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I work in a company that is slowly but surely transitioning out of the startup phase. I am in charge of a dev team that creates and manages a supporting software product to the main hardware product the company sells. We are only a few people in this team and we are all relatively young.

Going forward I'd like this team to build a strong and healthy culture. I would like us all to work on communication inbetween ourselves and create a safe and healthy environment to work in. On the technical side, I'm thinking about defining some sort of "track" everyone can follow to become expert level on our technology stack.

The dream would be a strong core of devs that work well together so that we are ready to take in new people (should the company continue to expand) and train them to be as valuable members of the team as we are ourselves.

I am new to this sort of position, as I have been "promoted" from regular dev to this position. The challenges I am already facing in achieving the above are:

  • The human element. My team members face the daily stress and ups and downs of the software dev work. Sometimes they express feelings of futility about the code base and that there is no point in trying to improve anything. I've noticed they don't respond very well to plans I come up with on how to improve the product state. It just becomes another task that they get handed. I'd like to stress that these are good people that I consider my friends, but I'm honestly not confident in my ability to correctly take into account the emotional state of everyone while trying to steer the team.
  • The amount of time I imagine building a good culture takes. If I try to visualize how this will go I can easily imagine years passing by until we achieve a good result. Not because the people involved are bad in any way, but because I honestly think that is what it takes.
  • The risk of team members quitting. The demand for developers in my country is insanely high and it is very common to "job hop" every few years, especially for young developers. I feel like even in the best work environment possible, some may quit simply because they become a bit bored (I know, because I've done so myself before...). Of course, there are also hundreds of eventualities that may happen in someone's life leading to a change of jobs.

Given the above I'm wondering - is it worth it at all? It would require a huge effort on my part and even if it succeeds and one or two core members quit we're back to zero. The time and effort on my part could be spent on contributing in a number of other ways, even simply solving dev tasks. In this alternative, the team would be a loose bunch of software devs solving issues as they come, probably with consultants filling in the gaps as employees come and go. Perhaps that is more than good enough to keep the product afloat.

Any thoughts and experiences on "investing into the team" and how it could turn out are much appreciated.

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Trying to create a culture or system that relies on the whole team staying long-term is almost never a good idea. Especially as a transitioning startup, since that can be a big culture shock and people may want to seek out new startup roles.

However I think if you are worried about that, than you have a misconception of how to create a positive team/company culture. What you should be focusing on is developing the core principles - both technical and softer skilled - that you want your team culture to rely on. Then ensure that current team members buy into that culture while they are there, and any future hires will be able to fit into that type of team. The culture itself shouldn't revolve around any one or group of devs. Processes and expectations can be built around these ideals that you choose to emphasize, which is I think what you were getting at with the technical track.

In terms of your other question about this being a waste of time: if you truly know that you want to stay at this company, on this team for a number of years then no, I don't think that would be a waste of time. You get the comfort of knowing the next several years will be spent on a team where you have your preferred work-life experience. Plus, when you're ready to move on you can point to this as something you accomplished. Otherwise, you won't be there for long enough to reap the rewards of anything you try to institute, so why bother.

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    "ensure that current team members buy into that culture while they are there" - this espcially applies to attempts to improve the code. Don't just give them tasks that fix what you see is the problem, ask them what they think the issues are, how they would fix them and give them the tools and time to do that. That way it won't "just becomes another task that they get handed" Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 12:27
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    Definitely give the devs a role in designing fixes. Don't just come up with a fix and hand it to them with an explanation. Get them to identify problems and ask how they would resolve it. Then start a discussion where they are contributors to the discussion. People tend to go with ideas more if they feel like it's theirs. Otherwise it's just another demand. Also when they say something that you agree with, then make it known that you agree. Give them validation. Commented Jun 1, 2023 at 13:47
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Generally as a team lead this isn't your problem to solve. A clean, healthy, safe and cheerful work environment is the main thing with room for advancement, but this should be provided by the company. The rest should look after itself.

Small team cultures change with individuals. I have seen whole teams walk out the door over one person upsetting everyone. I have also seen multiple job hoppers hop out one step ahead of being thrown out. It only takes one person or incident to destroy morale with many teams, especially when the individuals are in high demand elsewhere.

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  • What destroys teams is the lack of communication and an abundance of assumptions.
    – red-shield
    Commented Aug 14, 2023 at 6:37
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Team culture is always valuable. It can be set by the leader. It can be destroyed by any member. Time spent on building the team is made back up in how well a team works together even on short projects. The culture means that we could trust each other during high stress.

However, most efforts to build a team fail because they are focused on "team building." A better way is to focus on the real goals of the organization and how we are all working together to achieve something of value. The next aspect is to make sure that toxic behaviors are not tolerated, that there are ways to handle conflict, and that people can be honest with each other.

Teams are always adding and losing members, sometimes weekly. This is not a problem when toxic behaviors are removed, and people can be honest with each other. New members will quickly sense the difference and join in or leave when they can't handle it.

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Not a complete answer

First, my excuses, as this is not a complete direct answer to your question - but rather, a collection of points and pointers.

This is because I think the question is "too big", in a way. There are so many details to it, people have written whole books to answer this question. And as you can see from more of these books still coming out, none of them nails it completely.

Now, on to the points.

  • What the answer from InBedded16 is about is an important point. The longer you plan to stay at this company, the more valuable such investments of your energy with a long-term return will be to you.
  • Also a very good point from Kilisi's answer: The amount of effort you imply seems more fit for company culture, than the culture for only a team. Which, indeed, changes much more quickly: Two years down the line, a third of a team might have changed - obviously, that will influence the culture.
  • However, building on that previous point, company culture might be more appropriate to work on. While this is technically something for people above team level... especially if you folks are just growing out of being a startup, you might gather quite the "bonus points" by getting the ball rolling in this regard. It might even end up as a project of yours, which is, you know, even more "bonus points". But that depends on if you even want to go that far, plus how flexible your current culture is.
  • Which brings me to my next point: You talk about "building a [team] culture". Nothing wrong with the way you say that, that is absolutely how that is talked about.
    However, to be 100% clear: It's not about creating something new. It's about adjusting something that's already there, to better suit the company and its people - plus "codifying" it so that it is clear to everybody, and may possibly be referenced in future decisions.
  • Going by "Sometimes they express feelings of futility", you are already aware of parts of the current culture that may very well benefit from such "course corrections".
    For this example, if your company states explicitly that building stuff to last is important to them, and ideas are welcome - your workers will feel more free to present ideas to that end, and these ideas in turn will be "sold" to management more easily.
    And even if your company states the opposite, it will be easier for your people to focus instead on the areas that do matter to the company.
  • Another point regarding "Sometimes they express feelings of futility [...] It just becomes another task that they get handed": Have you considered... not making it another task that they get handed?
    If you let people tell you what their biggest pain points are, how they can be fixed, and which one of those fixes are the most practical to start with, they will be considerably more enthusiastic about this.

Story Time

2 years ago my employer of roundabout 30 people - although already established for decades - did such a project, to (re-)establish company culture clearly.

A small team of volunteers did this mostly as a side project. They started out with questionnaires about which values people find important etc., then gathered and cleaned up that list, then let everybody vote to get the three most important "core values", and finally created a little bit more documentation explaining these core values.

This went in parallel and in collaboration with the higher-ups revising the vision statement and mission statement of the company.

We ended up with something everyone could identify with for the most part, plus it made it clear that these are indeed the core values that we're working with/towards. In the long run, it also resulted in several changes in our processes, pretty much all of which ended up being improvements (greater customer satisfaction, faster turnaround times, more efficient usage of resources etc).

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