Making the Leap Into Tech Leadership
Leadership is a learnable skill, however, learning about leadership in the technology industry is often left to chance. It does not have to be this way.
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Jane works as a software engineer at ABC Software Company. She is the most skilled software engineer on her team. Jane is the person everyone else on the team goes to when they need help to solve complex problems and she always comes up with high quality solutions in a short space of time.
Senior management at ABC Software Company recognizes Jane’s ability and they decide to appoint Jane as the manager of her team. They call her into a room on a Monday morning and tell her she is getting promoted. Jane is now the manager of the team and going forward everyone should listen to her.
A ceremonial handshake between her and senior management occurs and hopefully as part of that promotion Jane’s salary has been increased. Jane walks out of the room surprised but excited at the same time, this promotion is not something she expected at all. The next day Jane’s team is informed about the change in Jane’s title and responsibilities.
Jane comes into the office and for the first time in her career she has a whole team of people reporting into her. It does not take long for Jane to realize that the new technology leadership role is very different and challenging.
Jane was not well prepared for this new leadership role, she did not take part in any leadership training before the new role, and she was not made fully aware of the expectations and challenges of the new role. The exceptional skills that she was recognized for as an individual contributor are completely different to the skills required to be a successful technology leader. The time she spent as an individual contributor focusing on writing well-designed code does not translate into the skills necessary for understanding people, resolving conflict, or suddenly having to juggle more tasks than she can possibly achieve by herself. Jane’s technical expertise, the knowledge and skills that enabled her to excel as an individual contributor, are decidedly less valuable at this new level.
Jane’s story is the typical story for a large number of individual contributors who are shifted into technology leadership roles. They are not ready for the responsibilities, expectations and challenges of taking up a technology leadership role. This results in a lot of frustration for the new technology leaders. They feel incompetent in their new role and long for the days when they were recognized for being good at something. The people who report into them also pick up on their new manager’s frustratios and in-turn are also frustrated because they are not receiving the support and career growth they require.
In this article, I will share common mistakes first time technology leaders make when they transition into a new leadership role from being an individual contributor. I will then share how to avoid the mistakes and give themselves a higher chance of succeeding in their leap into technology leadership.
1. Coding Full-Time
This is the most common mistake first time technology leaders make. They default back into doing the work they are good at – writing code. Coding full-time leads them to not give enough attention to all the other important responsibilities that come with a technology leadership role. Things such as cultivating a good team culture, helping your direct reports grow their careers, and managing conflict between team members. Ignoring these important responsibilities will, over time, lead to a failing team and disgruntled direct reports. If you are in a technology leadership role your first priority is the people who report into you and creating a great working environment for them. Operating as an individual contributor is secondary to having a team that is working well together. It is okay to spend time writing code as a technology leader, and you will see I encourage that in the next point, but it is important to know it is not the highest priority item on a technology leader’s list and they need how to balance their responsibilities.
2. Not Spending Enough Time Writing Code
At the other extreme, a technology leader may find themselves not spending any time at all writing code. This is risky, as they may lose all context for the issues their direct reports face on the ground in the codebase. They may also lose the technical respect from their team, as the team may feel they are unable to discuss technically complex issues with their leader. Direct reports may also feel their leader is unable to set appropriate growth plans for them if they don’t have a good understanding of the technology the team is working on. A technology leader must spend some time writing code with their team so they can empathize with the individual contributors on the challenges they face in the codebase. Writing code also allows a technology leader to keep up to speed with the latest technologies and keep their technology tool-belt strong, despite now having multiple responsibilities that pull them away from writing code full time.
3. Making All the Technical Decisions
Some technology leaders believe that once they are in a leadership role they should make all the important decisions for the team. This is a big mistake, as it means the leader is the main bottleneck of the team. Nothing happens until the leader makes a decision. Given that the technology leader will be pulled into many different directions, they may not always be available to the team. The team spends a lot of time waiting for the leader to come back and make decisions. If the technology leader makes all the decisions for the challenging problems they are not empowering their direct reports and giving them opportunities to learn and grow.
4. Forgetting to Cultivate Team Culture
Individual contributors typically focus on writing their day-to-day code and delivering features. When there are conflicts between people in the team, someone else figures out how to resolve the conflicts. When it comes to coming up with ways of working as a team or organizing team building activities, someone else makes that happen. New technology leaders often fall into the trap of continuing to operate in the same way they did as individual contributors. They will leave team culture issues to be figured out by someone else. What every new technology leader needs to realize is that cultivating a great team culture becomes their most important responsibility as soon as they take up the role. They cannot leave that responsibility to someone else. A great team culture is the root to success for most software teams – it cannot be ignored.
5. Only Talking Technology
Individual contributors spend a lot of time with other individual contributors discussing technical topics at any level of deep complexity they wish. Individual contributors can get away with mostly only interacting with other technologists. First time technology leaders often make the mistake of continuing to only interact with fellow technologists and discussing concepts at complex technical levels. This is a mistake, because once someone is in a technology leadership role they become the face of the team to the rest of the company. They are likely to interact with people from other departments who are non-technical. First time technology leaders need to build good relationships with people across the whole company. They also need to learn how to communicate complex technical ideas in a simple, easy to digest way for non-technical people.
6. Saying Yes to Everything
The world of leading/managing talented technologists can be messy. The first time technology leader will suddenly find themselves leading meetings, negotiating for resources, making strategic decisions, participating in hiring, and a whole range of other mission-critical activities that fall outside of the technical toolbox. A common mistake is to say yes to every single request/problem that arrives at a technology leader’s desk. This leads to two possible scenarios, both of them bad. They will either feel overwhelmed and stressed by the sheer amount of workload they have and end up not accomplishing anything or they will accomplish all the tasks they say yes to but they will be overworked and burnt out in a few months. Good time management and prioritization is important for a technology leader. They need to learn when to say yes, when to delegate, and when to say no. They cannot do everything.
7. Assuming You Need to Have All the Answers
First time technology leaders often believe that, because they are in a respectable leadership role, they must know everything and cannot expose any lack of knowledge. This is a mistake, because it can lead to making things up/blatantly lying in discussions when asked questions or for opinions by their team. One of the most important lessons for a first time technology leader to learn is that it is ok for them to say to their team “I don’t have enough knowledge about that topic.” As a leader, being very open with your team shows that you are able to be vulnerable in front of them and this builds trust. It also means that things you don’t have answers for can be explored by the team as a unit and create learning opportunities for the team.
8. You Isolate Yourself and Are Lonely
The world of technology leadership can be very lonely. Especially for first time technology leaders. They remember their days as an individual contributor where they were used to spending a lot of time with fellow individual contributors. Now they are in a leadership and they are pulled away from the individual contributors. Perhaps this is because they now have too many other responsibilities to spend as much time with other team members or because they now have a leadership title, the individual contributors view them as somewhat separate from the team.
The first time technology leader can easily end up feeling isolated and lonely. If they work in a bigger organization with other fellow technology leaders they must develop relationships with this new peer group. That peer group faces similar problems they will likely face and will be useful to have as people to discuss ideas with. First time technology leaders should also look for people in leadership roles outside their organisation with whom they can share approaches and discuss ideas.
Finally, I’d encourage first time technology leaders to identify someone that they trust who has been in a leadership role for much longer and ask them to be their mentor. It is really useful to be helped by people who have faced similar challenges and navigated them in the past.
9. Thinking All People Are the Same
Individual contributors are obsessed with writing efficient code that eliminates any duplication. First time technology leaders can fall into the trap of trying to solve different people’s issues in the same way. Thinking that if one solution for the same problem worked for one direct report they can use it for another direct report. This is a mistake. People are different, they come from different backgrounds and they have different motivations. What makes one direct report happy can make the next direct report angry. That is why we say leadership is challenging and messy. The first time technology leader needs to learn how to build good relationships with each of their direct reports. Understand them and build trust. This is achieved over time in many ways, but one of the most important trust building exercises is having frequent one-on-one check-in meetings with direct reports. Once a technology leader has a good understanding of their direct reports, they are better placed to successfully address each individual’s issues.
10. Not Seeking Feedback From Your Team
Individual contributors are often used to quickly getting feedback on their work, through functions like monitoring failures and bug reports, and problems are solved relatively easily – meaning they get a quick sense of accomplishment. For technology leaders, however, feedback on their work takes much longer to arrive and its impact is often more difficult to measure. A technology leader can have a conversation with one of their direct reports today and the results/impact of that conversation only get realized six months from now. It is important for the first time technology leader to constantly seek and receive feedback from their team. This is the one way a technology leader can constantly keep track of how well they are doing and the areas in which they need to improve.
As a software engineer (individual contributor), life is mostly about writing code and producing software. You are excited about delivering features and seeing your software being used.
As a new tech leader, your focus has to change. It is probably the biggest transition in your career and requires a whole new set of skills, and you have to learn to let go of what was expected of you as a developer.
Many technology leaders get the job by default. They are the best or most senior technologist and suddenly find themselves leading meetings, negotiating for resources, making strategic decisions, participating in hiring, and a whole range of other mission-critical activities that fall outside of the technical toolbox. The world of leading/managing talented technologists can be messy.
Leadership is a learnable skill, however, learning about leadership in the technology industry is often left to chance. This often leads to frustration for both leaders and those being led. It does not have to be this way. I hope this article helps new technology leaders navigate this journey much more easily.
Thank you for reading, and I hope you found this useful. If you have any questions, find me on Twitter and ask me anything.
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