What's the secret sauce of a great technical leader? I went out on a quest to talk to the technical leaders in my life who I personally look up to. They’ve graciously shared their experiences and learnings with me. Here are some of the key characteristics that most of them highlighted.
Is there even a secret sauce?
I had this question when my team unexpectedly began to look to me for leadership. Already feeling inadequate (hello, imposter syndrome!), I had to answer this - even just for myself - if I was to rise to the challenge.
Through countless hours interviewing technical leaders in my life that had shaped my understanding of what leadership should look like, I learned that technical leadership responsibility is much more nuanced than I had ever imagined. In order to really go beyond just "filling a role" and being an "inspiring leader", the following things seem to be of great importance:
- Technical prowess
- Strategic thinking
- Empathy for product and business
- Empathy for your team
- Focus on learning and growth
Let's look at these in more detail.
Technical prowess: speak the various languages
You don’t really know technology until you’ve experienced it in anger, until you’ve deployed it and seen it break in ways that you didn’t anticipate. That’s what gives you a true picture.
Only through understanding technical terminology and the strengths of various programming languages will you be able to make well-backed decisions.
NB: Never lose touch of the tech as you can easily lose the respect of your team if you don’t fully understand what it takes to do their jobs.
This one might seem obvious but, as a leader, you need to think about the future.
In meetings, you need to be the technical voice in the strategy: only you can inform the rest of the business of the technical implications and potential of certain decisions.
This is also about maintaining the quality of the build to enable future growth by putting technical values and heuristics in place and translating the business’ vision into code.
Empathy for product and business
As a technical leader, you’re the bridge between business and product. The technical doesn’t just live on its own, it enables the product which drives the business. That’s why you need to empathise with the needs of your product's users and the commercial interests of the business. Both of them should inform the technical decisions you make and help you translate them into terms that the business side understands. Become a “master of metaphors”.
NB to avoid: Techno-masturbation (noun) - the act of developers creating practically useless software with the latest and shiniest new tools and frameworks for the satisfaction of solving an intellectual challenge.
Empathy for people on your team
As a technical leader, you want to motivate and inspire your team to do their best work. Dangling the proverbial carrot in front of them (bonuses and the likes) doesn’t really drive good performance. What motivates team members intrinsically has to do with larger purpose, mastering their craft and having the autonomy to make decisions and doing their best work.
NB: A technical leader needs to be able to coach and mentor their team and create a space for them to claim agency.
Learning and growth as a proxy for team needs
Your tech-knowledge's half-life sits at around as little as two years because the technology space moves so quickly. That especially applies to new domains. As a tech lead, you need to create an environment in which learning for your team is maximised.
Outside of the obvious option of training events, this heavily manifests itself in the way you behave in your office: Is it okay to ask a question? How do we see and deal with failure?
NB: Creating a safe and engaged space for learning is about making everything about continuous improvement and priming your team for that.
Again, this might seem obvious but was mentioned by all of the people I interviewed: To be a leader of any kind, you need to be a good communicator. This is the medium and foundation to translate and action all of the above.
Thanks to all the people that graciously gave up time from their busy schedules to sit with me and talk shop.
- Robert Stuttaford
- Candice Herodotu
- Joshua Lewis
- Kenneth Kalmer
- Kevin McKelvin
- Gabriel Fortuna
- Louw Hopley
You are amazing!
Simon is a technical product lead at Platform45, interested in everything software from design & development to machine learning. On his journey, Simon loves sharing his learnings, and has given a couple talks in South Africa and the USA. Catch him on Github, Twitter or at simonvandyk.co.za.