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Goal Setting for Engineers: Tips and Examples

Here’s how to set goals for your high-performing engineering team and equip them with the resources they need to succeed.

By Brier Cook  •   July 13, 2022  •   7 min read

Managing a technical team comes with its own set of challenges. If you’re an engineer yourself, you may come into the role with preconceived notions about how to work on existing projects. If you’re a nontechnical manager, you likely spend extra time learning how you can best support your team’s work. Either way, your engineers will perform best with a leader who is motivating and collaborative, and who can help them achieve their objectives. 

Let’s talk about how you can help your team of engineers set practical goals, develop new skills, and create a plan that sets them up for long-term success. 

The importance of goal setting for engineers 

Engineers are creators, innovators, and doers. When it comes to software, engineers turn company dreams into reality. As a manager, your most important responsibility is helping your team thrive. Goal setting is one of your most powerful tools because it will help your team take active steps to achieve their desired outcome. At your company, the engineering team probably consists of a diverse group of employees who are ready to think outside the box each time they take on a new task. The most effective engineering teams know what their goals are and have access to the tools, resources, and support needed to conquer them! 

Track objectives as part of your meeting workflow

Stay on top of your team’s goals by clearly recording, defining, and tracking the progress of your OKRs in Fellow’s Objectives tool!

4 tips for setting engineering goals

1Create realistic goals

It may seem simple, but many managers underscore the importance of assigning practical goals to their team. Remember that trying to make it to the top in one leap is a recipe for failure. For example, telling a software developer to conceptualize a new web application, build software prototypes, test technologies and tools, and design the infrastructure for the product in one week is a highly unrealistic ask. Assigning the same tasks without any deadline at all is equally as troublesome. Avoid lofty objectives with vague language at all costs. Once you determine a realistic goal, assign action items and provide a reasonable deadline that will help the individuals involved see ongoing progress while still feeling challenged. 

2Be transparent 

A lack of transparency results in distrust. As a manager, you need to be open and honest with your employees throughout the goal-setting process. Each time you make a difficult choice that will impact the team, explain how you came to the decision. Aim to develop work processes that keep each individual in the loop. When issues arise, communicate clearly with your team of engineers and make yourself available to support their work. 

3Use software

It’s no shock that employees who are already using technology to drive productivity will benefit from using it during the goal-setting process. Use Fellow to track objectives as part of your meeting workflow by using the software to record, define, and track the progress of each objective and key result (OKR) in the Objectives tool. You can further simplify goal setting by having each member of the team create their own OKRs or team-wide objectives. The best part is that anyone can view your progress when you mark an objective as public, so everyone can be held accountable!

4Set SMART goals

SMART goals are: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. Your team goals should always include a stated desired outcome. You should also be able to define goals in qualitative or quantitative terms so you can track progress along the way. For a goal to be achievable, you need to have reasonable confidence that your team will be able to complete the job in the time you’ve assigned, given the available resources. Next, you should ensure that each individual’s goals are in line with your company’s overall mission, values, and objectives. Lastly, you’ll need to assign a target date by which you expect the goal to be accomplished. Using the SMART goal system will help give your team a sense of direction, allow them to organize themselves, and help them visualize the end result.

Try this SMART goal meeting agenda template to set specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound goals:

Examples of engineering goals

  • Expand technical knowledge as a team: If your team has specified interest in improving their technical knowledge, you can encourage them to read technical books each quarter, take a course as a group, or have each member of the team host a quick 15-minute session where they teach other members of the group about a technical skill that is specific to their role. Have your teammates align this team goal with larger company objectives. Aim to prioritize new technical skills that can be used to help optimize a system that drives the organization forward. 
  • Improve data security: You can never be too safe! Perhaps your team wants to make consumer or customer data an even bigger priority this year. Some realistic key results you can work on for your digital security are: decreasing the number of data breach incidents each quarter, increasing your data recovery time, and obtaining and populating an encrypted tool for all your team’s passwords.
  • Increase the quality of the company’s product: Every company wants to be a thought-leader in their industry. Encourage your team to work towards a goal that improves the company and keeps stakeholders and customers happy. If your team’s goal is to increase the quality of the product, key results could include: having all product features reviewed by another internal engineering team before launching, and fixing 50 percent of known bugs by the end of next quarter. 
  • Improve the development process: Engineering teams are always looking for ways to optimize procedures, systems, and products. Why not turn this into an actionable team goal? If you want your team to work smarter, challenge them to: automate existing team processes, complete training on agile sprints, and have each person contribute one piece of positive or constructive feedback during your next team meeting. 
  • Progress towards a senior role: If there’s a member of your team who is interested in ascending to a senior role, work with them individually to help them progress to their desirable level. Some of the outlined key results for an employee looking to get promoted may be: successfully mentoring a new member of the team this quarter and leading five major projects over the next year. Schedule one-on-one meetings with the employee to discuss how they can continue to grow as an engineer, and remind them to track their progress. 

Mistakes to avoid when goal setting

1Setting unattainable goals

French sociologist Emile Durkheim once said that “pursuing a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.” An attainable goal should stretch your abilities but still remain possible. Every objective should fit into the SMART goals criteria so your efforts are focused and you have a high chance of successfully completing them. No matter how much progress you make, you won’t feel victorious if you’re setting goals that your team won’t be able to achieve. 

2Failing to set milestone goals 

Milestones are the measurable accomplishments that need to be made to keep up motivation as you progress towards a goal. When you’re working with your team or an individual to select a goal, identify key checkpoints. Assign a series of tasks and steps required to move forward at each phase of the project. If necessary, include a detailed description of what each task entails. Assign each milestone to an individual or group on your team and follow up with deadlines. Each time a member of your team is able to check off a to-do box, they’ll feel motivated to continue! 

3Failing to track progress

Little accomplishments add up to big accomplishments. Give yourself and your team the opportunity to celebrate the small wins by tracking any progress made towards your goals. Check in with your team on a weekly or bi-weekly basis to see if you’re on target. Set up a reward system for the team and select a reward for each major milestone. Alter objectives if your goals seem stretchable. Lastly, encourage everyone to keep their eyes on the prize. Getting lost in the finer details will only deter progress. 

Free goal-setting meeting agenda templates

Encourage your engineers with goal setting

Normalize goal setting within your team of engineers and watch as your employees reach milestones you once thought impossible! Software engineers are jacks of all trades. They are already stellar programmers, problem solvers, inventors, and leaders. Take them to the next level by working with each member of your team to establish professional goals that set the team up for success. Start at your next one-on-one with a subordinate or at a team meeting with the larger group. Remember that coming together is only the beginning. When you strive for progress first, perfection will follow.

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