Reflections on Team Building

Thusha Agampodi
Engineering Manager, Magnet Forensics

Two years ago, when Magnet Forensics hired me to build an engineering team in Ottawa, I was excited and nervous about the opportunity. I had been on some great teams at my previous company, but hadn’t stopped to think too much about how we stayed together and remained productive during the great times, and, more importantly, the challenging ones. I didn’t think it was a coincidence, so when it came time to build the engineering team at Magnet Forensics, there were some moments of doubt: would I be able to build a great team again?

So, I did what my engineering training taught me to do: I went looking for the data. I analyzed my favourite teams by noting the core values that stood out and interviewed others on these teams to collect as much data as possible. I started reading research papers, articles, opinion pieces and everything else I could find on what makes a great team.

I already knew the feeling inside a great team was more important to me than measuring purely for success. Would a team be considered successful if they delivered their commitments? Or if they innovated? Or if they stayed together for years while the company went through many rounds of layoffs? I focused on teams where the members seemed happy to be there. Everything else, including success in whatever form, turned out to be a by-product.

Teambuilding mountaineering

Data from my own team experience revealed some interesting attributes. Even though I had been part of heated debates during meetings, we resolved them in the end, and with our differing opinions, built great products. Everyone felt their voice was heard. We made fun of each other. We attended funerals when team members lost loved ones, and we gave unsolicited advice and hand-me-down clothes when team members had babies.

I stumbled across a New York Times article about Google’s quest to build the perfect team and much of it resonated. They argued that the number one trait of a highly successful team was not the fact that the most brilliant people were on it, but the fact that everyone on the team felt “psychologically safe.” That is, that they were in an environment where everyone feels comfortable enough to share their opinion and challenge each other respectfully:

But to be fully present at work, to feel “psychologically safe,” we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations.

As a female engineer working in tech for over a decade, I have personally experienced situations where I was not comfortable sharing my opinion. My voice diminished when I didn’t see anyone in the room who I could relate to in some way.

A University of Pennsylvania professor has found that 25% minority representation was needed in a group before minority views could affect the larger team. While adding one diverse member is a good start, studies like this one suggest that adding more than one diverse member increases the ability to influence majority views.

I read many articles linking to studies that discussed how diverse teams were more innovative. Research also indicated that to harness the benefits of diverse teams, it was important to have diversity at the leadership level and to ensure that leaders were fostering an inclusive environment where everyone’s opinion was heard and respected. I knew these results to be true from my experience.

For my team, I wanted diverse perspectives and to make sure the culture encouraged everyone to share them. I wanted a team environment where everyone felt psychologically safe so that when the team faced challenges, we would be resilient and adapt to change. And of course, I wanted a team that would innovate and build great products so that the new Ottawa office would be successful in the long term.

I care about diversity as a social justice issue, but when it comes to building teams, it’s a no brainer: if I want to build innovative products, I need a great team, and that means I need as much diversity of thought as I can get. That includes diversity in terms of age, gender, ethnicity, and everything you can’t see: life experience, work experience, education. Economic diversity is also important, because someone growing up wealthy would bring something different to the table than someone who did not.

Building the team

Once I knew what I wanted, I had to go out and find my team. Now that I’m on the other side of this process, I can offer the following advice about building a diverse team.

Start at the beginning.

Are your job postings inclusive? At Magnet, we used an online tool to review job postings, then we continued to iterate with internal reviews.

Examine your interview process.

If possible, curate interviewers to the interviewee, to get the best out of each candidate. For example, when we’re interviewing a female candidate, we do our best to have one female interviewer in the room. This was easy for the Ottawa team given that I was part of the interview process. It might not be easy for small teams, but the process gets easier as you add more diversity to your team.

Openly discuss unconscious bias that might hinder your hiring process.

Sometimes it’s an uncomfortable conversation, because we all have biases and it’s not easy to admit. I found great resources to raise my awareness, and it has helped improve our selection process immensely.

Show off your diversity.

When we attend recruiting events, we do our best to take a diverse mix of recruiters. If it’s a university event, take a new grad and/or alumni. I definitely have a noticeable advantage as a female engineering leader at recruiting events; female candidates often stop to speak to me, compared to the male recruiters at the booth. It’s a familiar impulse. As a female in tech, where I have always been interviewed by men for technical interviews and attended many recruiting events where recruiters and candidates in the room were largely male, I understand that a relatable face is a welcoming comfort.

Early on, our team mainly consisted of experienced team members. We wanted to diversify the work experience of the team, so we hired some new grads and co-op students. The growth was two-sided. The new hires learned about the software delivery life cycle from experienced team members, and in return, the juniors brought new perspectives and new energy to the team.

Creating an inclusive environment

Building a diverse team is not enough. You must foster an inclusive environment. People join a team when they feel welcome, and they stay when they feel they belong.

Diversify your team events.

We have had brewery events, gone on beach outings and organized murder mysteries, and even visited board game cafes. We’re seriously considering a spa outing this year.

Look at your lunch and snack offerings.

If you have beer in the fridge, consider wine and soft drinks.

What are your meeting room names? Ours are “Gotham,” “Atlantis” and “Krypton,” so of course it made sense to include Wonder Woman’s home, “Themyscira.” It’s a small action to include the home of one of DC Comics’ female superheroes, but it represents something important about inclusion.

Happy, successful team

Respect the way others work.

Feeling heard and respected is at the core of creating an inclusive environment, though it’s possibly the most difficult task of this endeavour. Because not everyone is comfortable speaking up in a meeting, it's important to offer different methods to share one's opinion. We encourage the more vocal team members to be mindful of giving others space to speak. We amplify voices by giving credit to each other's ideas. We do our best to be respectful when we disagree.

On our team, each of us brings something new to the table. We are better together than we are alone because our collective experiences and mistakes surpass our individual ones. We continue to learn from each other in our profession, and we teach each other a little about our passions outside of work. Most importantly, with a high degree of trust, we challenge each other, disagree often, and respect each other’s diverse opinions. Things may get uncomfortable sometimes, but we care and laugh a lot.

Thusha Agampodi, Engineering Manager, Magnet Forensics

Thusha Agampodi

Engineering Manager, Magnet Forensics

Thusha Agampodi is the engineering manager at Magnet Forensics’ Ottawa office, where she has helped build a diverse, collaborative engineering team.

Thusha has over a decade of technical and leadership experience at BlackBerry. Growing up in Sri Lanka, Thusha moved to Canada at 14 and subsequently pursued a Computer Systems Engineering degree at Carleton University. She collaborates with universities and high schools to help advance women in STEM and is a mentor and advocate for diversity in tech.

Thusha has two children, aged 5 and 7, and is the co-founder of Friends in Knead, a charity event raising money for the Ottawa Food Bank.

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