Composing a team - its all about skills


Photo by Memento Media on Unsplash

The previous articles gave an introduction to common roles seen in hardware development teams (managing roles and engineering roles). Those role descriptions and lists of common responsibilities give a good starting point to think about the tasks it takes to develop a hardware product and the skills required to master the tasks.

As a start-up, you won’t hire for each role, you hire for skills and attitude - and flexibility. All team members will certainly switch their hats and jump between different roles, depending on the stage of product development and team size. This counts as much for start-up as for established small and mid-size companies.

A tool, I recommend to use from the very beginning, is the Skill Matrix. The skill matrix maps and visualized required and desired skills. Of course, it can also get introduced at any time of the team building process and for every size of team. It serves as a tool for many purposes such as hiring, personal development or decision making for outsourcing work packages.

A great source for the why and how to use a skill matrix is found at https://upskill.wiki/

As for this article, I like to share best practices for hardware development teams.

Be specific, extensive - and consider continuous change

Start by compiling a comprehensive list of the unique skills required for your product development, such as scientific knowledge, material expertise, and specific manufacturing methods. Depending on the product and the extent of technical skills needed, it is advisable to categorize these skills into sub-parts.

Once you have addressed the technical know-how aspect, include skills related to hardware development procedures, such as requirement-based engineering, sustainable design engineering, and rapid prototyping.

Additionally, consider the common skills product and project management, as well as supply chain and quality management.

Utilize the role descriptions as a valuable starting point for creating the skill matrix, while keeping in mind that the list does not have to be exhaustive. Throughout the development process, you will identify areas where skills are lacking and can update the skill matrix accordingly.

In the initial draft of the matrix, make sure to specify the required proficiency level for each skill, understanding that certain skills may require basic knowledge while others demand expert-level mastery - always depending on your product to develop.

Start quick and simple

I advise against overthinking the implementation of the Skill Matrix. As mentioned earlier, it is a tool meant for continuous use and can be initiated with a simple Excel or Google Sheets file, without the need for a highly sophisticated online tool. The key is to begin the process and not get caught up in unnecessary complexities. In my experience, starting the matrix in collaboration with your co-founder or a trusted and knowledgeable friend is the most straightforward approach.

Soft skills are important skills, too

From team composition perspective, the hard skills are only one side of the medal. A perfect team is complementary also in soft skills like communication, time management, persistance etc. I find it helpful to include most common softskills into the matrix as it offers transparency on a different level which can get leveraged within the team and by the individual team members. Alongside, on a team level, I like to keep a separate overview of team members natural behavioral roles. Using the Belbin model https://www.belbin.com/about/belbin-team-roles is another valuable tool to compose the most efficient (and fun) team.

Want or does not want

While it is true that startups prioritize flexibility and a 'can-do' attitude, it is important to give team members the opportunity to express their preferences when it comes to certain skills.

By allowing individuals to indicate their 'want to' and 'does not want to' apply certain skills, it creates space for personal development and growth.

The 'does not want to' marker does not imply that the skill will be completely disregarded, but rather, it needs to be openly addressed and discussed by both the team member and the team lead.

Also, if a team member has a low proficiency level in a particular skill but expresses a desire to learn and develop in that area, it can be seen as an opportunity for future growth. Sharing this information within the team, even in larger teams, encourages positive dynamics and fosters in-team mentoring.

Communicate the why and how-to before using the matrix in your team

Once you have finished compiling the list of required skills and proficiency levels, it is imperative to inform your team about the implementation of the Skill Matrix as a valuable tool. Take the time to explain the purpose behind its use, the methodology involved, and provide an opportunity for team members to ask questions, especially regarding self-assessment of their expertise level and the concept of expressing preferences in terms of "Want" and "Does not want" skills. In my experience, conducting one-on-one meetings with each team member to introduce and guide them through the process of completing their individual columns proves to be a smooth and effective approach. This approach will facilitate their understanding and enable them to complete their section of the matrix within a few days.

I personally like to use the skill matrix within a team at least once a year for a team event. Also, when introducing the tool to an existing team, it is great to walk through the Skill Matrix together in a team event once every individual team member has completed their entries.

Include every team member - be complete

Always consider you have hidden gems in your team! Include your interns and working students! And include key external team members such as external engineers. You may not share the skill matrix with your external team, but when growing it will assist in recruiting external engineering consultants for specific fields.

Open space for secret skills

Everyone possesses hidden talents and secret skills that often go unnoticed unless explicitly asked about. In order to uncover these unique abilities, consider adding a section to your skill matrix specifically for 'hidden skills.' This section should focus on skills that are not directly related to hardware development but are rather individual and distinctive in nature. As a team lead or founder, you can set an example by including skills that you bring to the table. Not only is it enjoyable to discover these hidden skills among team members, but it also encourages individuals to reflect on the additional value they can contribute to the team. Moreover, discussing these hidden skills fosters deeper connections beyond purely business interactions, as it acknowledges that we are all human - and diversity matters.

At early stage - include the founders team

When bootstrapping a start-up with a strong team of founders, the skill matrix is a valuable tool for identifying the ideal description of the first hire. While initially, the founders must fulfill all roles, there will come a time when they need to transition into leadership positions. The skill matrix aids in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses within the founders team, and by utilizing the want/does not want approach, it indicates where the founders are likely to be willing to delegate and relinquish responsibilities. This can be one of the most challenging aspects for first-time founders and awareness about it is an important part of successfully hiring your first key roles (and skills).


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