The path of a (tech) leader: stop being one
For a few years I have been leading technical mobile teams on a company where we are proud of being self organized. So what does this actually mean? Is it all fake?
Actually, our vision of what is a Tech Lead is probably different from most. I’m not the “boss”… but I’ll explain more at the end.
For context: I led teams that started from scratch and grow together with the code, as well as ones that I joined and were in bad shape, needing help to change course.
These are the questions I've learned to ask along the way:
One of the most common problems is that there is no clear vision of the future of a project.
- What do we want to do in 6 months? What about 1 year?
Are we being short-sighted? Are we thinking about the future at all or just reacting? It’s interesting to look at the oldest companies and to think why are they still here… They are playing the infinite game and thinking way into the future.
- Are the current options the right ones for the future?
Writing software is the art of crafting something that will be deprecated in 5 years or less. So are we sure this the right architecture? Are these the right 3rd party partners we should be using? Let’s be aware that we’re writing almost already deprecated code and that there isn’t a final solution, everything is a road to a better future solution. Like a plant you don’t just need to give it some water when you plant it and it starts growing, it’s continuous. Code care is exactly the same.
- What the business expects from us?
Could you answer this? For the next weeks? Quarters? If not, you’re driving with a blindfold.
- Have we been able to deliver? Will we be? Why?
Crafting Gantt charts, backlogs or utopias is “fun”. But are those at least close to real? Has reality previous hit close to the plan? If it hasn’t… congrats you’re doing a great job of spending time in a very stupid way. By the way, have I mentioned that long term plans with a lot of detail are deemed to fail? A vision is not a Gantt.
- I’m now a lead I arrived and all is on 🔥 … I want to change it all…
Don’t behave like the “self-proclaimed MVP” in the room. Explain and propose instead of impose. Build together instead of bossing around. If your ideas are sound you should be able to explain and show they are better. By the way, don’t go and play the “who did this and why?” game. It could have been you. And it doesn’t matter at all, because it’s not focusing on what matters: solutions.
As a Product Manager I worked with once said: “I don’t have a religion but if I did, I think it would be agile”
- How should we work as a team? What processes are in place to help us? Are you looking at them as just rules to follow?
Processes can be just bureaucracy, or they can instead be tools that help us. Just slapping book formulas doesn’t work. Use your brain and your empathy. As Phil O’Hagan, a Product Manager I worked with, once said: “I don’t have a religion but if I did, I think it would be agile” — that should be the mindset for everything. Implement, Test, Iterate. Rules are no different.
- What is the expectation of each of the members of the team? Are they happy? How can I help that improve?
Extreme alignment (product — plan — team) is what brings the most productive teams. Assuming they are just resources is the first step to use just part of their potential… while being a jerk.
- How are we making sure everyone is aware of the vision and expectations?
Having a vision is great. But is it really clear to everyone? Over communicate!
- What does the team expect from the Lead?
Each team needs different things. Are you adapting to the team or just using the old hammer for every team? Don’t forget that, when the team still needs you, what it does imply is you being an umbrella. You’re there to cover the team when it starts raining, but you’re out of sight when the sun shines, so everyone is struck by it. But don’t forget, you’re not there to be the boss or the only adult in the room.
- How is the team giving feedback to one another? Is that feedback truthful or just gimmick ?
If you have feedback (or even evaluation) that’s great… sometimes. Others it’s just a 1:1 or retrospective meeting where we say superficial things, or bash and say we are “honest” or “blunt”. Do you have something meant to abolish the “blame game” and focus on growth? A simple way to change the mindset: ask where you can improve instead of where you succeeded and failed.
- Want honesty as a core value?
Everybody says they want honesty as core. If you want it for real, live by it. Be the first to raise the hand when you committed a mistake, specially those you are ashamed of, or whenever you don’t know something you should. You feel you are doing a bad job? Say is to the team. You think the team is improving? Time to highlight that. The team is not working as a team? Propose ways to build new ways of working together. Don’t sugar coat stuff, treat everyone as adults without being a jerk.
- How can I protect the team from toxic feedback while being transparent on the business goals?
Toxic feedback, normally starting by “I tell it like it is” is actually just a bash and… it’s useless. No matter how entertaining you find Ramsey screaming “Your meat is fucking raw”. Knowing what and how to filter that while passing a real vision of the good or bad feedback, that is arriving, is hard, but that will maintain a healthy team.
- Rock stars are great on a team, or aren’t they?
Rock stars are great in TV. But every time I’ve worked with someone that had that label they weren’t team players. Every single time, the surrounding team was less productive due to them and frequently left after some time. Lean on teams, not egos. Seniority doesn’t mean privilege, it means responsibility. Oh, and that applies to you as a lead. “Rock star lead” is most of the time someone just taking the glory for the work of the team when they should be letting everyone shine.
- Shall I have (team or company) silos?
Break down silos, even if it bothers top performers. Silos are another way to mask the unwillingness to share knowledge, play the blame game and grow egos.
- Don’t make assumptions: Ask! Does this make sense? Am I doing it right? Am I asking too much or too boring stuff? Would you do it differently?
Assumptions are the mother of fuck-ups. Don’t take things for granted. Ask. Ask again. And a third time if needed. Make sure your peeked the brain of that person, and you’re not just looking at a poker face.
- Share the objectives or how you defined them?
This seems strange, but teaching your thought process mechanism means you are coaching people to properly to lead. If they can first mimic you and after draft their own ways, your job is done. You have a team of leaders, you’re in the best place you can be.
The idea of being irreplaceable (BUS factor) is great for egos, but fatal for organizations. Everyone will leave someday, if not by something else then by dying.
- How can I make myself redundant as well as everybody on the team?
I don’t believe in saviours (saviour syndrome is great for movies, not real life). I believe in teams. Every time I heard “what would we do without X” my first though is: “that person is not teaching/coaching people around”. The idea of being irreplaceable (BUS factor) is great for egos, but fatal for organizations. Everyone will leave someday, if not by something else then by dying. Good leaders prepare organizations for the day they leave, even if that’s not in their mind. That’s my main evaluation metric, assuming we are in a place where the team is functioning properly. That’s valid for everyone. Rotate every task. If you can’t rotate a task, have someone shadowing it, so they can watch and learn. Just to be clear, everyone is irreplaceable as a person (their presence, sense of humour, etc — that’s not what I’m writing about)
- The team no longer need me as Lead?
I’m happy. This means that it either needs someone else with different skills or they can be fully self organized which is the best thing you can have with a team. Grow that in scale you have the most resilient organization you have ever seen.
TLDR: So… Tech Lead at self organization?
I’m not the boss. Not the only adult in the room or the person driving the car while the rest looks passively at the road. I’m another team member, but I’m more focused in creating ways to help everyone grow and share knowledge to improve the team until finally… I’m no longer needed, and I can “dissolve“ completely into the team.
This is not utopia by the way. I’ve moved through different teams exactly because the previous ones no longer needed me.
Just to be clear, they grew to be much better (and sometimes radically different) than they could be with me.
I’m really happy to see it!