I will tell you a word, and you think of the first image that comes to your mind. Are you ready? Leader!
If you have thought of a white man, dressed in a perfectly fitting suit, you have thought about what most people think when they hear that word. But is that all there is for this word? Apart from the unconscious bias of race and gender, does it define leaders’ characteristics?
If we check the word ‘leader’ in the dictionary, we find: “a person who guides or directs a group”. That definition is so straightforward and clear that we often don’t question what makes a great technical leader. This article will dive deep into the requirements to become a great technical leader. We will understand the similarities and differences to non-tech leadership, and I hope this can guide you in your career.
The first pillar: Teamwork
Technical leadership doesn’t exist isolated; some other type of leadership always accompanies it.
An abundance of developers thinks their managers are obsolete dinosaurs who don’t know how to write a single code line. Yes, they may be right in some cases, but that doesn’t mean their managers cannot execute the tasks at hand. Let me explain!
The most important organizational factor for a company is to make sure they never lose sight of strategic decisions. The bigger the company, the more substantial the term ‘strategy’ becomes. Enterprise strategy is the only way companies can guarantee employees are walking in the same direction and working for the same goals. Once the top management team decides which will be their primary goals, they are passed down to every team hierarchically, ensuring it reaches every single soul.
Managers are responsible for making sure their segment of the company is under control strategically, but not tactically, and there is where technical leadership shines. The fundamental responsibility of tech leadership roles is to make sure the manager’s strategic definitions are going in the right direction and that projects are executed correctly without hurting any of the premises defined by the board of directors.
The quintessence of technical leadership success is to work with your business partners as if you were a single entity in this universe. If you don’t do that, you will be doomed, I promise.
The second pillar: Knowledge
You have become a technical leader. Congratulations! This promotion means you are a ‘knowledge reference’ to your peers. While this may seem counter-intuitive, it means you now have way more pressure to keep yourself updated on computer science’s latest trends.
Let’s be sincere and frank here: people become more suspicious of you when you cannot clarify their doubts and help them solve their difficulties. There will be times where you will be challenged by developers both directly and indirectly, as they will try to check your boundaries and understand if you’re ready for that position. If you can answer those provocations politely and with strong fundamentals, you succeed at gaining developers’ trust.
Answer challenges appropriately and remember that if you respond in a non-polite way, you fail. You fail both because you have misbehaved and because you are there to support people. It is OK not to know things, make sure you write it down and be ready for answering the question the next day. Never say phrases such as: “Oh, you don’t know that? What a shame! Let me show you how to do that right”, that is typical of lousy knowledge leadership.
Never doubt your authority, but make sure you recognize your ignorance. Keep working on what you don’t know in a planned and organized fashion. Technology evolves fast, and without study planning, you will get obsolete fast too.
Another critical point is that technical leadership implies that you will have to coach and help your peers think about problems in new ways. But to delve into how to do that, we need to talk about the next pillar: communication.
The third pillar: Communication
Just like non-technical leaders, you will be responsible for communicating your ideas, and your action plans to execute each one of them. You will receive several invitations to present ideas to various people, such as clients, managers, developers, boards of directors, etc. But what differs from the regular communication of business leads? Well, a lot!
The first thing you have to understand is that the higher you go in your leadership career, the fewer people will understand the words you use. The more you know, the greater your vocabulary and the attention you will give to the definitions you use; hence you can’t talk as you normally would. You have to put a lot of effort to talk using less technical vocabulary.
I think this exercise applies well to this case, which helps techies explain challenging concepts in a very accessible format: “How would you explain X to five years old with the fewer words possible?”.
From my personal experience, I can tell you that developers live a very pressuring moment where technology novelties emerge every day. The learning pace they need to maintain in their careers is hard, which gives origin to the famous imposter syndrome.
The most important lesson I’ve learnt is that to motivate developers, the most efficient method is to help them learn new concepts and abilities. That stern necessity to continually learn new things is the most significant pain in their lives. When you allow them to ease that pain, you start a genuine mentorship relationship that is exceptional for them and augment their loyalty and desire to work.
To create a safe learning environment for developers, you need to want that: genuinely! Otherwise, you will cause questions and ideas to become threats. Developers will start to judge each others’ words, and you will create an oppressive environment.
It is harder for technical leaders to think of people first, but the truth is that no matter where you work, the labour output will always be produced directly or indirectly by people. But how can we excel at guiding a group of people?
First, you have to understand that almost every company oscillates into more relaxed and more challenging moments. The lower you go into the company’s hierarchy, the more difficulty you will find to maintain resiliency.
Be positive! The world is a constant duality of good and bad aspects of everything. Always choose to see the positive elements of every situation! You have the choice to look at things as opportunities, no matter how hard they are, it means people will learn new things in the process. Doing that is key to developing an inspirational communication style that motivates your followers and allows them to ease their uncertainties.
Remember that on the other side of all communication media, there are people. Demonstrate consideration and understand that everyone has feelings and personal lives, ambitions and dreams. It never hurts to acknowledge their achievements or ideas to improve work quality. Remember to compliment others when they do outstanding work, and teach them the lessons you’ve learnt to become a technological leader. They might want that too.
The most important concept here is: Be real! You are not a technological machine. When you act genuinely, you will perform accordingly: People first, then comes technology.
The fourth pillar: Vision
The last, but not least important pillar for a great technical leader is vision. It is expected from you to understand the direction that the company is going in the short and long-term (5+ years). This pillar is only possible when you accomplish all the previous steps to become a great technical leader.
If you don’t have excellent communication with the business leads, you will never understand the company’s strategical direction. If you have poor contact with the developers, either because you lack knowledge or treat them poorly, you won’t have support to execute your projects. This paragraph shows how important it is to build the previous steps before you go into this one, so let’s dive into what we mean by vision.
As we said before, the higher you go into the company’s hierarchy, the more critical the word strategy becomes. An understanding of the long-term plan is the only way you can excel in technical leadership roles. To suggest new features and products, you have to communicate with business leaders, and unless you talk the same language as them, you won’t be able to sell your ideas.
It doesn’t mean that you cannot criticize the strategical plan of the company! Remember you are a technical person, if business leaders make decisions that go against technology’s core principles, you have to express your opinions, so don’t be afraid to do that. Make sure you are polite and build your arguments with analytically profound details. The larger the amount numbers, graphs, and projections, the easier it will be to explain your criticisms.
When you achieve the enlightenment of where the company is going, you become the technical glue. When managers fail to explain the vision, you will be responsible for guaranteeing the tactical execution of projects is going in the right direction, so you must pass on the vision to the technical team. The big picture is essential because it allows us to create a sense of unity and progress, enabling creating a healthy development team culture.
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