Nick Kewney

Software Architect & Product Builder

Powering Up: Technical Leadership

Whether you’re a technical founder who has found themselves in a leadership position as the company scales, or you’ve landed a dream role in a fast-paced tech company, you’ll undoubtedly question your leadership style at some point, I know I have. In this article, I’m exploring the qualities that make a great tech lead, and whether it’s possible to transform and change your own leadership style… spoiler, it is!

I will explore various technical leadership styles and outline the impact each can have on the effectiveness of your teams, and essentially your company’s technological scaling ambitions. First though, I will explore the base qualities to look for in a leadership candidate, or adapt into your own style.

As a leader, you can easily get caught in traps of your own making, creating illusions of reality with your negative thought patterns by judging yourself and others. Leadership requires you to add a little inner Houdini to expand your self-awareness and ability to unlock the illusions forming your habitual thought patterns.

Every Leader Needs A Little Inner Houdini, Forbes.com

Base Qualities

Let’s start by looking at the qualities which make a good leadership candidate. I’m referring to the fundamental elements of a person’s personality and work ethic which may help a team reach its maximum potential.

It goes without saying that experience is essential, but ultimately a passion for the subject matter (say, building products, or software engineering) and a natural desire to bring others along with you are key to inspiring any team towards growth. Not being afraid to get your hands dirty from time to time is essential, especially if you’re a software leader! Finally, adaptability is absolutely key, change and pivot if it isn’t working for you or your business.

If you’re an engineer who wants that little bit more input in shaping the organisation, powering-up to tech lead can be a great way to combine your love for effective communication & management skills with your passion for technology. However, if you are interested in going down this route, it is highly imperative to know what it entails in more detail.

Skills 

I’ve split this section into four, in order to explore the skills that an strong technical lead should posses, which specific emphasis on leadership skills:

  • Technical Skills
  • Leadership Skills
  • Communication
  • Multi-Tasking


Technical Skills 

This one may seem obvious. However, a technical leader’s principal purpose is to ensure the team is working effectively towards the business goals. A skilled and organised developer who can communicate a project’s needs and requirements to the team and the wider business is ideal for this role. 


Leadership Skills

An essential skill of a technical leader is to ensure that your team remains productive, curious, and innovative. The leader’s style can either make or break your team. Being too dictatorial may get results but reduce agency, and being too hands-off may fail to get the results the business needs to succeed.

I wanted to break this skill down in a little more detail. I’ve defined three types that I don’t feel work well in growing software businesses and one which (I feel) does.

The Autocrat

An autocrat will generally form a hierarchical team and insist things are done their way. If a project fails, the blame lies well and truly with the rest of the group, and generally speaking, autonomy & agency is stifled. If you’re reading this as a member of a tech team led by an autocrat, it either means they don’t have faith in you or are not suitable leadership material for your team.

Egotist

This maybe isn’t a great name for this type, since their intentions can often be on the product itself, but an egotist loves working with technology and what they can create but doesn’t slow down to bring the rest of the team along with them. Although it may seem incredible to have a leader full of ideas and build new frameworks (and it is in the early days of your product), it will eventually slow your growing team down, as they don’t tend to slow down to bring the team up to speed with them.

David Copperfield

A Copperfield leader vanishes because they can’t, or won’t compete with the wider team.

You tend to see this in organisations that have brought tech leaders over from other fields. One way to spot a Copperfield is that they will try to pick minor issues in team solutions but not deal with the most significant problems or make confident decisions. Copperfield personalities have the potential to be great technical leaders, but need to accept that there will always be someone with more knowledge than them on the team, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Meritocrat

A Meritocrat strikes that perfect balance of guiding the team in the right direction while providing technical authority.

They’ll listen to everyone on the team, ask questions and take responsibility when things don’t work out as planned, since they’ve been involved and guiding the project throughout. A Meritocrat realises that making the team productive is a sign of success, and that a well-performing group, led by a Meritocrat, will make everyone look good.

The top qualities of our meritocrat type include:

  • Not being afraid to get dirty hands – By keeping a close eye on the code’s pulse & not the detail.
  • Focus on the big stuff – Apply focus to the things that must be done right (framework and developer tooling) and delegate anything else.
  • Control time – Not being afraid to say “No” to long meetings and focus your time on where you can add value.
  • Ditch the mirror – Your role exists to make your team productive, not to make yourself look good.


Communication 

I can’t stress this one enough. It’s historically where I have fallen short as a leader, yet seems like the most obvious of them all.

As a tech leader, excellent communication skills mean that you can describe project requirements to the development team, progress to the leaders, and project reasoning to the entire organisation.  If you don’t let your team know what you want from them clearly, you can’t be a good leader. The objective of the role is to understand the entire project and explain it to the team working with you.

Distil the bigger picture of the project in a way that can be actionable by team. A good leader knows well how they can help the organisation execute its strategic vision. Additionally, a great technical lead form opinions from the entire team, rather than listening to the one who speaks loudest.


Multi-Tasking 

By this, I simply mean mean focussing more on improving your leadership abilities and decision-making skills. These skills will help you manage your workload more effectively. 

Tech Leadership: Starting Points

  1. Open the gate: You have to open communication channels for your team in order to help them innovate. Listen to every team member, and make that final decision with ease. 
  2. Be flexible: You don’t have to take full development tasks, regardless of your experience, but be prepared to step in! Don’t get too bogged down though, as you’ll have various other responsibilities that will require your attention and time, and need to focus on the bigger picture. If you become fixated on a single task or element of a project, you will fail to fulfil your role’s other requirements. It’s a balancing act of delegation and multi-tasking. 
  3. You’re everyone’s: Give everyone individual attention and time. This can be easier when you are appointed as a tech lead by your company. However, meetings with the key members of the team will let you uncover hidden talents and skills. Later, you can use those skills for enhanced productivity and benefit of the company in the best possible way. 
Leave a comment if you’ve enjoyed this article. The next article in my weekly series will be landing at the beginning of March.

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