Replacing a Team Member
Engineering management books and blog posts will often try and describe the holistic job of management. They will list of a handful of generic responsibilities and almost always end with “the responsibility of hiring (and firing) for the team”. The “firing” is always brought up in this dramatic way. It never sat well with me. And so when folks ask me for my responsibilities as an engineering manager, I substitute the dramatic phrasing for “the responsibility of shaping the team”. At first, I leaned on this phrasing because it seemed more personal. But over time, the framing has been useful and never more useful than when I’m planning a backfill for a teammate who’s leaving.
Let’s start from the moment the news of a departure has been shared, and you’ve begun searching for the next person to join your team. It can be tempting to take the leaving member’s title and years of experience and plug it right into the job description for a backfill. Is the outgoing team member a backend expert? A React savant? Put that on the job description, too. As your team member goes through their two week farewell tour, words and phrases like “irreplaceable” and “this team won’t be the same without you” will be thrown around. I urge you to treat this departure as two separate events: a team member leaving and an opportunity to shape the team for the better.
Shaping the Team Through a Departure
When you know someone on your team is leaving, it’s helpful to completely disambiguate your team member leaving from backfilling that team member. The engineer on your team is leaving and that’s usually a spiky event for the team. It is usually — but not always! — a time for some sadness and a reflection on the team member’s time on the team. The hiring can be spiky, but it should be a joyful event. The hiring is full of potential and you have the ability to turn that kinetic.
You will end up having five different conversations about these two topics, and you want to be able to keep your understanding and narratives separate. With the team member who is leaving, you’ll of course focus on them leaving. With your team and with your manager, you’ll likely discuss each event. With your manager, it will be easier to separate the two. Start by looking back and reflecting on how the team and the outgoing team member got to this point. Retrospect on what can be learned from this experience. Then start the topic of “where do we do we go from here”. Turn the conversation toward the positive as you begin planning for what the next iteration of the team could look like.
With your team, this will be more difficult. The less stable the team and the more capable and integrated the outgoing team member, the more interwoven these topics will be. Your team will be looking for reassurance that the sky isn’t falling in, and that there’s a plan in place to move forward. The more stable the team and the less capable and integrated the outgoing team member, the less work you’ll have to do here.
As mentioned above, both your manager and your team will ask about the future. “What do we do now?” And you will have an answer for them because you have put that strategy together.
Start by breaking down the outgoing engineer’s responsibilities. Write them all down. Start with the explicit ones and then move onto the implicit ones. List out the strengths they bring to the team as well. When you think you’re done, think through the last six months. What reactive work did this team member do? When were you lucky that they were on your team?
Then take your current team. Where is the team going in the next 6-18 months? What will this team need? What will the business need of the team? What are the opportunities where the team can grow to better help the business?
Take your outgoing teammates’ responsibilities and strengths and lay it next to the list of what your team needs. You may find that there’s some overlap with the outgoing teammate, but maybe not as much as you had thought.
Before you take the second list and make a job description out of it, take one more look at your current team, and this time, focus on your current team members. Which of these responsibilities can they take on? Which gaps can they fill? A teammate leaving is an opportunity for the ongoing team members. Give them this opportunity.
Now whatever is left on that list you can take to your recruiters to help build a new JD.
Remember your goal is not to replace your outgoing team member with someone new. You want to intentionally craft your team starting today. Start by figuring out what your team needs. Then assess how your team members can grow to take on some of those responsibilities. And finally, find someone who can fill in the rest of the gaps.