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Building a High Performing Engineering Team: What’s the Secret Sauce

In Business and Leadership by Shelly Kramer

Converge.Building a High Performing Engineering Team_featimage

In this episode of Converge Tech Talk (also shared as part of the Futurum Tech Webcast, Interview Series), I was thrilled to host Josh Teitelman, VP of Customer Experience at Allstacks and John Steinmetz, CTO of Convo Communications for a conversation about building a high performing engineering team, and what the secret sauce is that makes that goal a reality.

First a little bit about Convo Communications. Convo, is a deaf-owned company that is all about connecting humans. And it’s safe to say that their understanding of human connection is quite a bit different than the norm. At Convo, they know that in a rapidly-advancing tech world, technology is often developed on the basis of spoken language. Convo offers a different perspective — and works with clients to ensure that universal communications that just feel right is the end deliverable.

Allstacks is a leading predictive forecasting and risk management solution for software development. By leveraging AI and machine learning to integrate data across Product, PMO, Development, and QA teams, Allstacks can provide a comprehensive view of software initiatives throughout any organization. Aligning teams on outcomes that matter is what they’re most passionate about.

Our conversation today revolved around:

  • John spoke about leading an engineering team in a pandemic, both from a personal standpoint as it relates to Convo, as well as the impact on their customers;
  • Some of the biggest challenges that organizations faced as they pivoted to WFH initiatives in order to keep employees safe;
  • Josh talked a little about how Allstacks’ users responded to the pandemic and the challenges their team saw related to WFH initiatives;
  • We discussed the importance of maintaining priority alignment and setting expectations within an engineering team, how difficult that can be, and some thoughts from the trenches on how to do that successfully;
  • Tying engineering goals to overall business goals — and how to do that;

As a final part of the conversation, both John and Josh shared some interesting customer use cases that really brought home for us the value of building high performing engineering teams, how to think about making that a reality within your organization, and how to think about the technology best suited to help you achieve those goals. In this conversation, it’s clear that Allstacks has played a significant role in helping Convo Communications reach their goals — and if building a high performing engineering team is on your radar screen, I can promise that it’s definitely a conversation worth checking out.

View the video here:

Or the audio here:


Shelly Kramer: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Converge TechTalk. I’m your host, Shelly Kramer, Senior Analyst at Futurum Research and Owner of Broadsuite Media Group. And I’m really excited today because we’re going to have a conversation about building a high-performance engineering team. And I’ve got some amazing guests here today, Josh Teitelman, the VP of Customer Experience at Allstacks, and John Steinmetz, the CTO of Convo Communications. Welcome, gentlemen. Oh, wait a minute, and Ralph Blank, our EIS interpreter. Welcome, Ralph. It’s great to have you as well. Gentlemen, welcome, and happy Friday.

Josh Teitelman: Hello, happy Friday. Thanks.

Shelly Kramer: It’s great to have you. I’m really looking forward to this conversation. So I’ve introduced each of you a tiny bit, but let me go… Josh, go ahead and tell us a little bit about yourself, and about what you do at Allstacks, and about Allstacks in general.

Josh Teitelman: Yeah, so again, Josh Teitelman. I run our customer experience here at Allstacks. All stacks in general, it’s a software analytics and intelligence tool. And once you deploy it across the enterprise and plug it into all your different development tools that you’re using, you now have a unified system of intelligence that allows product and engineering teams to better align on their people, process and outcomes.

Shelly Kramer: Awesome. I think that perfectly encapsulates it. John, talk to us a little bit about you and Convo Communications.

John Steinmetz: Absolutely. My name is John Steinmetz, CTO over at Convo. I’ve been in the world of tech for quite a long time. Convo is a very amazing company. We provide VRS services to the deaf and the hard of hearing. We provide a lot of different applications, and our engineering teams are spread across the world to allow us to have 24-hour coverage of coding, because it’s a non-stop job. And we are one of many companies that have benefited from using data to drive the efficiency and the performance of our engineering teams.

Shelly Kramer: Well, and that’s really the meat of this conversation, the role that data plays in building high-performance engineering teams. And I know that you’re focused a lot on this, so John, tell us a little bit about, what’s it been like leading an engineering team during a pandemic?

John Steinmetz: Yeah, it’s been interesting to watch the evolution of technology and just remote working. It was coming on for a while, I think, and Convo has been ahead of the curve in that capacity with having our teams so remote. But since the pandemic started, we’ve closed down a couple of our main offices in order to provide safety for our team members. And it’s presented new challenges, but the way these things work in technology is, these challenges lead to opportunities. Luckily, we have a lot of data on our infrastructure capturing how our teams are working, things like Allstacks.

And the changing aspect of engineering culture with moving from an in-person team to a remote team, mostly what we lost was the interactions. We lost the ability to interact between two or more team members. We saw an explosion of Zoom, we saw an explosion of video-related technologies in the marketplace that allowed us to continue work. And honestly, in a lot of capacities, we’ve gotten more efficient with just meetings and making sure that the schedules and the structures of all these video and technology components. We can actually track all that through the data that we capture.

So it’s been a challenge. We’ve actually increased in size. The VRS industry is growing during this pandemic. If you think about the two industries that grew the most, one was telecommunications and the other is accessibility, so we actually perform functions in both those spaces. And we’ve brought in a lot of people from the bigger tech space to guide and build our teams. Process has become a tremendous challenge to overcome because when you don’t have people interacting, those processes can break down fairly quickly, so having access to data quickly has really helped us to overcome some of those challenges.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. I used an analogy in a conversation the other day that I feel like the pandemic has taught us a lot, and one of the things… So my team has largely been virtual for two decades, so we’re experts at video communication. None of us are in the same city or on the same time zone, and so this is something that we haven’t had to learn, we’ve already been practicing. But that said, what we’ve learned to do is make more time for just check-ins, calls that have nothing to do with projects or anything else, just, silly, checking-in, maybe a virtual happy hour or something like that, for sort of mental health. I mean, we may be experts at being virtual, but we’re not all experts in being somewhat socially isolated, so I’ve learned to do that.

But I think another analogy is, we don’t know what we don’t know until we know it. And what I mean by that is, we are accustomed to, for instance, going to a grocery store, getting our items, and going to a checkout stand and having a human being check us out. And one of the grocery stores that I’ve been going to has shifted so that they might have… and I usually go at 8:30 in the evening because my kids are in volleyball practice at that time, so that they’ve shifted so that they might have one cashier and they have eight self-checkout lanes. And so, what they’re doing is, they’re teaching consumers to do something differently that we just never thought about before.

So I feel like some of this, and I’ll let you weigh in a little bit on that because you’re a customer experience expert, Josh, but it really is, whether we’re talking about the supermarket, whether we’re talking about business operations, a lot of what we’ve had to learn in the course of the last year is really just how to do things differently, maybe how to let data help us be more efficient, and how to re-examine our processes and just reconstruct those things. So talk a little bit for us, Josh, if you would, in terms of what you’ve seen at Allstacks, how you are seeing your users and your customers respond to the pandemic and adapt.

Josh Teitelman: Yeah, and it’s been very interesting. Last year, we learned a lot. And data, as John mentioned, is very important in making decisions to how teams work and how they ultimately drive value for the businesses. As we entered the pandemic, it was very interesting because you definitely want to… Not everyone is an expert of working remotely, so looking at the people aspect on how did their days change and how were the days lengthened, burnout becomes a question. You have a lot of folks that are isolated on their own, and there’s a lot of people impacts that you can see through the data and when they’re working and doing things in the tools that are connected in the Allstacks. So we learned a lot about how the world shifted at that point.

And then, next is around the process, was throughput or velocity… Did cycle times increase? What were the impacts of those personnel changes and their habits? How did that roll into their processes? So that was the next area we focused on as well. And then lastly, how did that impact the outcomes customers were trying to deliver? So when you have data that can support and help you navigate through this new world, it became very interesting and it helped a lot of our customers get through the initial portions of when the pandemic hit.

And then, you can see throughout the summer and fall, we saw a lot of increased productivity as teams settled in and got used to the new norm, so this year will be another interesting point. As the vaccine rolls out and people start coming back into the office, what changes will we see in the patterns? And it’ll be a very interesting comparison as we look back. We do these quarter over quarter reports that provide KPIs and allow you to compare a few core metrics to last quarter compared to the quarter you just exited. And the Q1 versus Q2 of 2020 was very interesting because that was our COVID report, and it was right smack in the middle where people were making these adjustments.

And then, as you got into the Q3 era and you started looking at Q3 versus Q2, you could see improvements in the process. There was struggles in Q2 with people coming into the new norm, especially in some of these large organizations where everyone was in the office and there really wasn’t a remote workforce, so people had to relearn how to work in these different work settings. So it’s been very interesting so far. Look forward to looking at, and working with our customers as we enter 2021 and start learning from them, how they’re going to adjust back into the office at some point, hopefully this year.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, it really is interesting. I think one of the biggest lessons that we all have learned is the importance of being agile, and adaptable, and just kind of rolling with things. 2020 has very much been a year of operating in the unknown, and like you, we’ve seen clients kind of hit their stride, and all of this is starting to look a lot better, and work a lot more effectively, and that sort of thing.
And it’s interesting because I think many people are anxious to get back to the office, many people are nervous about getting back to the office, although… so it’ll be interesting to see what happens in 2021. Personally, I don’t think we’re going to see a large influx into the office until maybe, at best, the fall of 2021, but we’ll see, we’ll see.

Josh Teitelman: Yeah, we’ll see how that goes, because some of the interesting trends when people were working is, they were working when they were commuting, and they didn’t have that opportunity. They had an opportunity in the afternoon when the kids got out to take a break, and then they had the opportunity to work a little later. So it will be interesting to look at the trends as it shifts again.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah. I happen to be in a pretty enviable position. As I said, I’m an expert at working from home and leading remote teams, and I’ve done it for so long, it just is second nature. I have 14-year-old twin daughters who are freshmen in high school, and so hybrid learning, virtual learning, anything they have to do, they’re just on it. Not at all to make a generalization, but many times, girls are better students sometimes, more focused than boys might be, and so it’s been a non-issue for me. But I know many, many people for whom trying to juggle work, and little ones at home, and learning online, it’s been a lot, it’s been a lot.

So for everybody, for men and women, and my husband and I actually… Right before we started this recording, he was out and he pulled in the driveway. My office backs up to our driveway, and so I’m looking out and I see my car pull up, and my dogs are in here, and so they’re getting ready to bark. And I had to excuse myself from our pre-production and go tell him, “Hey, get out of here. I’m doing something important.” So I think a lot of us, we’ve all had to navigate that these last few months, and we’re getting pretty good at it. So let’s talk a little bit about alignment, and how to keep priorities aligned, and how to set expectations within an engineering team. John, how do you do that? What’s your secret?

John Steinmetz: Patience, number one. Finding the right tools is key. At Convo, we’ve been focused on benchmarking our first quarter of this year, our last quarter of last year… or, I’m sorry, 2020. Our last quarter in 2019 and our first quarter in 2020 were focused on just understanding what the natures of the problems were, and how far they go, and how deep they go, understanding that we do have remote teams. We just wanted to put something in place that we can actually look at how our teams are functioning today with no interaction, with no changes made, just to see which levers worked, which ones didn’t.

What a lot of people learn about the deaf community is, the ingenuity of the deaf community is amazing. It’s the, get it done under any circumstance. That is a very highly sought after trait in a lot of the tech world, and we are trying our best to give the supports to our teams, to understand the nature of their problems. So that was part of the benchmarking process that we’ve done.

Another aspect to this, that I think is critical, is communication. Do we have the right tools to communicate, understanding how the tools we’re currently using are effecting… I hate to get too tactical, but how many pushes people do in a day. And by a push, I mean, how many of the things we do on a daily basis actually make it to in front of a business user. That’s business value. And we were finding that we just didn’t provide a whole lot of business value. Until we had the tools in place to recognize where those barriers were, we couldn’t, with any confidence, put any kind of solutions in place that actually made that worth it.

And in 2020 and 2021, Convo is undergoing a huge digital transformation. We are looking at this from two perspectives. We are looking at this from development perspective, of course, but also our employees. What do our employees need so that they don’t need people to be involved in everything? We’re undergoing a major identity management push. We’re undergoing major digital transformations that, in my role as CTO, I kind of sit on top of tech, product, engineering, IT and data. Those are all my purviews at Convo, and it’s a really good thing that all of those aspects can be centralized with one solution, or not one specific solution, but one overarching process that we’re doing.

Shelly Kramer: Well, I think that’s a perfect lead in to the next part of our conversation. So Josh, talk a little bit about Allstacks and how the Allstacks solution helps do some of the things that John has talked with us a little bit about just now.

Josh Teitelman: Yeah, so as mentioned, it’s an intelligence platform that helps product and engineering teams align around their people, their processes, and their outcomes. By exposing and understanding how data is currently, and helping John with those benchmarks, it helped him understand personnel, how to improve there, what processes need to change, and ultimately, how do we deliver better on our commitments?

Allstacks, as it continues to mature and develop, we will look to be, as John mentioned, that digital transformation operating system that not only aligns product and the engineering teams, but also aligns other areas of the business with the business value that engineering is trying to deliver. So by having that all connected, it’s helped come along this journey with John. And we’ve seen Convo, over the past 14 months we’ve been working with them, make huge improvements with John’s leadership there, so it’s been a great exercise and it’s been fantastic to watch, just from a customer standpoint.

Shelly Kramer: From a senior leadership standpoint, John, I’m always curious about this, do you ever have a challenge of actually tying engineering goals to overall business goals? Do you have to elbow in for a seat at those strategy discussions, or are you just innately a part of that conversation? And do senior leadership at Convo understand the important role that engineering goals play here?

John Steinmetz: Oh, absolutely. I’m part of the process. This digital transformation that we’re undergoing, I kind of serve a hybrid role at Convo. We don’t have a CIO, so I am actually the CIO, kind of, of sorts. So they look to tech to really organize the rest of the business. We provide the tools and services. I’m involved in a lot of those decisions.

I’m also an empowering leader, so my individual VPs and directors have a seat at the table to bring in what they are seeing through systems like Allstacks and say, “Hey, if we did this, this would affect us this way.” I’m getting them to talk more about outcomes. That is that, when you have a very inexperienced team, a lot of times, they will start with a feeling or a gut.

And what the reality is, once you get experience, that’s very viable in the workspace, but what really makes things powerful is the actions you can take by having the data in front of you and seeing the outcomes from that action, or be able to take action based on the data you’re seeing, because sometimes it’s not readily apparent. And some of these data points and reports that we get, I can actually take to senior leadership and make a larger investment elsewhere in the business based on this data.

Shelly Kramer: Right. It’s amazing. Once you embrace a data-driven culture, it’s like, holy crap, how did we ever live without this information at our fingertips that helps drive, really, real-time business decisions? I mean, that’s a lot of what we’ve got going on here.

So I’m interested in some use case stories with the Allstacks technology. Do you have anything that we haven’t touched on yet, John?

John Steinmetz: Absolutely. So two come to mind. Me and Josh have talked about these, probably at length, and we have monthly check-ins, and we talk about how the product is working and what actions I’m actually using it for. One is employee, just, performance management. And it’s very easy for a system like this to be viewed as negative by an engineering team, so you have to kind of walk and straddle that line that says, we’re not using this to take punitive action, we’re using this to make our teams better and to find… This is where experience come in. We’re using it to find opportunities to pair, say, programmers that aren’t doing so well with ones that are doing really well, to get rid of the bad habits.

So we’ve used it in that capacity on two occasions already, where we’ve actually looked at the data and said, “Over time, these things are going down.” You can also, in that capacity, use it for… You can actually see trends that, hey, this engineer is thinking about leaving Convo because their productivity has come off. What can our managers do to find out what’s going on in their life? What’s going on with what they’re doing?

The second is outsourcing. We outsource a huge amount of our business to other parts of the world and third parties. And being able to leverage the data in contract negotiations, I can already tell you, it’s paid for itself over at least once, because I’ve been able to renegotiate contracts and actually give access to the directors of those outsource companies to see what their teams are doing, to actually see how they’re impacting Convo. So those are the two use cases I could say, without a doubt, really kind of hit home this year for us.

Shelly Kramer: As a business leader, I can promise you that when I hear the words, “It’s paid for itself,” I’m sold. I mean, that’s what you’re looking for when it comes to technology investments, when you look for, actually, investments of any kind, so I love hearing that because I think that’s really important.

What about you, Josh? Do you have any use cases that are separate from what we’re talking about with John, that might be interesting?

Josh Teitelman: I mean, there’s a lot of information, just quite simply, that’s readily available through our reporting and metrics. So a very simple use case that we came on to early was just time savers, where at the end of the week, when you have the larger organizations that they’re sending in their status reports and things like that, by the time they get to the meeting where it’s being reported, everything’s out of date by three days because it takes that long to compile all that information. So having it at your fingertips is critical and just saves time and money, in that sense.

But again, we do see a lot of what John mentioned, of the population management. And it is not seen as a negative platform. That’s not in our culture, to stack rate developers, where the value is at that level. It’s, how do we make a team that will move better and faster and more efficient? And that’s John’s example of pair programming, by looking at, how do you pair people up correctly? So there’s a time savings, but it’s also, how do we make the team more consistent and more efficient, and how do they deliver on those commitments more consistently?

Shelly Kramer: Right. Well, I think what’s interesting to me is that all of us are very aware of the fact that there’s a dearth of tech talent. And so, finding great engineers, and giving them work that they love to do, and keeping them engaged and interested and loving what they do is a significant business skill.

And so, I think that part of what we see, from a digital transformation standpoint, is that when you introduce new technology into the equation, the technology alone isn’t the answer. It’s the adoption of that technology, it’s the widespread use of that technology, it’s understanding the value proposition of that technology, it’s being excited about that technology, that really is the game changer.
And it sounds like a lot of it comes down to the messaging and how you communicate to your team that this isn’t technology monitoring you, or replacing you, or anything else. This is technology that helps all of us be more cohesive, more efficient, enjoy our jobs more, deliver better outcomes, all of those things, I think, that’s really, really… That’s kind of the secret sauce to all of it, don’t you think?

Josh Teitelman: Most definitely, most definitely.

Shelly Kramer: Yeah, yeah. I really have enjoyed this conversation, and I think you two have been awesome at sharing, you, Josh, what it is that is Allstacks, and the value proposition of working with this particular technology solution. And John, you’ve been fantastic as well, and I love hearing what you’re doing, and I love the fact that you bring Ralph to our conversations. I’m hoping that it also gives our audience pause and thinks about, wait a minute, we need to integrate this into our video shows and everything else because there’s a whole audience out there that we need to be serving, that we don’t want to forget to be serving, so I think that’s an eye-opener as well.

John Steinmetz: That’s our mission.

Shelly Kramer: Absolutely. Well, gentlemen, thank you so much for hanging out with me today on Converge TechTalk. You’ve been awesome, and you’ve shared some really great information, and I know our listeners will appreciate that, and I look forward to doing it again sometime.

John Steinmetz: Thank you.

Josh Teitelman: Thank you very much.

Shelly Kramer: All right. Thanks, everybody.

Shelly Kramer is a Principal Analyst and Founding Partner at Futurum Research. A serial entrepreneur with a technology centric focus, she has worked alongside some of the world’s largest brands to embrace disruption and spur innovation, understand and address the realities of the connected customer, and help navigate the process of digital transformation. She brings 20 years' experience as a brand strategist to her work at Futurum, and has deep experience helping global companies with marketing challenges, GTM strategies, messaging development, and driving strategy and digital transformation for B2B brands across multiple verticals. Shelly's coverage areas include Collaboration/CX/SaaS, platforms, ESG, and Cybersecurity, as well as topics and trends related to the Future of Work, the transformation of the workplace and how people and technology are driving that transformation. A transplanted New Yorker, she has learned to love life in the Midwest, and has firsthand experience that some of the most innovative minds and most successful companies in the world also happen to live in “flyover country.”