How to handle your lead engineer leaving

Your lead engineer just left the company. Perhaps they were lured by a better offer from a startup, or offered the chance to work with new technologies they’ve been passionate about learning. Whatever the case, they were the one to architect most of your company’s product backend—and by losing them, you’re losing access to a massive amount of domain knowledge.

What can you do to help your engineering team keep things moving and not lose development velocity amid the fallout? Here are some ideas:

If your lead engineer has put in notice, but isn’t gone yet, make the most of their remaining time by extracting all the knowledge from them that you possibly can.

Your junior developers might be used to tapping your lead engineer on the shoulder to ask questions about the tech stack and upcoming feature requests, but that’s not going to be an option going forward. Instead, ask the senior engineer to write out Q&As for all of the common questions that have come up from the team or that they anticipate other engineers may come up with in upcoming release cycles. Once they’ve done that, ask the engineering team to review it and add their own questions so that your lead developer can document their answers.

Compile existing notes, emails, and chat threads that provide context for the project.

Without your key domain expert, it’s going to be important to compile as much information as possible, both from notes and messages they’ve sent as well as existing technical documentation and other team discussions that will help your engineering team. Ask everyone involved in the project—project managers, engineering, design, marketing, sales, ops, and customer success—to share any existing documentation they have that could provide valuable insights around the project.

Organize all your information into relevant categories in a knowledge sharing tool.

Once you’ve compiled all of the relevant materials you can—both through pulling together existing docs and asking your senior engineer to provide a cheat sheet if possible—you’ll need to categorize them and make them easy for your entire development team to find and search through. Use a knowledge sharing tool to post technical questions and answers, with the ability for other developers to add to each thread with their own context or updates, and to vote on the most useful or relevant responses. The tool should be searchable and include tags, so that your engineers can easily sort through it and find what they’re looking for as the project moves forward to the next release cycle.

Identify what documentation you’ll need for each release.

Make sure that your team has the tools to future-proof against knowledge gaps in the future by identifying key technical documentation that you’ll need for each release, and assigning knowledge capturing responsibilities to key stakeholders on the engineering team. By making sure that all information is stored clearly and transparently in one central repository, you’ll be able to keep your team running smoothly even without a lead developer.

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