have they changed your processes?

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