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Three clues to knowing when to scale your engineering team (and five ways to do it!)

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Peshkova)

As a startup founder or small business owner, your primary goal is growing your business. Of course, in order to do that, you have to grow the team of developers responsible for building, maintaining and enhancing your product.

Timing is everything when it comes to success. Knowing when to scale your development team is just as important as knowing how to scale it. Luckily, we’re familiar with both aspects. Since we’ve been helping startups scale their development teams for over 15 years, we’ve learned a thing or two (or actually three and five, which we’re going to share with you in this post.)

Here are three simple clues that can tell you exactly when it’s time to scale your software development team along with 5 tried-and-tested ways to do it.

When to scale your engineering team: 3 obvious clues

1. Your customer base is expanding.

When your user base starts expanding at a rapid pace, you’re going to need a bigger development and support team to handle the additional workload. Not only will the product need to function as expected, it will also have to grow with increasing customer demands for new functions and features.

This is the time to “strike while the iron is hot.” You want to capitalise on the momentum of your increasing fan base and give them exactly what they want. Don’t risk losing any of your audience to a competitor simply because they are developing faster than you. Scale now or you’ll regret it later. 

2. You’re experiencing growing pains.

Being busy is good, as in most cases that means business is good and the company is growing. But if your team is stressed out and starting to miss deadlines, then that’s a clear sign you need to hire more developers.

When you start noticing bottlenecks and delays in your development process, then it’s time to grow engineering teams. You don’t want to put your current team in a situation where they cave under the pressure of trying to keep up. Instead, you want to provide them with reinforcements. Make sure you’re communicating with your developers and getting honest feedback as to what they need and when they need it. 

3. You’re considering additional product offerings.

Perhaps your first product was a huge success and now you want to add additional solutions to your platform.  You’re going to need additional teams to build, test and deploy these new solutions.

Each product category should have its own dedicated development team. You certainly can’t expect your current team to be able to handle all the new product development while still maintaining the quality and adding additional features to your original product. In order to scale your product offerings, you must first scale your development team.

And here’s how to do it.

How to scale your development team: 5 easy strategies

1. Start by hiring a successful project manager.

Your current development team is like a garage band. They’re making some pretty cool music together as a 3 or 4-person group. But now you need to add more musicians, which means it’s going to be like a small orchestra. Therefore, you need a conductor.

Having a seasoned project manager to direct all aspects of development frees the IT manager and founder (sometimes they’re the same person) up to focus on big-picture strategy, and this is especially important during times of massive and quick growth. A good project manager will know exactly how many additional developers are needed and will probably already have some ideas as to who to hire based on previous experience.

2. Focus on building out special teams.

Rather than just adding a certain number of new developers to your headcount, the most efficient way to scale your development team is by breaking it out into specialised teams and then hiring specifically for those teams.

There is a natural synergy between people who share certain technical skills that leads to more efficiency in the workflow and a better final product. Perhaps you have one team focused on mobile development, another working on AI and machine learning features, and another specifically devoted to QA and testing. Take a look at your special teams and then decide where additional staffing is most needed and where it will be most beneficial to your growth. However, make sure that communication between all of these special teams is open and fluid. The last thing you want to do is create any types of silos that can slow down the development process.

3. Plan for incremental growth.

Once you’ve experienced a successful product launch, there is usually a honeymoon period where the product is performing well, users are happy, and steady growth is happening. This is the time to plan for a new phase of development and for scaling your development team.

The next goal will be to gain a larger market share and crush your competition. This can involve adding several new features or new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. In planning for this phase, you’ll need to determine how many additional developers will be required and what types of skills will be needed. Having a general idea of where you’re going - even before you develop that very first MVP - will enable you to scale your team and your company even faster.

4. Make sure everyone knows their role, yet feels part of the team.

Once you do add new members to your development team, it’s a good time to do an “onboarding,” not just for the newbies, but for everyone involved. This fosters more of a team mentality and is a chance to reinforce the company’s vision, values, and culture.

It’s important to make sure that every single engineer on the team knows their role and how it relates to the overall success of the product. Give your team permission to make decisions and choices that they feel will best move the development process forward.

5. Make recruiting easier by making it agile.

Most engineering teams work using an Agile development process. That iterative approach can also be very useful in the recruiting process itself. You’ll need to constantly be looking at what’s working and what’s not working in your recruiting efforts and be willing to change it as it evolves. And you should also have a plan in place to stay in touch with qualified engineers that were interviewed and liked but not hired previously. Then you’ll always have a shortlist of candidates to choose from when it’s time to hire, as opposed to having to start the whole recruiting process all over again.

Another way to enhance the recruiting process is to work with a trusted development partner that can provide you with dedicated teams and developers whenever you need them (and usually within a couple of weeks as opposed to a couple of months with standard recruiting). The great thing about dedicated teams is that you can scale them up or down as needed at any time, providing the highest level of flexibility.

Conclusion

Planning for growth as a startup is as crucial to success as coming up with an amazing idea in the first place. Knowing when to scale your team and hire developers throughout the startup lifecycle is equally important.

As we said in the introduction, timing is everything. When your customer base starts to grow and your current team can no longer handle the workload, congratulations! That just means you’re well on your way to startup success.

Alex Sokolov, senior software engineer, iTechArt Group