When members of different teams sit down together in the same room, it can often feel like everyone’s speaking a different language.
This is especially so for technical team members, who possess a deep understanding of how technology works. Sales, marketing, accounting, HR and even product teams know what their technology is and isn’t able to do — engineers know how and why those tools do or don’t work.
This dichotomy of understanding between, say, the forward-looking vision of a marketer or sales rep and the sheer amount of work that vision might require of an engineer can lead to friction between teams. So how can tech experts communicate their needs, obstacles and ideas to other members of a business in a way that helps move everyone forward? And how can those communication strategies create alignment across technical and non-technical teams?
As vice president of technology at digital sportsbook company PointsBet, Rahul Agrawal is well-versed in communicating with non-technical colleagues about a highly complex product. Founded in Australia, the company opened shop in New Jersey in 2019 following the state’s legalization of online sports betting. PointsBet now operates in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois and Colorado, adjusting its content and product to match differing regulations and local fan bases for various teams.
As PointsBet rolls out new features and adapts to the markets in which it operates, Agrawal described how his team structures its approach to new projects handed over from the company’s product team. When done correctly, that hand-off can set developers up with a clear runway to building the best possible solution to any business problem.
Rahul Agrawal, VP of Technology at PointsBet
How do you clearly communicate technical issues and challenges with non-technical teams that collaborate with yours within the business?
Every technical issue or challenge has an associated business problem that needs solving. Technical problems are only there because you have a business use case, with a feature to build or an issue to be solved. When working with tech teams, the key is to discuss how they understand the problem and how they are trying to solve it, as the trick is in realizing there are always multiple ways to find the solution. If there is a technical issue at hand, it is always best to first talk to the business about what exactly they are trying to solve. The business is usually not looking for a “technical” solution — they are just looking for a means of resolving the problem.
Many times, it is possible to solve the problem in a manner that has not yet been discussed or attempted, and avoid delving into technical issues. In cases when that is not possible, you want to talk about technical issues in layman’s terms, keeping the conversation at a level that is in-depth but also understandable for all. In these instances, it is best to start by outlining the original path for solving the business problem, what the roadblock is, what the team is doing about it and why it may take some time to resolve. Clear ETAs are always key.
“Sportsbooks are an extremely distributed environment, so a small change in one place can affect a completely different area, amplifying the need to be well-planned and talk through solutions.”
How do you provide direction to developers and engineers while also allowing them autonomy within a framework in order to prevent any tangents?
All work is first initiated by the PointsBet product team, so reasoning behind both the “what” and the “why” of a specific project is always answered and justified from the jump. Further direction comes from the subsequent sprint planning sessions, where we discuss each ticket to make sure all developers have every bit of information they could need to complete the task at hand.
From there, the next step is for the developer to conduct solution design and work with the project leads to make sure all cases are covered. To help that process, our team at PointsBet has built guidelines to ensure that every developer is thinking through absolutely everything when designing a specific solution; sportsbooks are an extremely distributed environment, so a small change in one place can affect a completely different area, amplifying the need to be well-planned and talk through solutions (as well as the edge cases) to get a solution design approved. This process ensures that not everyone is doing everything. Instead, each developer needs to get a good design in place, and has the autonomy to design the project according to their own preferences so long as it meets the guidelines set up by tech leads. The best designs are showcased to a tech group, which ultimately helps the rest of the team moving forward.
What management skills do you use to facilitate your team’s ability to attain and maintain a state of flow?
Planning ahead, first and foremost. We are a very fast-paced company in a very fast-paced industry, which does require a great deal of multitasking. With that in mind, the more planning that can be done upfront the better. This makes everything easier downstream.