Technical Leadership 101: How To Become A Superstar Tech Lead
A company made up of people is, by design, organic. Any team is made up of individuals, who have their own unique perspectives on things. While some managers are tempted to squeeze their team to try and create a specific end-user experience, a good technical leader knows that rigidity can be brittle, and the best results come when the individuals in a well-curated group are allowed to express themselves in formation.
Of course, this doesn’t mean leaving everyone to their own devices, but with the right preparation, technical leadership simply supports, nudges, and leads their team towards the goal.
The Principles of Technical Leadership
Technical leadership follows a handful of key principles, many of which may be familiar from other classic leadership roles, but some are specific to the industry. Non-specific leadership principles include:
- Delegation – Good technical leadership means letting go. Delegating the right jobs to the right people is key here
- Teaching through example – Being a present member of the team guides through example and inspires respect
- Team support – working for the team, not above them. A good leader holds everything together
Technical leadership requires these principles as well as more role-specific elements such as:
- Creating talent – upskilling and reskilling are methods of developing your team’s skillset without the need for new hires.
- Team formation – when it comes to hiring, it’s critical you consider the team as a whole, and how the individual fits in. Like casting for a movie, a successful interview process can make all the difference to your deliverables.
The Roles and Responsibilities of Technical Leadership
Ultimately, a technical lead is responsible for the direction of the project.
In Agile/Scrum methodologies, for example, incremental target achievement strategies are utilized to take the complexity of development and break it into manageable iterative steps.
These increments, or sprints, are approached by way of a multidisciplinary team, who commits (sets the target) at the start of each sprint and delivers (on the promise) afterward.
Many of these multidisciplinary teams have technical leads. These are people whose task is to provide support and mentorship to the group to make sure that the team is successful throughout the sprint. Further, they are responsible for planning and reviewing before and after a sprint, respectively.
Here’s a generalized, five-step breakdown of the responsibilities of a technical leader throughout the leadup, duration, and review stages of a sprint:
- At the very beginning, the technical lead is responsible for assisting in the breakdown of tasks.
- As the sprint begins, a tech lead will be making sure the team understands the vision, the impact, and the priorities of the commitment. At this stage, the team must be coached into committing to an achievable deliverable.
- At the end of the sprint, the technical lead will head up the sprint review. This involves creating a story around the accomplishments of the team throughout the sprint.
- For deployment, the tech lead is responsible for the final say on when a product is ready for release. This involves working closely with the QA branch of the dev team
- Finally, the tech lead is responsible for monitoring stages – this means working with stakeholders and the product owner to assess their feedback, quickly pick up on any defects and make reports on modifications and improvements for future releases.
Qualities of a Good Technical Leader
A technical leader needs classic leadership skills with a strong focus on job-specific applications.
- Strong communication skills – Relaying information between developers and stakeholders requires a deep understanding of the topics involved and a skilled way of translating them to non-professionals.
- Coaching – Junior developers may save on overheads but will require a lot more guidance. In teams with inexperienced developers, it’s the technical leader’s responsibility to provide on-the-job coaching. Someone with good technical leadership skills knows how to address issues with the work of their team. Provide specifically targeted dynamic instruction; that is, targeting an instruction exactly to the relevant subject and being prepared to alter it as the project moves forward.
- Team player – Technical leadership isn’t about simply assigning tasks; it’s important for a tech to lead to take part in the work and suffer alongside their team. Good technical leadership skills include being relatable and caring.
- Risk assessment – What are the risks of implementing new features or technologies and what are some of the ways to mitigate these risks? Knowing the answers to these questions is part of the job.
- Trust – This ties into having strong delegation skills. With a strong and well-functioning team, each person has a role that fits their strengths and it’s important to trust the individuals to deliver. It’s equally important for a tech to lead to be able to take advice and listen to recommendations, but to trust in their own judgment too.
- Shared vision – It is the responsibility of a technical leader to make sure the team is all on the same page. Coaching the team on the shared vision of the project means that everyone’s speaking the same language.
Advancing Your Technical Leadership Skills
Many technical leadership skills follow the same principles that apply to any leadership role. To improve your skillset, it’s important to follow the philosophy of leadership and value personal growth.
Take responsibility, don’t blame – Ultimately, the success of your team comes down to you. Don’t sweat the little things, and correct what is necessary.
Learn from failure – You will fail. How you manage that is up to you.
Celebrate successes – positive reinforcement is important. When the team produces good work, celebrate it! Socialize, hold team-building events. Don’t forget to congratulate the individuals personally too, when the sprint is successful; regardless of the outcome of the project.
Stay fresh – It’s important to keep your head in the game. You won’t have as much time as you did to write code, but make sure you do keep writing and keep following developments. Review code and have yours reviewed.
Share what you know – You are the mentor to your team. Don’t hold back on guiding and supporting with your experience.
Be available – Time management skills are important in any role, but as a technical lead, you need to make sure you are available to your team. Dedicate a percentage of your time to being accessible and present.
Be humble – Say I don’t know. If you have the opportunity to learn from one of your team, take it! If you can’t answer a question, don’t guess; find someone who can and take notes.
Surround yourself with other tech leads – Learn from example. Everyone has a different approach, and most people are figuring it out as they go along. Share experiences with other tech leads, learn from them.
Create a culture of positive evolution – Call out stupid! If you see something that just doesn’t work, make sure it’s well known. Don’t be shy to innovate and rearrange, if you know that you have a better solution.
Educate yourself – There is a wealth of resources available to improve your technical leadership skills, online and in person. Join seminars and workshops, read books and follow articles to improve your technical leadership skills for yourself.
A technical leader is the guiding force of a skilled team. They’re a single point of contact for a business to express requirements to and have them taken care of.
The role requires a multitude of leadership skills and responsibilities. Given a foundational level of technical leadership skills, it is possible to excel in the position by advancing your skillset and embracing the deeper philosophy of technical leadership. Do this by learning from your team, from other technical leaders, and from outside resources to facilitate your own awesome team.