Running Student Teams

Smart people want to work on projects that are challenging, impactful, and give them an opportunity to grow in areas they value. If you’re running a student team, communicating effectively and applying rigor to your team’s processes is a must— it’s in your best interest to make sure your teammates are motivated to do their best work.

In college, I worked on a handful of projects that were led by other students. After figuring out what I would do differently if I was in their shoes, I decided to try it myself. Between September 2018 and May 2019, I worked with a team of six students to build a VR animation tool and make a short film with it. If I had to do it all again, these are the eight notes I'd give myself.

1. Define your target audience early.

In retrospect, this was the most important thing we did. Once we knew who we were building for, our product decisions were more focused, we were more discerning about the feedback we received, and we were able to measure success more directly. When we came up with new ideas or suggested improvements to the product, we asked ourselves: “Does this directly benefit our target audience?”

2. Scope strategically.

Start with the most critical parts of your project and build on top of them. For our animation app, that meant building playback systems, ways to track animatable attributes, and other core technology before building any "polish" features. That way, you'll have something to show even if you don't get to everything in the end.

For more, check out Richard Lemarchand's paper on Modular Building & Concentric Development.

3. Measure what matters.

Figuring out what success looks like for your team is the first step to actually succeeding. A great way to do this is by coming up with OKRs (objectives and key results) for your product, but other goal-setting frameworks work, too.

Defining measurable key results early benefits you in two ways: you can figure out if your team’s making progress in a quantitative way, and you can avoid spending time on tasks that don’t get you closer to achieving your goals.

For more, check out Andy Grove's High Output Management (Chapter 6).

4. Always set an agenda.

And don't meet if you don't have one. Your teammates' time is extremely valuable— by setting an agenda ahead of your meeting, you're making sure that your meeting is worth everyone's time.

Prepare an agenda at least a few hours before your meeting, and make sure that every agenda item is important for most / all team members. Add a time estimate before each agenda item so you / your team know what to prioritize. If you can't come up with enough agenda items that are important for most / all team members, don't have the meeting! Consider dealing with action items asynchronously.

5. Trust your team.

Great teammates value challenging tasks. When you delegate tasks to a teammate, you're giving them the opportunity to own a piece of the project. People tend to take care of the things they own, so as long as you effectively communicate how their work fits into the bigger picture, your teammates will be more inclined to produce great work.

6. Schedule 1:1s.

Having one-on-one meetings with your teammates is an opportunity for you to learn about what's working and what isn't. It gives your teammates a chance to discuss their goals, talk about anything that may be blocking them, and give you feedback on your performance. Have your teammates set the agenda to ensure that your meetings are more focused on them and what they want to talk about.

As a lead, 1:1s are a great time to understand your teammates’ goals and motivations. The best tasks are the ones that push the product forward and align with your teammates’ goals for the semester / year— use these meetings as an opportunity to understand what those tasks might be.

For more, check out Andy Grove's High Output Management (Chapter 4) and Ben Horowitz' The Hard Thing About Hard Things have good sections on how to effectively run 1:1 meetings.

7. Make your teammates feel like insiders.

People generally enjoy feeling like insiders, and your teammates should feel like they have the inside scoop on your product and team. As a lead, it's your responsibility to share your vision, updates from stakeholders, all the wins, and all the losses.

Communicating openly builds trust and gives your teammates permission to communicate openly, too.

8. Praise publicly, critique privately.

Building anything consequential takes a team, so let your teammates know how much you appreciate them and their hard work. If you have notes on their performance— rather than a specific task or feature that should be evaluated as a team— let them know in private.

If you send week-in-review emails to your team, highlight teammates that have done great work. If your team communicates on Slack, drop a line when someone completes a big task. Public praise takes minimal effort, and sincere expressions of gratitude will be appreciated and remembered.


Thanks for reading. If you have any feedback or suggestions for me, feel free to reach out on Twitter or sagarramesh.com.