According to a recent Uplevel survey of over 350 software developers, there's a significant disconnect between chief technology officers (CTOs) and their teams. In fact, 30% of respondents said the majority of their problems and roadblocks go unnoticed by engineering leadership.
As a CTO myself, I'm surprised that number isn't higher. Engineering leaders are often too far removed from the trenches to know everything. We may remember what it's like to be developers, but the tools and systems have changed. I wouldn't expect most CTOs to have a full grasp of the potential roadblocks their teams face — though they should.
This all speaks to the larger questions of visibility and effectiveness across the engineering org, which the survey was looking to answer. Do CTOs know what their teams are working on? And are they relying too much on gut feelings? Asking developers these questions gives us a unique look into how our actions impact their perceptions of alignment, and where we can improve.
What Are Teams Working On?
When developers say their CTOs don't know what they're working on, one of two things is usually true. The first is that engineering leadership could genuinely not know what their teams are doing, unaware of their roadblocks, inefficiencies, and morale.
When that happens, developers reported the following:
■ 44% said they were overworked.
■ 51% said CTOs shuffle teams and projects without knowing the full implications.
■ 56% said strategic decisions are made the same way.
In these cases, CTOs need more visibility into what their teams are working on, with tools to help them analyze the information and take action. I recommend reviewing the metrics at least once a month and having conversations with teams to understand where they're being blocked and why.
The second possibility is that the CTOs could have visibility but just aren't communicating effectively with their teams, instead resorting to top-down decision-making. When engineering leaders make decisions without explaining why or discussing impact, developers may feel they're being treated as resources rather than people.
As leaders, we are responsible for providing clarity and helping devs understand how their efforts align with larger business goals. Doing so generates energy and builds a greater sense of purpose for the developers. But that communication has to flow both ways, as 96% of those surveyed said not knowing what leadership is working on can actually be detrimental to the team.
Do CTOs Rely Too Much on Gut Feelings?
Around 30% of the developers said their CTOs rely solely on gut feelings to measure team effectiveness. That's an alarming number given the general availability of data. Disregard for a moment whether they're measuring the right metrics or their ability to interpret them. We live in a world filled with data, and I would expect all leaders — especially engineering leaders — to seek it out.
Even without an engineering insights and intelligence tool, there are other ways to gather data. For example, going back to the issue of visibility, CTOs often use the following methods to find out what their teams are working on, according to the developer respondents:
■ 46% said their CTOs use surveys.
■ 53% said they rely on messages/emails.
■ 57% use meetings/conversations.
■ Only 57% use engineering insights & intelligence tools.
While not all leaders are using engineering insights and intelligence tools to collect and analyze data, 88% of developer respondents found these tools beneficial and accurate when measuring engineering effectiveness. That's higher than I'd expect given the "big brother" concerns I often hear from other CTOs when introducing metrics to their organizations. But I'm glad that engineering teams are starting to embrace tools and insights as so many other business groups have already done.
Still, 91% of devs are unhappy with the actual metrics their leadership teams are measuring. That means they see the value in the tools and having metrics, but they don't think leaders are tracking the full picture. I suspect the developers feel like metrics are being used as a performance system instead of to help them be effective. Here's what they wish their CTOs were measuring to better support their teams:
■ 46% said available Deep Work (focus time).
■ 49% said allocation data (what they're working on).
■ 52% said hours worked (to indicate burnout).
As CTOs, we don't always know what our teams are working on or how to measure impact. That's because engineering leaders often lack an established, data-driven way to support their teams. Whether accurate or not, this creates a perception among developers that leadership doesn't understand what they're up against.
While engineering metrics and tools are helping us become more thoughtful about how we measure and understand impact, they aren't being used as frequently or effectively as they should. And in their place, too many leaders are relying only on gut feelings to make decisions, according to the developers.