4 excellent techniques for managing your developers

Developers are not just a means to an end. James Miller shares his top tips for nurturing talent and quality among teams of developers.

As my career in web development has progressed, its focus has continued to shift ever increasingly towards management of developers. The more time I spent leading and managing developers, the more I started to recognise behaviour patterns (and foibles!) that they are particularly susceptible to. Using my experience as a developer, and learning through trial and error from those who I was tasked with managing, has allowed me to continually tailor my management style to nurture and gain the best possible results.

Here are some of my tried and tested techniques that I've used to ensure that I'm getting the most out of my developers, ensuring they're happy, creative and productive.

(Disclaimer: everyone is different. Some developers may not be receptive to these approaches, but they're a good start to improve communication and your knowledge of your team.)

01. Get to know your team.

Never forget that every member of your team is a person continually in flux. Not only is life continually shifting their motivations, their development capabilities will always be increasing and evolving. Keeping in touch on a personal level will allow you to utilise hidden strengths that you may never have been aware of. Knowing your developers better means you can also prepare and compensate for any potential weaknesses that may have otherwise snuck up on you.

02. Enable progression

The most successful developers are constantly learning and improving their skills, likewise the most successful managers are ones who facilitate and encourage this. There are many ways to approach this, but here are a few that have worked for me:

  • Hold weekly team training meetings to provide developers with the opportunity to share discoveries and experiences with their fellow co-workers.
  • Practice makes perfect. In down time, encourage or suggest areas for research and development. This can be done more formally with a Personal Development Plan. Take an interest in your team's progression. It will ultimately benefit you and help define your technical direction.
  • Outside of office hours, offer guidance and insight to further developers' personal projects. Whether it's related to their work or not, their greater knowledge and own personal growth will mean you have a happier more skilled developer.

03. Allow them to flourish

Restricting developers almost always causes revolt. The more you micro-manage, the more they will want to squirm out of your reach. Although not always seen in a business environment, developers on the whole are a creative bunch and want to be able to stretch their capabilities.

Whether it's through the concept, visual design, or produced code, giving your developers freedom to think outside the box will result in unexpected solutions and potentially some beautiful user experiences.

Don't take the previous point to the extreme. Make sure you outline expectations of what is and isn't allowed within the word environment. Uncertainty is unsettling. Developers will worry less and work more when they know exactly where they stand. Make sure that rules and expectations across your team are consistent to avoid any contention between developers.

04. Give feedback

An important and often overlooked aspect of developer growth is feedback on the work they have produced. Make any criticism constructive and highlight ways to improve, including pointing to online resources to help get your point across.

Don't just focus on weaknesses though. Celebrate success, too. Highlighting excellence among the team means the knowledge is more likely to be shared and remembered. It may even inspire a healthy competition for recognition. Treating developers as just a means to an end will probably still get the work done, but the quality is never going to be as good as it could be. In the long run this approach is also likely to lead to apathy, inefficiency and the loss of that special creative spark.

Talking to, and learning about, your developers is the key to successfully managing them. The greater your insight, the more equipped you'll be to help them to be successful. And of course being supported by a motivated, thriving team is going to make you much more successful yourself!

Words: James Miller

James Miller is the technical team manager for Orange Digital. This article originally appeared in net magazine issue 252.