Sebastian’s Recipe for Success: Mixing Technical Responsibility and People Leadership as a Technical Lead
Sebastian works in our Hamburg HQ as a Lead Engineer for the FREE NOW Payment Team. He talks about his career journey at FREE NOW — from starting out as a developer, becoming a lead, the surprises of his hybrid role and what he recommends to anyone considering moving into a tech lead position.
When did you start at FREE NOW?
I started on the first of April 2014 as a software engineer for the Payment and Accounting team. Luckily, the job offer wasn’t an April Fool’s joke. Following on from this, my journey as a lead engineer started round about a year and a half ago.
What has been the highlight so far?
My personal highlight was the transition from a startup to a multi-mobility tech company. It’s impressive how the culture, mindset, and passion didn’t get lost over time with all the growth. I’m especially glad about working in an international environment where people from all over the world collaborate together and contribute to the same goals.
How did you get the Lead role?
The growth of our business and the need to scale our teams lead to the situation that we sliced our payment team into two equal parts in order to cope with priorities and have a better focus on our domain. Half a year before that, I had the chance to join leadership trainings to better prepare myself for the new challenge ahead.
What is your definition of being a good lead dev?
First of all, it’s important for me to have a good relationship and be available as well as approachable for everyone on the team. Second is having a good balance between leadership and being part of the actual development process. Being part of the dev team eases a lot of things up. For example, detecting impediments, providing feedback and not losing track of the technical domain. Following that, a good lead dev should know his or her technical domain with all its quirks and edge cases. Other than that, a good lead dev empowers people to take ownership and responsibility, celebrates achievements and supports them during the tough times.
Has anything surprised you since becoming a lead dev?
To be honest, I still enjoy hands-on development a lot but to follow the development progress of my peers is something that I enjoy even more. Back then as a happy engineer, I didn’t think that I would enjoy the mix of technical responsibility and people leadership that much but now I’ve settled into the role, I’m really enjoying it!
Why work in mobility and not in other industries?
Mobility is currently one of the fastest growing markets. You’re constantly confronted with technical challenges and forced to innovate. The fact that our products can be used by everyone is really exciting and motivating because you know that the work that you do today impacts the passenger experience tomorrow. To be responsible for a crucial topics like Payments is something that makes me even more proud and keeps me busy every day.
Have you ever seen someone grow and flourish in a dev role? How did they do this?
Of course! I believe that feedback is key to the contribution of the development journey.
Awareness of strengths, weaknesses, and goals are important to kick off the development path. I assume that most people are eager to get better in what they do, so I provide them with the space to make their own experiences, celebrate achievements and support where necessary.
How do you develop your team?
First of all, I don’t like micro-management and believe that freedom and trust are vital pillars for healthy collaboration. I try to empower my peers to make their own experiences and learning experiences. Setting clear expectations before delegating responsibilities is crucial. Also, creating an individual’s development journey with regular feedback conversations and day-to-day support is a good way to contribute to that individual’s professional growth. Besides that, it’s important for me to provide a perspective and consider the motivators and interests of each individual.
Do you ever miss programming in the way that you used to in your old role?
My role in our team enables me to contribute to each sprint. Sometimes more so and sometimes less so, but it’s important for me to not lose track and use hands-on-development to share knowledge and for getting an overview of how everyone is doing. Being a part of the development process helps to identify impediments and of course, it’s a lot of fun.
What do you think is a challenge being a leader?
Becoming a leader ultimately means leaving your comfort zone, which can be initially challenging. As a leader, you have to adapt fast to situations that you aren’t used to and in the beginning, not every discussion or decision you make feels comfortable. Taking technical responsibilities might be easier if you worked as an engineer before but being responsible for a team of developers is something different as your work impacts not just the product but also an entire group of people. If I’m being honest with myself, that includes not being afraid of asking for help and self-reflecting helped me cope with the aforementioned challenges. Peer groups and leadership buddies that are in similar situations are good for sharing experiences and learnings.
What advice would you give to people who want to join FREE NOW?
Move like you and keep it real. We want people to be themselves and not play a specific role. Everybody is welcome, will be treated the same and have the same chances.
You should be confident with your strengths, know your weaknesses and have a clue in which direction you want to go. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
Does Sebastian’s story sound interesting? We are looking for lead developers across our tech hubs in Hamburg, Berlin and Barcelona. Check them out here.