(Boosting) Morale in Engineering

The recent article by  Jessica McKellar titled “This Is What Impactful Engineering Leadership Looks Like”, and the question “Any suggestions on how to inspire my team?” published on Everwise, prompted me to reflect on what impacts morale in Engineering teams.

At the risk of appearing to deflect my responsibilities as a VP of Engineering, I will assert that morale in Engineering is driven primarily by company culture. Consequently, in order to boost morale, my first priority is to focus outwards and educate the company leadership on how to create a culture that fosters productivity in Engineering.

In my experience, engineers, like most people, are motivated by a sense of purpose and accomplishment. Unrealistic deadlines imposed by the business teams, or constantly changing priorities, for example, will sap the moral of any team, no matter how capable, or charismatic, its leader.

Consequently, the answer to “How do you motivate your team?” is that I first eliminate everything that demotivates them – which is at least half the battle. Then I make sure that we employ the proper tools and methodologies, so that we are efficient collectively as well as individually. Only on rare occasions, do I metaphorically stand on a soap box and deliver a rousing motivational speech”.


Does anyone really think that a professional football player needs a motivational speech before stepping on the field on Sunday? Heck no! He’s been waiting for that moment all week, all year! The rah-rah speech from the coaches or team captains that ESPN shows us, is just for the cameras. Said another way, if a player needs this pre-game sideline speech in order to go all out on the field, then he’s in the wrong business, and I certainly wouldn’t keep him on my team.

Well, it’s the same for Engineers.


This list of “morale killers” will appear to be self-evident. Yet, I see these mistakes perpetuated over and over.

  • Imposing unrealistically aggressive schedules for releases – whether on purpose or not
  • Frequent (i.e. more than every 6 months) changes to the corporate strategy that nullify the existing product roadmap
  • Asking the Engineering team for an extra-ordinary effort to deliver a feature to win a major deal, only to fail to win the deal … more than a couple of times
  • Excluding engineers from customer meetings
  • Failing to publicly recognize accomplishments – whether collective or individual

One of the most counter-productive pattern is to purposely impose an unrealistic deadline based on the illusion that it will motivate engineers to work harder than they normally do. This pattern is ill informed for the following reasons:

  • Engineers may work longer hours when required, but it is unlikely that they will produce their best work during these long hours. It could even be counter-productive if a higher proportion of bugs is introduced.
  • Sustained long hours do not foster creativity, nor attention to details
  • The most aggressive schedule is accomplished by setting a realistically aggressive schedule at the onset. Just like a sprinter has to set progressively aggressive times as the season progresses, each release schedule has to be aggressive, yet achievable.
  • Unrealistic deadlines are rarely met. As a consequence, even if the team delivers an amazing product in an incredibly short amount of time, on release day, we all feel like we failed (since we did not meet the crazy deadline). It is hard to build on top of failures.
  • On the contrary, by setting realistic deadlines, and ensuring that we hit them, we build confidence in ourselves. Furthermore, our internal partners (e.g. Marketing, Sales), as well as our customers also start trusting us and our dates. Success beckons success.


Not only are Engineers driven by success, we also care about the products we build. We want to ship products on time, we want our users to be thrilled by the product and we want the company to grow. Consequently, my only job is to remove all impediments to these fundamental motivations. I thus focus on:

  • Providing clear strategy and tactics
    • Why are we doing what we are doing (vision, product roadmap, business context) as well as what are our immediate priorities.
    • Ensure that each team member has 1 –  and only 1 – top priority
  • Expecting, and nurturing, a culture of results and forward-looking attitude. Focus on the challenge at hand, rather than laying blame.
  • Making post-mortem reviews actionable: by deciding what we will do differently, and better, next time (rather than on an exhaustive list of things we did wrong) – and following up to ensure that we do do things differently the next time around
  • Making it “our team” rather than “my team” – by encouraging collaboration and ideation from everyone, particularly when it comes to development methodology. Adoption of best practices will be all the easier that recommendations come from peers.
  • Making it easier, simpler to ship products by creating product-focused teams, and limiting meetings to those that are determined useful by the team
  • Stimulating productivity by encouraging maximum use of tools and automation … and minimum number of meetings
  • Fostering team work by encouraging, even requiring, open and timely communications (good & bad news alike). Emphasize empathic cross-team communications (e.g. “be aware that the changes I had to make to the API have subtle implications for your component …”)


In addition to removing impediments to productivity, and providing the right tools and environment for the Engineering team at large, one, naturally needs to address each individual’s motivations

  • Clarity of role: it must be made obvious to each engineer how their contribution feeds the success of the Engineering team and the company – both tactically and strategically
  • “Personalization”: understanding what drives each person in the team (technical, managerial challenges), how they prefer to communicate, their work style, etc
  • Responsibilities: ensure that everyone in the team is challenged to the best of their abilities (to the extent possible given the needs of the organization)
  • Personal rapport: team spirit is built from common aspirations, but also from one-to-one personal relationships, including with the VP of Engineering

Morale is a complex feeling that’s is not easy nurture in a team. It is much easier to destroy it, than to boost it. By removing the “morale killers” – typically originating from the company culture, one can bring a team to a level of enjoyment and productivity where only a little more effort brings a virtuous circle of improvement, when team members themselves drive further improvements.

Sprint 0 “vs” Agile

Members of my teams usually look at me funny when I state at the start of a project that we need to plan. The boldest ones may even venture: “We’re doing Agile, so we don’t need to plan”, implying that planning is synonymous to waterfall, and that planning is certainly incompatible, if not contrary to, Agile.

This is a mis-guided debate. It matters not whether planning is Agile, what really matters is whether it is a good Engineering practice, and, secondarily whether it can be blended with an Agile methodology.


The need to plan arises whenever a complex set of features needs to be developed. Typically complexity arises because this new project is dissimilar to anything we have done before, the scope is large and/or we are dealing with “new stuff” (architecture, software framework, tool, people, performance, etc.)

The name Sprint 0

“Sprint 0” designates this planning phase … because the planning takes place before Sprint 1

However, it is partially a misnomer because it is not really a Sprint: it is not structured as a Sprint (the team may not have been formed yet), and its duration is not the typical sprint duration (it takes as long as it takes).

Analogy: Let’s go Hiking

Let’s say we’re going on a 5-day hiking trip in the wilderness. Before the hike, we will look at the map of the area, and profile of our hike (e.g. identify how much elevation we’ll need to climb) so as to distribute our daily efforts evenly across the 5 days [rough scoping]. In particular, we will identify places where to get water, and places to sleep each of the 4 nights, both really important [risk areas]. In addition, I’ll coordinate with my fellow hikers who is bringing the tents, who is buying/carrying what food, etc [roles & responsibilities]. Finally, I’ll copy the schedule of the park shuttle that will bring us back to where we parked the cars [overall schedule].

This is the equivalent of Sprint 0.

Planning is NOT Synonymous to Waterfall

The fundamental difference between a Sprint 0 plan and a Waterfall plan is that Sprint 0 plans JUST ENOUGH to eliminate risk, versus preparing a complete design and exhaustive task schedule.

Sprint 0 wants to eliminate surprises, such as unnecessary refactoring (e.g. because the UI team and the mid-tier teams have a different vision on how to build the API). The fact that both participate in the same daily scrum does not necessarily expose these differences.

The purpose of Sprint 0 is to, almost literally, identify “the lay of the land”: key features, roles, and major risk factors.

This plan leaves plenty of room to be Agile: going back to the hiking analogy: on day 2, we can decide that we’ll walk extra hard on day 3, so that we can stay 2 days at campsite 4 which is on the shores of a beautiful lake.  We could even decide to extend the trip by 1 day … as long as we ration our food accordingly.

The plan does not dictate at what time we get up, who cooks on what day, or what activities we’ll do on our “relax day” fishing, swimming, playing Frisbee, .… But the plan highlights a “relax day”, and thus the need to bring Frisbee, or fishing rods.

In addition, the plan sets yardsticks along the way so that we can measure our progress against our overall objective. For example, we’d better make sure that by day 3, we are past the mid-way point, if we want to finish our trip on day 5.


The first activity of Sprint 0 is to review the main deliverables, both external (features) and internal (deploying a new framework, technical debt, performance). We also want to identify risks that could impact the technical solution or the schedule. It could be as trivial as having to finish a set of user stories before the key team member goes on vacation, or as complex as demonstrating that adding a cache does increase performance 10x.

We plan to a level of detail that gives us confidence that our design approach is solid and our schedule is realistic. How realistic depends on the needs of the business. Some companies commit to releases at a given date, others are fully agile.

Sprint 0 Deliverables

  • In InfoQ’s article: What is Sprint Zero? Why was it Introduced?one of the contributors: Mark Woyna, “uses Iteration Zero as a spike”:
  • “The planning team is responsible for producing 3 deliverables by the end of the planning iteration:
  • A list of all prioritized features/stories with estimates
  • A release plan that assigns each feature/story to an iteration/sprint
  • A high-level application architecture, i.e. how the features will likely be implemented”

To which, I add:

  • Design documentation relevant to the project: e.g. Interaction diagrams, Entity/Object definitions, APIs
  • A list of risks to monitor during the project: e.g. dependencies on external factors, critical results (e.g. validation of a new framework, or performance metric)
  • Detailed user stories for Sprint 1 – so that we can start Sprint 1 in earnest at the end of Sprint 0

Plan to a Judicious Level of Details

Contrary to Waterfall practices, we don’t make all the decisions during Sprint 0, we make the minimum number of decisions necessary to “eliminate risk”.

Obviously, risk is only completely eliminated when the project is complete, but in most projects there are some critical decisions that reduce risk significantly. For example, writing out the interaction diagrams for the major use case. This exposes the core assumptions about the main objects in the system and their responsibilities, clarifies whether interactions are synchronous or async, what message broker we use, etc. The whole point is that hashing out disagreements over a diagram is a lot more efficient, and less costly, that doing it once code has already been written.


It’s Waterfallish

Scrum Methodology states “the common dysfunction called “Sprint Zero” is actually a contradiction in terms. Companies (and misinformed consultants and trainers) use this as a way to avoid changing waterfall habits.”

This argument totally misses the point – which is to have sound Engineering practices. Slapping a “Agile vs Waterfall litmus test” does not inform the discussion as to whether this particular practice is sound engineering.

Does Not Deliver Value to the Customer

The article from Scrum Alliance: What is Sprint Zero? presents “Scrum believes that every sprint should deliver potentially usable value (… by the customer)”.

The fact that Sprint 0 does not deliver value to the customer at the end of the Sprint is a myopic argument, which misses the more important benefit of Sprint 0, namely, that it improves the velocity of the team for all the other Sprints. Because we lay out a high-level path to success in Sprint 0, we walk a straighter, and faster line, during the remainder of the Sprints. Equally important, we avoid “critical failures”: where a significant portion of the code needs to be refactored because we incremented our way into a design rather than taking the time to think it through.

Another way of saying this is that Sprint 0 brings value to us, the team, by providing better visibility to the whole project. We “return” this value to the customer, by being more efficient and faster overall.


When thinking about Engineering best practices, let us not corner ourselves into debating labels, e.g. Agile vs Waterfall. To me it simply makes sense to take time to reflect, think and plan before embarking on a complex project to:

  • Evaluate key features to be implemented
  • Agree on key design and architecture designs, such as entities, APIs, protocols
  • Identify risk areas: schedule, resources, technology, performance
  • Map out tasks over time (a) to ensure that the project will be completed in a time frame commensurate with needs of the business and (b) set up yardsticks against which to calibrate our progress in the future
  • Lay groundwork for Sprint 1.