Case Study: Senior Engineer Struggling to Meet Expectations

Sid Mustafa
March 1, 2024

The CTO of a start-up is facing a challenge with a Senior Engineer who, despite a promising start and strong technical skills, is delivering work far slower than expected. This situation has arisen after replacing a previous bad hire and deciding how to “delicately” proceed.

Team Composition

There are three team members: a Junior, a QA and the Senior Engineer. The start-up is at a seed stage, emphasising the critical role of each team member.

“The skills and experience that made him a senior might not include being able to rapidly navigate your codebase/architecture/domain combination”.

Glenn P.

Performance Concerns

Issues ranged from environment setup difficulties to absence on critical delivery days. A crucial ticket is now delayed, prompting a meeting to discuss performance and expectations.

The Key Questions

How would you address the performance issue without demoralising the team or the individual?

What are possible ways to avoid similar hiring challenges in the future, considering the reluctance of senior candidates to engage in extensive interview processes?

Your Thoughts

Your insights and experiences could greatly assist in navigating this complex situation. Share your thoughts and advice in the comments below!

This case study reflects the nuanced challenges of start-up leadership, especially in balancing team dynamics, individual performance and company culture.

Peer Advice (from our CTO Community)

Jamaica F.

Interesting question, having been the “slow guy”, a couple of thoughts…

Before jumping to conclusions or doing anything drastic, in my opinion, it’s critical to understand what’s going on on his end. Is this a bad fit or has there just been miscommunication on expectations?

In no particular order:

  • How exactly has he been spending his time? Is he trying to really learn how things work in a new system with new tools? Refactoring and writing tests? If so how much? Is there too much context-switching?
  • What is his philosophy on tech debt?
  • What does he think his fundamental role is: to standardize processes and model good practices to JR dev or to just GSD?
  • Are expectations around delivery timelines totally clear to him?
  • As the new guy, where it sounds like others are starting to look up to him, does he feel safe potentially breaking things? (or shipping suboptimal solutions?)
  • As the only senior with you very busy with other things, does he have the support he needs? Does he feel comfortable bouncing ideas off of you, etc. or does he feel like he needs to do as much as he possibly can on his own (impacting delivery time)?

Glenn P.

I’d suggest here that 6 weeks in is a good time to have the intervention and do a deep-dive into what is preventing good performance.

The skills and experience that made him a senior might not include being able to rapidly navigate your codebase/architecture/domain combination.

From what’s been said – there’s lots to like about this individual. However, by the end of February, you need to identify if they were just a great interviewee or just a steady-starter.

It’s right to consider the impact on the team, but in my experience, letting a bad hire go is better for the overall team mood from the day after letting them go.

Ravi B.

There was a discussion about personality types (DiSC or Culture Index etc).

Some people are slow to start and need all the details before they get going. They want to do everything perfectly by evaluating all possible options.

On the other side, you have people that jump into fire with very limited info.

It appears to me that you have a personality mismatch for the size of your company.

Tuomo T.

I’ve had a somewhat similar situation with a senior hire. They were delivering much slower than expected. I talked with them and asked what exactly was taking so long.

Found out that, indeed, it was mostly figuring out the architecture and how things are done and related etc.

Now they’ve been doing a task where domain knowledge is not needed and they are delivering a lot faster.

Depends on the product, but I think 6 weeks may not be enough to learn the code base and get very productive. I think the key is to find out why they are slow and what exactly are they spending their time on. Then find out if they can do anything in a reasonable time. If not, then it’s probably best to let them go sooner rather than later.

Jayson W.

Great points, Ravi. I share the same sentiment. On the surface, it sounds like there were some personality disconnects and or miscommunication expectations.

Given this person’s background, it sounds to me like an architect which may make sense as to why he/she did well with the communicative things in the beginning but may have either not realized they were going to write code or gotten bogged down with the big picture thinking.

Reply from Ravi:

Yeah. As part of hiring we make everyone take the personality test from Culture Index. This gives us an insight into what to expect and helps us with the right expectations on their bias for action, how social/influential they are etc.

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