Team Crafting using a Team Depth Chart

A highly effective team is more than the sum of its parts because the interplay between team members’ strengths and weaknesses can be crafted into a cohesive unit. This blog post describes a management tool we use at Wealthfront to help craft an effective engineering team.

The Challenge

Crafting an effective engineering team is a multi-faceted problem:

  • How do you accurately capture the landscape of your team’s area of ownership and the skills and expertise needed to fulfill its mission?
  • How do you identify gaps or thin spots of expertise on the team? How can you identify if your team is overly reliant on specific engineers? 
  • How do you come up with an effective development plan to address shortcomings? How can you be more confident that you are hiring for the right experience that complement the current team?

What is a Team Depth Chart?

A Team Depth Chart is a simple yet powerful tool we use at Wealthfront to help managers develop highly-effective and robust teams. Here is a simplified example:

An Example Depth Chart has 4 rows that list out skills of the team. The 4 team skills are System X, Third-party Service Y, Database Z, and Relationship with Stakeholder A. System X is listed as Low criticality, with Alice as having Medium strength in Depth 1 and Bob as having Strong strength in Depth 2. Third-party Service Y is listed as High criticality, with Bob as having Strong strength in Depth 1, Carol as having Medium strength in Depth 2, and Dave as having Weak strength in Depth 3. Database Z is listed as High criticality, with only Bob as Depth 1 having Medium strength. Finally, the Relationship with Stakeholder A attribute is listed as Medium Criticality, with Carol as having Strong strength in Depth 1 and Bob as having Medium strength in Depth 2.
Figure 1: An example Team Depth Chart

A Team Depth Chart has a few components:

  • Each row describes an expertise or attribute that the team needs to have in order to fulfill its charter effectively. This can be technical or organizational competency (e.g. stakeholder relations)
  • The “Criticality” column describes how imperative your team must readily cover this attribute in order for the team to successfully fulfill its responsibilities. A core competency that your team provides for the business is more likely a high-criticality attribute while a low-critical attribute may be one where you can lean on a partner team to help fill. This column helps with prioritizing which attributes to develop.
  • The Depth Chart section has 2 dimensions:
    • An engineer’s position in the depth chart (e.g. Depth 1, Depth 2, etc.) reflects the escalation path of ownership within the team. Your Depth 1 engineer is the primary load-bearing team member for that expertise or attribute. They are the first point of contact or first responders. Anyone in Depth 2 or 3 would be backup or supporting roles for Depth 1. In the example above (Figure 1), Alice is the go-to person for “System X” while Bob supports her as a secondary point of contact.
    • Each engineer should also be given a strength rating for a given skill or expertise. This helps to identify areas of strength or weakness in your team. It is important to note that this rating is against the absolute needs of the team, not relative to others. In the example in Figure 1, Bob is the most familiar on the team with “Database Z”, but rated Medium relative to the level of expertise that the team needs overall.

How do you create a Team Depth Chart?

Start with the broader context of the team. What is the charter of the team and how does it fit into the overall business? What are some of the unique characteristics of your team’s domain that may require skill sets that not every engineer in your organization may have?

Then come up with your attribute list. Consider aspects of technical expertise (e.g. technology, systems), business-specific domain familiarity, and soft-skills (e.g. prioritization, project management). Whatever your team needs to be successful, include it in this list. It’s a good idea to talk to your team and your stakeholders to come up with this list. Another good source is to analyze ticket queues to ensure that this list truly captures the full scope of responsibilities.

As an example, the Banking Platform engineering team at Wealthfront is responsible for the backend systems that powers our cash products. Given this charter, the skills chart of this team would include domain-specific expertise with the banking industry such as the ACH system and PCI compliance, technical expertise with systems like Wealthfront’s core banking microservices and any of our third-party bank partner APIs, and organizational familiarity with partner teams with Wealthfront like Fraud & Risk. 

Evaluate how critical each attribute must be readily available for your team to be able to fulfill its responsibilities (High / Medium / Low).  A litmus test is to imagine if you had no one familiar with a given attribute, how much that could negatively impact your team or the business. At Wealthfront all our engineers also go on-call, so looking at which systems are most likely to generate high-severity incidents is one way to identify some of the most important systems. Another dimension of criticality is to look for areas that can easily become blockers or bottlenecks for your team or another team.

Next, start filling out the depth chart. An engineer’s position on the depth chart for a given row should be based on the actual day-to-day path of escalation within the team, not necessarily in descending order of expertise. For example, if all questions for a given system consistently get asked to a specific team member you should put that engineer as Depth 1. This is important to differentiate because one of the key factors to consider when crafting your team is the mental load an employee carries by being the first point-of-escalation for a given system, compared to being a tier-2 backup to an area of ownership. One observation to highlight here is that it is usually unlikely to have attributes with truly no one in the depth chart because chances are someone is actually dealing with concerns in that area. However it is possible that management just isn’t aware that someone is plugging that gap. True gaps in necessary expertise usually reveal themselves dramatically within an organization (e.g. legacy system throws an alert) and someone either steps up silently or leadership assigns it to someone in the moment to respond.

Finally, evaluate the strength of each engineer on the depth chart for each attribute (Strong, Medium, Weak). When evaluating the strength remember that it should be relative to the absolute need of the team, not relative to other team members. For example, if a team member is the strongest on the team for a given skill, but is insufficient to fully meet the needs of the team, they should be given a lower strength rating such as “Medium”. This tool is not intended to be used for an individual’s performance evaluation but for team crafting; so we measure ourselves against what is required for the team to fulfill its mission. 

Now that you have accurately captured the landscape of your team’s area of ownership and the attributes needed to fulfill its mission, you can identify areas of improvement and then craft a team development plan.

Identifying areas of improvement

The first thing to do is to look for gaps in coverage where there is no subject-matter expertise on the team. Remediating high-criticality gaps should be especially top priority. 

In addition to gaps, also look for “thin spots” on your depth chart by reviewing the strength and depth of your team in relation to the criticality of that attribute. Critical attributes should have at least one engineer with strong subject-matter expertise in that area. A robust team should also have multiple engineers in its depth chart for highly critical or particularly complex attributes. In our example depth chart from Figure 1, the team depth strength for Database Z is both thin (Depth = 1) and weak (Medium) especially considering how it is a High Criticality attribute.

Finally, look for engineers that may show up on the depth chart for an unhealthy number of attributes. Look especially for instances where an engineer is Depth 1 for many critical attributes. This is not only a risk for the team to be overly reliant on a single engineer, but it will also contribute to burnout for that employee. It may be natural for your most senior engineers to have familiarity in many areas across the team but a healthy team should have other junior engineers that transition into stepping up and taking Depth 1 ownership. In our example chart again from Figure 1, Bob shows up in multiple rows, and is also Depth 1 for multiple High Criticality attributes. 

Developing a Plan

Once you have identified areas to improve, select key areas to focus your efforts. Ensuring healthy coverage on the most critical attributes should be the highest priority. Also consider prioritizing improvements that can have multiple positive effects on the team (e.g. offloading an oversubscribed engineer and increasing depth for a critical attribute). From here develop a plan to improve your depth chart in those attributes.

Here are some tactics to consider:

  • Set goals for engineers to gain familiarity in certain areas, ideally by shadowing the current subject-matter expert if possible. Seek out resources (e.g. training courses) if needed. 
  • Implement process changes that intentionally move an engineer up the depth chart (e.g. putting them first on the escalation path, directing all inquiries to that engineer). Be deliberate about assigning project work in that area to the onboarding engineer, and encourage the existing expert to mentor them. 
  • Develop a hiring strategy that recruits for specific strengths to fill key gaps in your team. Having an accurate Team Depth Chart can also allow you to make calculated tradeoffs when considering candidates that have strengths in important areas of your team but may have weaknesses in areas that are well-covered by the team. This can even be a source of growth for the candidate if they desire to learn about those areas from their teammates.

Finally, remember that teams are a living entity, and the needs of the team will evolve over time. Keep updating the depth chart as your business or organization evolves to ensure that you’re continuing to craft a highly-effective team to fulfill its responsibilities. 


Building a highly-effective and robust team is a highly complex and dynamic problem and while there are no silver bullets, we think having a Team Depth Chart can be a very useful tool to bring clarity into ways managers can use to craft their team. As always, if you’re interested in using or improving a Team Depth Chart, or in general working for highly-effective teams, check out our open roles!


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