What have engineering leaders been planning for in 2022, and how might that change given the current economic uncertainty?
At my company, Jellyfish, we recently released a 2022 State of Engineering Management Report which shows engineering leaders were poised to invest heavily in people, processes, and technology for predicted growth this year. But with recent rumblings about economic uncertainty, it’s important for leaders to be prepared to alter their plans.
During periods of growth, engineering leaders are tasked with scaling their teams to meet increasing business demands. But current economic challenges might require leaders to manage a very different scenario instead: one where resources are scarce.
If you haven’t already been asked to reprioritize work or pause hiring, it’s possible that you will. Many of us experienced a version of this scenario at the start of the global pandemic, and it could happen again depending on how the macroeconomic environment plays out in the next several months.
In this post, I’ll share what the data is telling us about engineering team growth goals in 2022, and what leaders should consider as they plan to invest for the future.
The four engineering leadership trends you need to know
1. Engineering orgs planned to hire aggressively
56.7% of the engineering leaders that we surveyed expect their teams to grow by over 10% in 2022. And while 10% growth is a sizable amount for established enterprise engineering organizations, this data might be understating the amount of companies (such as small businesses) that will be growing well beyond that 10% range of growth.
And as leaders hire for 2022 needs, teams are focused on the virtual ramping and onboarding process. When asked about challenges in 2022, 45% of engineering leaders voiced that staying focused on priority work is number one. We also identified a common theme around growth with responses of ramp time, virtual onboarding, and hiring taking second priority.
2. Infrastructure work was a bigger focus in 2021
It’s clear that companies are planning to hire more in 2022, but we’ve also observed that companies are shifting their work allocation priorities, or the types of work they are doing. Infrastructure work in 2021 made up an average of 19% of engineering teams’ total time, a 46% increase from the previous year. This signals to us that teams are being intentional about prioritizing work that will help them move faster, hire more aggressively, and ultimately scale their total output to match company growth goals.
3. Leaders are investing in tooling, process, and engineering operations
We asked engineering leaders what their highest priorities were heading into 2022, and the results were definitive. Improving engineering team operations, tools, and process was the highest chosen answer by nearly 20 percentage points, with approximately 36% of leaders reporting this as their top priority. Hiring and retaining talent took the second spot at 18%, and improving infrastructure was third at 17%. These findings serve to further support the trends that we discussed previously.
4. Leaders are facing an engineering visibility challenge
Visibility into engineering work was still an unresolved challenge heading into last year. Engineering leaders have reported visibility as an important challenge, and the data backs up that this remains true. Unplanned work ranked relatively high as a percentage of time spent, especially for teams not using engineering management platforms (EMPs).
This metric, ‘amount of unplanned work’ can be seen as a key indicator of team visibility. In 2022, the average team actually spent more time facing unplanned work. The average now stands at 22% of total time spent, up from 19% in 2020. The good news is that despite not having reduced the total unplanned work in 2021, leaders are aware that this is still a challenge to overcome, and our study showed that data-driven teams – those using an EMP – were able to decrease unplanned work by nearly 48%.
How should leaders prepare to manage engineering priorities when resources are scarce?
Andrew Lau, Jellyfish’s CEO and co-founder, and a former engineering leader, detailed what leaders need to consider in scenarios when resources are scarce: ‘technical leaders should avoid spreading resources like peanut butter across their teams. We need to focus on the things that matter.’
For many teams, this will mean focusing on your current customer base by fixing bugs, while also developing incremental improvements that will delight your customers. Some will seek to shift fewer resources away from acquiring new customer types (in entirely different markets) and focus on features or integrations that could open their company to existing prospects within your current market.
Ultimately, a limited set of resources force hard choices, and this gives businesses reasons to focus on engineering investments. But these tough conversations can be navigated using data. The ideal situation is that the data at your disposal will provide an objective view of what engineering is working on. Regardless of whether your team is growing or making tough prioritization choices, leaders will find it difficult to make the best strategic choices without having this type of visibility. And based on our data, it seems that this is an ongoing challenge of which leaders are keenly aware.
Leaders have put the hard work in to prepare their teams for growth. Given today’s economic climate, perhaps one unexpected but positive outcome is that regardless of how the economic scenario plays out, the steps taken in 2021 (such as tooling, infrastructure work, and team restructuring) will pay dividends when teams look to become more efficient in uncertain times, but also when the time comes again to hire aggressively. Taking the time to build out data-driven capabilities may prove the most effective path forward as it is needed for sound decision-making in good times and bad.
For more information, take a look at the 2022 State of Engineering Management to see how your team compares.