Team self-selection for developers: Awesome or awkward?

June 3rd, 2020 6 min |

Illustration of developer team members in old-style polaroid pictures grouped in Team A, Team B and Team C.

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There’s a little more excitement in the air as ShareGate’s developers come into the office this morning. Today, they’re participating in a team self-selection process, which involves choosing their teammates and assignment for the next few months. It’s not their first self-selection session, but this time the stakes are higher because the group will find out who gets to create the new ShareGate Apricot product using exciting new technology. Since spots are limited for this opportunity, there’s a strange mood in the room, but that’s OK. It goes with the territory as ShareGate empowers its developers to take control and choose their own teams.

“A lot of developers told us that they needed a change. That’s what prompted us to try team self-selection.”

Different strokes for different folks

A lot of tech companies let managers decide, unilaterally and vertically, who gets assigned to which development team. They base their decisions on factors such as employees’ past experience and aptitudes for delivering the right features. Team makeup doesn’t change often, allowing developers to fall into a predictable routine. This used to be the case at ShareGate. But in 2017, the brand’s coaches and team leaders had a revelation; they realized they needed a new method to reflect GSoft’s confidence in its employees and give developers the power to choose their teams.

Change is as good as a rest

Being a developer is a demanding job. To be successful, you need sustained concentration and unwavering discipline. “A lot of developers told us that they needed a change. That’s what prompted us to try group self-selection,” explains team manager Philippe Lavoie.

The process wasn’t easy. There were trials and errors, discomfort, questionable results and frustrations. And it’s not like there was nothing at stake. In addition to enhancing the ShareGate Desktop app (which helps companies migrate to Office 365), the developers were given the challenge of switching to a SaaS model for ShareGate Apricot (which helps companies deploy and govern Office 365 Groups and Teams) and ShareGate Overcast (which helps companies track and cut costs using Azure). It wasn’t exactly a safe time to test-drive a new process!

What’s self-selection?

Self-selection is a guided process that enables groups to split into small cross-functional teams. It was designed as a quick and effective method for building stable teams, based on the assumption that people are more engaged and productive if they can choose what they do and who they do it with. The method was documented by agile coaches Sandy Mamoli and David Mole.

The idea is to put as few restrictions as possible on team creation. Here’s how ShareGate usually proceeds with a self-selection activity:

  • A few days in advance, developers receive a description of upcoming projects, the teams that will be needed and the associated product managers.
  • Before the developers arrive to the session, team positions are posted on the wall.
  • Once the activity begins, the group reviews the process and the projects. Each individual is given a copy of their photo.
  • In an initial round lasting approximately 10 minutes, the developers stick their photos under the project that interests them most and then chats with their prospective teammates.
  • Then there’s a break so that everyone can take a minute to reflect on their choice.
  • The process is repeated as often as needed until each team is balanced.

Bring on the awkward conversations

“Some projects are more popular than others, which obviously creates discomfort,” confesses Philippe. In fact, Jean-François Deschênes, who has been a ShareGate developer for five years, says the malaise is often palpable during the self-selection process. “Emotions start to run high if one project is less appealing than the others and everyone is vying for a spot on a different assignment,” he explains. “For example, when we launched ShareGate Apricot, everyone wanted a chance to use the new development technology. This led to some very awkward conversations and some people martyring themselves by accepting to work on the less interesting projects.”

Philippe is aware of this perception. “After holding self-selection processes for a number of projects, some employees complained that they always felt forced to sacrifice themselves for others. We’re aware of the situation and we’re trying to help them make the right choices.” But at the end of the day, each employee is responsible for the decisions they make.

That thing we call a “team”

ShareGate ran four team self-selection activities from 2017 to 2019. “The atmosphere has changed,” says Philippe. That’s because developers have had the opportunity to choose their teammates and projects, which is more engaging than following instructions.

“For me, the people are more important than the actual project. I want to be surrounded by developers who get along and work well together,” says Jean-François, who has been through several self-selection processes. “With the right team, I know we can be effective and have fun along the way.”

“When choosing your team, you should think about learning opportunities,” adds Benoit Doyon, who is looking for new solutions for ShareGate Overcast that will lead him to push his expertise even further.

“Our initial fears turned out to be unwarranted,” adds Philippe. For example, there haven’t been any conflicts and no one has been excluded. The key to success seems to be giving developers the right guidance. Developers who don’t know which team to choose are told to ask themselves:

  • What’s best for ShareGate?
  • What do I want to learn?
  • Which project will allow me to learn the most?
  • Where will I get the chance to coach others?

Today, each product has a more permanent team to ensure the right mix of skills and knowledge, but team self-selection is still used on a smaller scale to give employees the chance to reflect on their contributions on a regular basis.

So, just how much does this method improve productivity? Philippe would rather not quantify the gains. “Trust now permeates our workplace, and that’s one of the company’s core values. Trust matters more than anything else. It’s more important that productivity or profits,” concludes Philippe.

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