Leading a team and managing one’s focus effectively can be a tricky balance to strike. That’s why we spoke to Antoine van der Lee, Team Lead and iOS Dev at WeTransfer, about how he approaches delegating tasks, managing his time, and winning at team leadership.
This is an excerpt from a live Q&A. To make sure you don’t miss out on more events like these, subscribe to our newsletter via this page! You’ll also get weekly insights from other thought-leaders like Antoine about their approaches to building and nurturing epic tech teams.
Q: How do you stay focussed as a leader when there’s a lot going on, and you’re juggling leadership with development?
Antoine: When I start my day, I open my email and I check all my mails. I reply to them, I go over my GitHub notifications, I look at the pull requests, and I review some issues that I need to reply to. When I’m done — which is often before 10am — I close email and I do not look at it anymore until the end of the day, or maybe even the next day.
That means I don’t have to jump into my emails, take a step out of my flow, and then go straight to something else, which is energy-consuming.
Also, if you’re on Slack, you get a message, and you reply immediately, you are showing people that you’re always available to answer anything. The thing is, if you wait five minutes the person will probably start Googling, and will find the answer themselves. 9 out of 10 times they find that answer in those five minutes you wait. That’s something I do. Just wait a bit, don’t answer directly, and force them a bit to figure it out themselves.
Q: What advice do you have for saying “no” to things, and staying focussed?
Antoine: Saying no to things is very hard. Realising that you can’t do everything because you’re too busy might be even harder to accept. We’ve all been there. Especially, in the beginning, I said yes to everything — and that filled my day.
It still happens that I get requests for certain things that I enjoy doing, but then I need to force myself to realise: If I say yes to writing this guest blog post, for example, that means I have less time to work on the RocketSim app. I always think: What have I planned for myself this month, and does this fit in with that schedule? If not, I just say no.
And in the end, just try to stay honest. If you promise them to come back in a week, but you know that in a week you will probably need to say ‘no’ as well, it’s much better to say ‘no’ directly.
Q: How do you decide between work you do, and work you delegate?
Antoine: I can best answer this within the team I’m working in: I’m developing the Collect by WeTransfer application, the iOS part, and we’re working together with two other developers. What we try to do is create responsibilities within the team for the project. Sometimes, if you’re unlucky, that means it’s all your responsibility, and then it’s about prioritising and only doing the things you need to do.
All the other tasks, I try to assign to my colleagues and ask them to do it. If it’s important, and they don’t have the time, then it means I need to do it. That helps me realise that you can only do one thing at a time, and if you prioritise your tasks in the right way, there’s nothing they can blame you for if something is not finished.
Q: How do you avoid burnout?
Antoine: That’s a tough one. I’ve been asking myself that quite a lot this year. What works for me is to stick to the plan: Don’t do more than you can do — and sometimes it means that your newsletter or blog post is lower quality because you spent less time on it.
You need to force yourself to take time off — and I mean more like every week. For yourself, when you’re tired, take time off. Sometimes, I go to bed early — at 9 pm, which is early — but that gives you 12 hours of sleep. That one night of sleep gives you so much more energy, and together with sports, staying mentally healthy, you should be fine.
Q: How do you manage your tasks when you’re working on multiple projects?
Antoine: What’s important for me is consistency. If I take you through my week, for example: Monday evening, I have two hours blocked off to write my blog posts. Within that time, it needs to be finished because, otherwise, I’ll get stuck. Tuesday morning I’ll start writing the newsletter which is built upon the articles I edited over the week.
Then, at work, I have two days in the week where I have meetings.
Whenever somebody asks me for a meeting, I tell them to schedule it for Tuesday or Thursday, because on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I want to have ‘flow’ days where I can focus on what I’m doing by putting Do Not Disturb on.
Q: How do you balance everything you do, and decide how much time to put into each thing?
Antoine: Everybody can relate to this: Before a project ends, they already start a new one. So, you need to force yourself to finish something off before you start something new. Otherwise, you won’t finish anything.
I try to set goals for every three months, and I keep track of them at the start of the month. That way, I keep an eye on whether I’m making progress. Am I still focused? Am I still doing the things I need to do? If you do something every day then, over a week, you’ve done a lot. I try to take small steps, and don’t worry too much if one day I didn’t make that much progress. If you do it consistently then, over time, it’s still progress.
Q: In terms of hiring, what are your thoughts on the algorithmic type interview questions to gauge how suitable a candidate is for a development job?
Antoine: This is often opinionated, especially for jobs where we get a certain technical question that’s not even related to what you’re going to do. Why would you need to answer a question about something you’re not going to do in your day-to-day work? There are examples of jobs where you need to do that, and work with algorithms — in those cases, you should know what those are and how it works.
In terms of our experience: They asked me to join the team to set up the hiring process. We set up a mobile project, which you could work on for over a week. It’s a homework project. That way, you can work on it as if you were developing something for yourself. There’s no pressure, and you can build it in your way. There are certain guidelines, of course, like showing avatars of the collective in a collection field, but it was overall pretty simple and straightforward.
The thing is, with a simple exercise you can still see a lot of differences. Many of them were not writing tests, for example, no documentation, using bad techniques, or using all kinds of third-party dependencies when it wasn’t actually needed. Those are all insights we got, even though we didn’t force people to do something within an hour, or on a whiteboard. They have the opportunity to develop at their best, and if it then turns out that the results aren’t as we hoped, then you at least we know for sure it’s not because of one hour of forced pressure skewing the results.
Q: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned about tech leadership?
Antoine: Well, an important one is that you can’t know everything. Even if you’re a team lead, you can still use Google. If you know where to find things, and how to learn things, that’s way more important than knowing things. You are a team lead to make teamwork; you’re not responsible for doing everything or knowing everything.
Also, team leads still make mistakes, right? We all do. Maybe an anecdote that’s pretty funny: I used to be like, “Oh man, the people at Apple are the best developers. If you get a job at Apple, you must be good.” Then I saw some of their code while I was in a session with an Apple team once, and I realised: They are just people. They’re also writing code that’s buggy… There’s no perfect developer, and everybody makes mistakes. And team leads are the same. You can’t know everything. You’re still only human.
Part owning that is being really honest with yourself and with your team. Within Connect, if we are going to the doctor we don’t say, “I’m away from the keyboard for an hour”; we say, “I am going to the doctor.” That’s really important as a leader.