Employee Motivation

Engineering goals: How to set goals for high-performing teams

14 min read

In this article, we'll walk through how engineering managers can set goals for high-performing teams, including role-specific and professional development examples to help get you started.

What do high-performing engineering teams have in common? If you answered a snazzy tech stack or nap pods, guess again. Although we’re hardly the ones to argue against a well-rested brain, the real secret of these teams is effective goal-setting.

Simply put, effective engineering teams know what their goals are, and are equipped with the resources, tools, and support they need to demolish them. 

In this post, we’ll be examining:

Let’s get started!

How to set goals for engineering teams: A step-by-step process

1. Start from the top

Before you can determine specific goals for your team, it’s important to have a clear understanding of your organization’s broader goals. In other words, goals should flow from company-wide objectives down to your team and individual contributors. This helps ensure that everyday tasks and responsibilities are aligned with business priorities.

How to use cascading goals
(Image source)

Beyond keeping everyone on the same page, cascading goals are also linked with productivity. According to Gallup, employee productivity increases by 56% when managers are involved in helping their reports align their goals with the needs of the organization.

This also instills a sense of common purpose and a deeper connection to the work each individual is doing. In fact, employees who can link their individual goals to those of the organization are 3.5 times more likely to be engaged. 

Furthermore, a report by Harvard Business Review found that the second most important driver of employee engagement was that individuals have a clear understanding of how their job contributes to business strategy. 

2. Make your goals crystal clear

Don’t take new goals to your team until they’ve been fully fleshed out. Some questions you should be able to answer as an engineering manager include:

  • What is the actual goal?
  • Why is this goal important?
  • What does success look like?
  • How does this goal support or align with the broader company goals?
  • How are we going to reach this goal?
  • What are the expectations of each individual contributor working towards this goal?

The more detailed and specific you can get, the less room there is for misinterpretation. Attach key information to your goals, like actual numbers, milestones, KPIs, and any important deadlines. 

Remember, every goal should be measurable.

3. Involve your team in the goal-setting process

Anyone can dictate a goal to someone else, but actually involving your team in the process will help your reports feel personally invested and more inclined to take ownership.

Using an idea management tool is an easy way to capture your team’s feedback during the goal-setting process. You can also add an item around goal brainstorming in your weekly team meeting. When you open up the floor to new ideas, perspectives, and dialogue, you could be rewarded with valuable insights. 

For instance, if your team doesn’t think a particular goal is feasible, it’s better to know that in advance, before it’s set in stone. Or maybe you can afford to be even more ambitious.

Talk about goals during one-on-one meetings

It’s also important to regularly speak one-on-one with your reports about their goals, so you can track their progress, provide coaching, recognize success, and spot any roadblocks along the way. If a direct report is struggling to meet their individual goals, for instance, don’t wait for the annual review to provide feedback.

But remember that not every engineer approaches one-on-ones the same. So cater these conversations to each indiviudal on your team.

“Goal-setting needs to be a collaborative exercise between a manager and a direct report. By keeping a version-controlled document of a person’s past accomplishments and areas of improvement, it becomes much easier to identify problem areas, document emotional labor, and help people grow their skills with accountability.”

-Danielle Leong, Senior Engineering Manager at GitHub

Frequent communication is especially important as more companies switch to remote work.

“When you work in one physical location, you can bump into people and have conversations, whereas with remote communication you have to be very intentional with what’s happening with each other and with the work. We have a lot of structure to amplify both formal and informal communication.”

– Anjaun Simmons, Engineering Coach at HelpScout

Katie Womersley, VP of Engineering at Buffer, agrees that ongoing communication with your reports is crucial. “They should never wonder what’s going on with you,” she says.

Regularly addressing goals with your team will also help ensure they’re not getting lost in the daily workflow. “Even the most finely crafted objectives will have little impact if they are filed away for 363 days of the year. To drive strategy execution, goals should serve as a framework that guides key decisions and activities throughout the year,” says Donald Sull, Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management

4. Use the right goal-setting framework to help you

According to a study at the Dominican University in California, individuals are 42% more likely to achieve their goals when they’re recorded. Fortunately, there are different frameworks available to help you map out your engineering team goals effectively. These include:

software engineering okr goal examples

Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) 

The OKR methodology originated at Intel and is used by companies like Google, Netflix, Twitter, Deloitte, Zynga… even Hypercontext! Also known as “Objectives and Key Results”, this approach identifies objectives, each defining a particular goal to be achieved. The objectives are subsequently connected to milestones or key results in order to measure progress.

Don’t go overboard—if your list of key results is too long, people won’t remember them. Aim to hit that sweet spot of 2-5 key results for every objective.

Hot Tip: If you’re not sure where to start, Hypercontext offers over 200 handy OKR goal examples.

SMART Goals infographic

SMART Goals

When it comes to effective goal setting, ambiguity is your enemy. The SMART approach forces you to frame your goals so that they’re:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

This methodology is particularly helpful because it provides a manageable list of criteria for your engineering team goals to meet before you actually commit. 

Common engineering KPIs

As a manager, it’s up to you to ultimately determine your engineering team’s goals and evaluate them according to KPIs. If you’re not sure where to start, here are some common engineering KPIs to consider:

  • Application speed and load times
  • Number of releases
  • Story points completed
  • Code coverage
  • Number of comments per pull request
  • Test case coverage
  • Velocity
  • Burndown rate
  • Workload balance
  • Running costs
  • Number of bugs
  • Average downtime
  • PR review rate and merge time
  • Developer delta or turnover rate
  • Code quality SLA

Here’s what these might look like when set as goals:

Senior Engineering Manager Goal Example
Senior Engineering Manager goal examples
DevOps goal example
DevOps goal examples
Senior Software Engineer Goal Example
Senior Software Engineer goal examples
Junior Software Engineer Goal Example
Junior Software Engineer goal examples

How to set career and professional development goals for engineers

Lofty goals can overwhelm any team, making it difficult to manage priorities and stay on track. That’s why it’s important to establish smaller, quarterly goals for your reports to work towards.

On the flip side, you don’t want to lose sight of the big picture. As manager, it’s your responsibility to communicate to your team how their quarterly goals support your organization’s annual goals.

Get a pulse on your team’s personal and career goals

Don’t assume everyone on your team aspires to become a manager someday. For one, being a people manager is hard work, and often requires learning a brand new skillset. Some folks are perfectly happy to spend their entire careers working as individual contributors.

That’s okay. 

The important thing is that you take the time to speak with your reports and learn their personal and career goals. Once you know what everyone is working towards, you’ll be able to ensure that the goals you set not only push your team — and organization — towards success, but also that your reports are motivated and on track to hit their personal goals as well.

One-on-one meetings are the perfect opportunity to gage how your reports are feeling about their personal and career goals.

“We put a lot of effort into our one-to-ones. We try to make them not about status, not about a project, [but] about who are you as a person. What do you value right now? Why are you here at work, like what is motivating you? What is challenging you?”

-Katie Womersley, VP of Engineering at Buffer

If you’re looking to better understand what career aspirations your team has, here are some one-on-one questions you can ask:

  • Where do you see your role evolving in the next 6 months and 1 year?
  • Who’s someone in the company that you’d like to learn more from?
  • What professional goals would you like to accomplish in the next 6 to 12 months, and what makes you say that?
  • Is your job what you expected when you accepted it? If not, where has it differed?
  • What can I be doing to help progress your career?
  • What’s a big, audacious goal that you’d like to achieve this quarter?

Professional development goal examples for engineers

Check out some of these examples to help inspire professional development goals for your team: 

1. Progressing towards a Senior Software Engineer role

  • Complete 3 projects as the lead engineer
  • Successfully mentor 1 intern (or new hire) this quarter
  • Get positive feedback from 2 people on technical communication skills

👉🏽 View more engineering goals here

2. Improving lead engineering skills

  • Be the main engineering rep in all spec and design reviews
  • Patch rate of project between 5-10%
  • Project released and verified within 15% of estimate

👉🏽 View more engineering goals here

3. Building on technical knowledge

  • Read one technical book per quarter
  • Take one technical course per quarter
  • Reduce query load time by 20% this quarter

👉🏽 View more engineering goals here


4. Expanding professional network outside team

  • Have lunch or coffee with 2+ engineers, QAs, or PMs outside of the team per quarter
  • Work on an innovation/Hackathon/passion/20% time project that includes at least 1 SE outside of the team

👉🏽 View more engineering goals here

Engineering goal examples

Let’s walk through some goal examples for common engineering roles:

Software engineer

📈 Objective: Improve our code quality

KPIs:

  • Fix 4 medium level bugs this quarter
  • Increase the code coverage to 85% on {project-name} by {due-date}
  • Refactor 1 area of code you did not initially create
  • Create and revise documentation for each feature worked on this quarter

👷‍♀️ Objective: Flex your technical skills

KPIs:

  • Build and release 1 feature on time and on scope
  • Reduce PR turnaround time to less than 4 hours
  • Complete 6 PRs per sprint this quarter
  • Complete the web development training tutorials by {due-date} to improve your understanding of the SOLID design principles

👉🏽 View more Software Engineer goal examples

VP, Engineering

🤩 Objective: Implement a new one-on-one program across engineering to foster better communication between managers and their direct reports

KPIs:

  • Choose a one-on-one meeting platform (E.g. Hypercontext 😉)
  • Pick 1-3 themes for the next 6 months for the team to improve (I.e. growth, communication, motivation)
  • Meet with all people managers to introduce the concept and discuss the themes
  • Introduce the concept to your entire engineering team and ensure meetings are set up for each manager and their direct reports
  • Ensure each manager is asking thought-provoking questions in every one-on-one related to the theme
  • Check with your managers every month to make sure no one-on-ones are cancelled and only rescheduled due to vacations or emergencies
  • Read a book on communication or asking questions this quarter (I.e. Never Split the Difference, The Coaching Habit, A More Beautiful Question, or The Book of Beautiful Questions)

💙 Objective: Operate as an anti-racist leader

KPIs:

  • Read and discuss 1 book on anti-racism, white supremacy, impact and effects per quarter
  • Listen to at least 12 podcasts on anti-racism this quarter (1/week)
  • Use your position as an organizational leader to disrupt racism and white supremacy at our company
  • Mentor and hold the engineering managers who report to you accountable to being anti-racists and allies
  • Use your skip level 1:1s to get to know the BIPOC individual contributors in our organization, understand their contributions, and sponsor a path for them to your role
  • Donate up to 2 hours per week mentoring leaders in organizations dedicated to anti-racism
  • Make monthly direct action financial donations to BIPOC activists, artists, and organizations across the spectrum doing intersectional anti-racism work (if you have the means)

👉🏽 View more VP, Engineering goal examples

DevOps

👨🏻‍💻 Objective: Implement a trending system to monitor key time series infrastructure data

KPIs:

  • Research, discuss, and select a trending system like prometheus or grafana within a sprint cycle
  • Install, configure, and get familiar with the system over a sprint cycle
  • Identify key data store technology in use and configure a data collector on all instances to have full trending of data store technology in play within a sprint cycle
  • Identify secondary critical systems and implement at least one every sprint cycle
  • Attain 100% coverage by end of quarter

👩🏿‍💻 Objective: Ensure 100% of critical systems are backed up nightly within a quarter

KPIs:

  • Inventory all data store services that are necessary for your application infrastructure within a sprint cycle
  • Create backup monitors for all data store services within a sprint cycle. Missing backups will put their associated monitor in a fail state.
  • Prioritize the most critical backups needed and address at least one in every sprint cycle
  • Resolve all failed backup alerts within a quarter

👉🏽 View more DevOps goal examples

Backend Engineer

📈 Objective: Improve our backend code quality

KPIs:

  • Introduce integration testing to the code by the end of the first month this quarter
  • Implement API to a monitoring system (I.e. DataDog) by the end of the quarter
  • Refactor at least 1 n+1 query problem this quarter

💬 Objective: Improve your communication and mentorship skills

KPIs:

  • Give a lunch and learn on a relevant backend topic (I.e. Ruby on Rails, PHP, Restful API)
  • Write 1 blog post on a language or process you’re currently working with this quarter
  • Onboard and train one of the new backend engineers to help them develop skills faster this quarter
  • Mentor a junior backend engineer on our team with bi-weekly one-on-one meetings this quarter

👉🏽 View more Backend Engineer goal examples

Wrapping up

Goal setting is critical to the success of your engineering team and organization. It’s essential to make sure your team goals are aligned with broader organizational goals, so that everyone’s on the same page and working towards the same outcome.

Your goals also need to be clear, manageable and ideally built on a proven goal-setting framework, like SMART or OKRS. 

Most importantly, however, you need to communicate frequently with your team, so they understand how their individual goals tie in with your team and organization as a whole. Lastly, by supporting direct reports with learning and professional development opportunities, you can equip them to crush even bigger goals in the future.


over 180 goal and okr examples for every role in tech

Get inspired from 180+ goal examples for engineers