The Problem with Tech Leads

Transitioning from managing technology to leading people

Congratulations, you’ve proven your mastery of all things technical and are promoted to Tech Lead. You’ve tackled numerous software and hardware challenges that you had little to no experience with. You’re now ready to tackle people. How different could leading people be? Your boss doesn’t seem concerned. Your boss would have given you advice if there was any concern about your ability to lead people.

Don’t worry, leading engineers is just like writing code. Just like apples and oranges are both round. Allow me to enumerate some of the differences:

  1. You can’t write tests. An occasional survey is ok.
  2. Abstraction is now called delegation.
  3. Inheritance means someone else’s problem is now yours.
  4. Monitoring negatively impacts performance. It’s considered micromanaging.
  5. You have no control over alerting.
  6. You often have to repeat yourself, so forget about the DRY principle.
  7. You often have to repeat yourself. Got it?
  8. Measurement is difficult, if not impossible.
  9. Resources go offline randomly and for reasons that could not be foreseen.
  10. The buck stops with you. Though you don’t get to keep the buck.

Then there is the latency. It takes weeks to discover if what you tried actually worked. Aside from all that, managing technology and leading people are practically the same.

Following are some of the more common, fundamental leadership theories and strategies. I used these to great success with a dozen teams and over fifty engineers. I teach these theories to all the engineers and product owners, not just the leads. Everyone should be able to lead themselves and lead a meeting.

Leadership is a skill, learn it
You’ve learned software and/or hardware well enough to be considered proficient in it. Now you need to learn how to become proficient with managing people. This is where the problem lies. Most Tech Leads are not given guidance or training on how to lead. They have to rely on their natural leadership ability, which by one estimate will get you about 30% there. This approach is more likely to create an ok leader, not a great leader.

Just like any technology, there are articles, blogs, books, forums, and experts on leadership. Leadership can be learned using the same strategies you’ve used to learn a new technology.

I had been in the role of a Tech Lead at my second company when a team member asked me if I could teach them how to be a leader. That was the first time I realized I had no idea how to teach leadership. It had to be more than teaching how to architect systems and becoming a better engineer. Leadership should be a skill transferable to other industries. 
My team was considered strong, but why? My team considered me to be a good leader, but why? Other teams had more talented people, but weren’t considered as strong or effective. It seemed I had been relying on my natural leadership abilities all along. So I asked my boss. He was humble enough to admit he didn’t know what he could teach me. He decided to get training for all of us.

Leadership has been studied and researched far more than any technology. Newer research on leadership and teams has been done by companies like Google and Facebook. Companies like Brandon Hall and Academy of Management are dedicated to leadership. Start by reading about Project Oxygen for managers, and Project Aristotle for teams. Some of their conclusions are facts discovered and published decades ago.

First, Lead Yourself
Modern leadership theory suggests three simple levels: personal, private, and public. Leadership starts on the personal level — learning how to lead yourself. Knowing what drives you, engages you, inspires you to do better. It’s about being self-aware. If you can’t see the path to reaching your full potential, you probably won’t be able to help others reach theirs.

“If you can’t lead yourself, how can you lead others?”

Humans are emotional beings, so passion is a big driver in how we perform. The alternative to passion is discipline, which doesn’t come naturally. Rather it comes through practice. We get better quicker at things we are passionate about. Learn to leverage your passion.

I had a reputation for being passionate about what we were working on. I strived to learn and understand product strategy. I would talk with marketing to understand their campaigns. I needed to understand the big picture. 
A boss of mine once told me that I needed to understand that most people don’t care as deeply as I do. It wasn’t a bad thing I cared so much. The fault was in judging others if they didn’t care as much. I had to learn to leverage my passion, not impose it.

Unchecked emotions are usually the reason meetings and discussions degrade, teams become dysfunctional, and people become frustrated. Untrained leaders often try to suppress or eliminate emotions because they don’t know how to leverage them. Emotional Intelligence (EQ) is a well regarded starting point to learn how to lead both yourself and others. 90% of top performers are considered to have high EQ.

Be Emotionally Intelligent
My guess is that 90% of Tech Leads don’t know what Emotional Intelligence is. I certainly did not. The 5 stages of Emotional Intelligence are: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, social skills. Master the first 2 (self-awareness, self-regulation) and you can start recognizing when emotions start getting the upper hand with you and others. Remember those times you realized everyone was in violent agreement and you were just wasting time talking more? Or worse, when everyone was stating their opinions, but no one was listening?

I recall a rather large meeting of Tech Leads and Directors that was getting rather heated. Many had ideas that they were passionate about. All were good ideas, just not compatible with each other. I watched as one by one people became more concerned about being heard and stopped listening to each other. No progress was being made, no value was being delivered.
Prior to learning Emotional Intelligence I would have been proclaiming my own ideas too. Instead I felt empathy for everyone and their ideas. I stood up and stated how great I thought all their ideas were. I commended them on their passion and how it showed how much everyone cares. This is what makes a company great. I expressed concern that our passion was getting the best of us. I then suggested we write down all the ideas and together figure out the merits of each.
I leveraged every aspect of Emotional Intelligence in that meeting. There were many comments afterwards about how productive the meeting was. I had only spoken for a few minutes, and didn’t present any of my own ideas. I didn’t control the meeting. I just reset it and provided focus so we could leverage the passion in the room. A very expensive meeting delivered the value it was supposed to.

Self-awareness is recognizing when your emotions are influencing your decisions and behavior. Is your heart or your mind in control?

Self-regulation is about managing your state of mind. Being driven by emotion is fine as long as you are still in control and regulating those emotions. It’s ok to exhibit anger as long as you can regulate it.

“Anyone can become angry — that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way — that is not within everyone’s power and that is not easy.” — Aristotle

Motivating yourself is about knowing your wants and needs. Emotions come from the heart, which is a much more powerful motivator than the mind. Understand your motivations and you will become more productive and effective.

Empathy for others is about recognizing and understanding their wants and needs. Lack of empathy can be a source of bias. Figure out what motivates them, and you can help them become more productive and effective.

Social skills are the next step in improving teamwork. In order to help others become self-aware, motivated and empathetic, you’ll need to have good communication and social skills. People won’t choose to follow you unless you have built a relationship with them.

“Don’t strive to do your best, strive to be effective.”

Making Teams Stronger
It’s easy to recognize a strong team; it’s much harder to determine why a team isn’t strong. When asked what level a team is at, most Tech Leads don’t even know what to use as a measurement. The Team Maturity Models are good measurement tools to determine the strength of a team. Growth is about becoming more mature.

The Bruce Tuckman Model is probably the most well known. It’s stages pair nicely with the modern practices of Agile and companies on a growth trajectory. Being aware of the team phases of Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing, Adjourning can provide clarity to the source of frustrations that come with growth.

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

A team’s highest frustration levels are usually experienced during the Storming phase. Knowing this is just a phase that they need to work through can completely change a team’s perspective. Once your team learns to work with each other and have strong internal relationships (empathy), they then move into the Norming stage.

One of the companies I worked at was growing rapidly. We hired over a dozen engineers in a single quarter. This essentially doubled the engineering staff. It was time to form new teams. 
I took this opportunity to present the team maturity models to the engineers so they would be aware of what they were about to go through. As the weeks and months passed, engineers would come up to me and proudly declare that their team was now in the storming phase. They understand that their frustration and lack of clarity was a natural team phase. They embraced it as an indicator of progress and worked together to get through it.

The Performing stage is difficult to attain, though it is something to strive for. The performing stage requires the team to define their own norms and guidelines of working. Google spent 3 years to determine this as documented in Project Aristotle.

“Team potential is not about maximum IQ, it’s about maximizing collective intelligence”

How well does your team’s IQ scale? This isn’t about individual IQ, it’s about the team’s IQ. Their level of collective intelligence. A team of individuals with high IQ is no guarantee the team will be high performing. The opposite is often true. Make sure your teams are aware of this cycle, and the phases, to help them level up quicker.

Team of Teams
Your success is no longer just about you, it’s about your team and it’s success. In turn, the company’s success is not about your team, it’s about all the teams. The strength of your team’s relationship with other teams is important for them to reach their highest performance and effectiveness level.

The Hersey-Blanchard (Situational Leadership) model can be used as a measurement tool for both individual teams, and team of teams. The phases of this model are Telling, Selling, Participating, Delegating. Most engineers have experienced at least the early phases, so this should sound familiar.

Immature teams often need to be told what to do. They are in the Telling phase, a very common relationship level between product and engineering. When asked, they can tell you what they are building, but perhaps not why they are building it. Teach your teams to ask why and they will move into the selling phase. They will need to be sold on an idea, and gain a deeper understanding of the goal.

As part of my leadership training I went through an exercise called a Sphere of Influence. It was about evaluating who you influence and who influences your success. I realized I had some serious gaps. My relationship with DevOps was in the Telling phase, and that was my fault. I only spoke with them when I needed something. It was a very needy relationship.
I made a strong effort to move that relationship up to the participating level. Every quarter I would meet with them and discuss (sell) what my teams had in mind. Even if I didn’t think I needed them for the projects that were planned, I would discuss things with them. They would ask questions and provide advice (participate).
Things were so much easier after that. They always seemed to anticipate my needs. If I needed something tomorrow, they would deliver it today, because they had it ready yesterday. Subsequently I would attend one of their planning meetings with the sole purpose of thanking them. We had reached the delegating level.

Once a team understands how their work will have an impact, they can start participating in the decisions on what gets built. The ultimate goal being product articulates a vision, then delegates the execution to engineering.

Leadership is a choice
As a Tech Lead you probably have a few direct reports. That makes you a manager, not a leader. That is the problem with Tech Leads today. They end up managing technology, not leading people. People report to managers and choose to follow leaders. When someone leaves your company, it means they chose to follow a different leader. Always be aware of the reasons people have chosen to follow you.

A leader needs to balance when to be a manager and when to be a leader. Management is about execution (tactical), leadership is about people (strategic). Choose wisely on which is appropriate for the situation.
Strategically you should be training your team to be leaders, not followers. That is how you are going to scale. You’ve succeeded as a leader when you chose to leave your team because you are no longer needed.

My leadership coach recommended I read the biography of Ben Franklin. I thought this odd because everything else he recommended was about leadership theory. As I read about Ben Franklin, I realized he was one of the great leaders. 
Ben Franklin had a strategy of articulating a vision, organizing people around that vision, and then moving on when that organization was self sustaining. He strived to make himself obsolete. He planted seeds and let others bring the vision to fruition.
Some of the organizations he started include a library, philosophical society, hospital, fire company, and an insurance agency. All of them he moved on from once others filled the leadership need. He chose people who had leadership potential to join these groups so they could in turn lead.

Aristotle once said the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Leadership is what converts a group of people into a team. As a Tech Lead, your maximum potential effectiveness is now multiplied by the size of your team. You can do no better than to reach your full potential. Your full potential can only be reached after your team has reached theirs. Leadership isn’t about you, it’s about them.

The tip of the iceberg
There is far more to leadership than what I’ve articulated here. Most of this is not new, and I take no credit for it. This is the basics, and what I’ve taught all of the engineers I’ve worked with. They have all said they feel they are better leaders, and better engineers, because of this knowledge.
I’ve linked to many topics throughout this article which provide much more detail. There is no single formula for leadership, it’s different for everyone. Use this as a starting point to create your own leadership formula and roadmap.

Traits Theory
Project Oxygen
Project Aristotle
Three Levels of Leadership
Passion, People, Purpose
Emotional Intelligence
Empathy Gap
Herzberg’s Two-factor Motivational Theory
Team Maturity Models
Bruce Tuckman Team Maturity Model
Hersey-Blanchard Team Maturity Model (Situational Leadership)
Start with Why