6 Must-Read Books for New Technical Leads
Alleviate some of the anxiety of your new management role
Making the step towards management is a huge challenge. It’s also a great accomplishment.
As a technical person, most of the focus during our training and start of our career go to individual work and individual performance. Becoming a technical leader can seem daunting.
The solution to the hardest questions in the world can be found in books. We’ve compiled a list of six great resources for new technical leads. We hope they will make your transition to management smoother.
1. Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win — by Jocko Willink
Jocko Willink was a career US Navy SEAL and Extreme Ownership is an account of the leadership approach of the SEALS, correlated with business principles. The main idea is, unsurprisingly, to take extreme ownership of everything related to your team, product, and mission. Everything needs to take a no-nonsense approach.
The most important takeaway from this book is to listen to and trust your team. Since you’ve been promoted to a management role, they’re the new experts in your fields — not you. Your new job is to clear their path to success. Different people have different needs to succeed and a manager’s role is to figure out what that is and how to make it happen for them.
2. The Making of a Manager — by Julie Zhuo
The Making of a Manager (2019) explores what new managers can do in their first three months and beyond to ensure their team gets excellent results. One of the first things to keep in mind is that if you reached this stage in your career (technical lead), it means that someone believed in you enough to give you this opportunity.
As Julie Zhuo points out, a new manager always feels like an imposter — out of their depth and unworthy of the role.
At the age of 25, Julie was appointed to manage Facebook’s design team. At first, she believed her job consisted of holding meetings, giving feedback, and figuring out who to promote or fire. She soon realized that this approach was not focused on longterm goals. A few years later, she realized that her job was to ensure that her team worked smoothly together, that everyone in her team was set for personal success, and that everyone felt that they could achieve their career goals.
With nearly a decade of management experience, Julie now believes that the job of a manager is to achieve improved outcomes from your team.
3. It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work — by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
It doesn’t have to be crazy at work is that one book among our suggested list that will go against everything you will read and learn from the other resources.
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founders of Basecamp, argue that a successful, profitable company shouldn’t require it’s employees to work crazy hours, forfeit holidays, and live in constant stress. They argue that there’s a calmer way of running a business, where you sacrifice insane short-term growth in favour of sustainable, continuous long-term growth.
If there’s anyone who can talk about sustainable growth, it’s these two. Basecamp has been around 21 years (yes — Basecamp was founded in 1999!) and it had $25m in revenue this year, with $0 outside investment and 63 employees.
One important takeaway from the book is that there’s currently a lot of buzz on social media about the crazy attitude and sacrifices needed to build a successful company. There are slogans in support of this, like “Extreme talent isn’t necessary, but extreme commitment is!” The book recounts a tale about Charles Darwin, the legendary evolutionary scientist, who wrote 19 books during his lifetime and is said to have never worked more than four and a half hours a day. The authors think that the solution to this craziness is “pacifism”: focusing on your own business, not the competition.
As a fresh technical lead, it’s your responsibility that your employees have a healthy life-work balance, that their stress levels are not constantly insane (let’s be honest, there’s no entirely stress-free technical job, but the stress can be managed). Your main goal is to protect your employees’ time. “No meetings that can be replaced with an email” is a great rule of thumb for achieving this.
4. High Output Management — by Andrew S. Grove
High Output Management is a revolutionary book on the transformative power of vision. Andrew Grove is a businessman and the former chairman and CEO of Intel. He played a major role in shaping the company into the world’s largest manufacturer of semiconductors since his appointment as CEO in 1979.
In Andrew’s view, the role of a manager is to identify and solve bottlenecks that prevent their team from achieving maximum efficiency. The solutions available are usually hiring a larger workforce or buying more equipment. This leads to the next key task for a manager, balancing everything cost-effectively.
Another great insight from this book is that every manager should pick at least five indicators of the state of the business. These indicators need to be looked at every morning.
A final takeaway is that management is a team effort. A manager isn’t rated solely on their skills and achievements but on the performance of their team.
5. The Black Swan — by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
The Black Swan explores the nature of what we perceive as random events as well as the logical pitfalls that cause us to miss out on the bigger picture. “Black swans” are events thought to lie outside the realm of possibility, but which happen anyway. Before anyone had ever seen a black swan, people assumed that all swans were white.
One takeaway from this book is that, as a manager, you’re faced with challenges you wouldn’t have faced before. As humans, we’re extremely vulnerable to even the most basic of logical fallacies. We tend to have a habit of creating narratives based on what we know of the past. As a manager, you need to break this habit and instead analyze the data in front of you.
6. CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership Hardcover — by Martha Helle
The CIO Paradox by Martha Helle is probably my favourite of the six books. We can all agree that IT reached its maturity for most businesses, even before pandemic-related lockdowns started and most of our lives moved online. The CIO (or Chief Information Officer) is responsible for bridging the gap between the technical side of the business and the rest. IT is costly, complex, and, for most businesses, absolutely vital.
This book covers a few stories about successful CIOs, but the one I liked most was about Geir Ramleth, the CIO of global engineering at Bechtel. When Ramleth joined Bechtel, he noticed that employees outside IT regarded IT as the barrier that prevented work from getting done. Ramleth went on to merge the 33 different IT helpdesks Bechtel had into a single unit with a universal ticketing system that was available 24/7. In doing just this, Ramleth increased the number of problems solved from 20% to over 65% and brought down the overall IT cost by over 30%.
One great takeaway from this book is that the CIO, and any technical leader, is responsible for maintaining and improving day-to-day operations while also focusing on innovation. But a technical leader must also keep an eye out for opportunities to create a huge difference in the business. Usually, they rely on business intelligence to find such opportunities.
Taking the step towards management is not easy. These books can help you smooth the transition and increase the odds that your team members will follow you as a leader.
The recurring theme in all of these books is that once you take this step, you must embrace the fact that you’re no longer the maker. You’re now the enabler. Your higher purpose is to ensure that the makers working for you have the best shot at leveling up their career and fulfilling their goals.