8 Skills Needed To Be A Successful Tech Lead

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It goes without saying that technology has exploded in recent years. While for many organizations today, technology is the business, even non-tech companies have a tech or IT person, team or department. Technology is such a crucial aspect of business that software engineers and developers now have a seat at the leadership table. Business leaders are the ones who most clearly understand the direction in which their organizations are headed and it’s now recognized the important role that technology will play along the way.

However—at the risk of stereotyping—tech people are often known for being more comfortable working with computers than with people, and a position in management isn’t always the desired career path for software engineers in the same way that it might be for someone in Marketing, HR, or Operations. For many software engineers, growing as an individual contributor is a more appropriate path, and lots of companies provide alternatives to management such as a very senior technical roles, but no one reports to them as they would to a manager.

That being said, many of the most well-known tech companies were founded by technical experts who probably didn’t foresee that they would one day be running multi-billion dollar companies, but were catapulted into influential leadership positions without any formal business training. Mark Zuckerberg is a prime example. Zuckerberg, who began using computers and writing software in middle school, launched Facebook from his college dorm room in 2004. 15 years later and Facebook has almost 40,000 employees and revenues of over $55 billion (Source: Wikipedia). Clearly, a lack of formal business leadership training early in his career has not been a hindrance to Zuckerberg.

While success for experts-turned-leaders is possible, it is not effortless. Being a successful techlead is much more than having an impressive resume and skill set. If you’re looking to become a tech leader, or you’re searching for the right person to take a leadership role in your company, there are particular personality traits and skills than can be an indicator of future success.

1. The ability to establish trust

Building meaningful relationships is a key responsibility of a tech lead. The very definition of leadership and management is making things happen through other people. Tech leaders and team managers must establish trust with both company leaders and the team members they’ll work with on a daily basis to achieve team and company goals. When there is trust and respect between all levels of the company, it will bring out the best in all employees.

2. Excellent communication skills

Most leaders will state that they have excellent communication skills, but what does that really mean? It means being able to communicate project requirements to your team, project progress to other leaders, and project reasoning to the rest of the company. Communicating to each of these stakeholders clearly and concisely will make or break project success. If you can’t explain clearly what you want from your team, then you have failed as a team lead before any work even begins. Your job is to understand the project and then explain it and sell it to the team, and do it in such a way that it motivates them to want to work on it. Distill the bigger picture in a way that’s actionable and personalized to your team. Most people in an organization want to know how they can help the company to achieve its strategic visions, and be updated on the progress towards it.

If you’re not sure how the best way to communicate with your team is, just ask. Ask “Where do you see me voicing my opinion rather than asking questions?”. You might find that your team relies heavily on your opinion and would rather have you tell them what to do. Other people prefer to be asked for their opinion. To be an influential leader, you need to find what communication style works best for your team.

How do you know if your communication is working? You’ll know it’s working if you don’t hear that it’s not working! Lack of communication creates confusion so when communication within a team or a company is poor, it’s voiced loudly and strongly by employees. If you don’t hear murmurings of dissent, you’re probably doing a good job.

3. A leadership style that reflects your team

Don’t assume that what’s right for you will be right for your team. You may want to lead your team a particular way (you might want to have a daily stand up where everyone talks about what they are working on) but if that doesn’t work with the members of your team (they are quiet introverts who severely dislike talking to a group) then your leadership style could cause your team to become despondent. When you match your leadership style with what the individual (and team) is ready for, you’ll be a more confident, and more successful leader for it.

4. A strong vision for the future

Tech leads must be visionaries. Anticipating a company’s tech needs using available data, and adapting to the environment and economy when necessary will keep the company relevant, and competitive. Successful team leads are comfortable making changes based on industry trends, and ideally have a natural ability to visualize the future of a company and motivate others to work towards and achieve tough goals. An appropriate vision keeps organizations heading in the right direction.

5. Always be asking ‘why?’

Techleads need to understand the ‘why’ behind everything they are involved in, from understanding product requirements, to the different technologies used, even if they weren’t part of the decision making. Asking why a specific technology was chosen, or why that design was preferred helps their team to become more accountable for their decisions and actions. It also means that questions from other senior business leaders can be answered confidently and accurately.

Your job, as the tech lead, is to know what your team is working on, what their part of the system does, and why they are making their decisions. It’s also important that everyone else understands why they are working on a project to ensure buy-in to the bigger picture. An influential leader’s team has to believe in what they do, only then can they can be effective.

6. Have more than just the right qualifications

An engineering manager should be an engineer first. They must have a strong software engineering background and hands-on experience. However, while qualifications and skills are undoubtedly important in the tech sector, business leaders often get to where they are because of reasons that are not listed on their resume. Being a good tech lead is about so much more than what’s on paper. They will also:

    • Be a good fit with company culture. Leaders of a company should all share the same values, and they should be aligned with the company’s.
    • Have a strong work ethic. A techlead must be motivated to work on tech solutions even during their time off. Such is the nature of tech work that emergencies happen, even on weekends and holidays.
    • Have a likable personality. There’s no shortage of engineering jobs, especially in the Seattle area. Talented programmers and others in this industry have plenty of other options when it comes to finding a place to work, and they’ll likely jump ship if people in leadership roles are too demanding or unwelcoming.

7. Possess top-notch management skills

While it may seem obvious that a manager should possess excellent management skills, this isn’t always a top priority when a business leader is being hired. Management is not just managing people, it’s also managing projects, and managing a crisis. Finding a leader who possesses all three can be quite rare.

  • Project management involves delivering projects on time and is one of the core responsibilities of any team lead. If you’re constantly missing deadlines and underestimating tasks, other leaders, your team, and the rest of the company will not be able to trust that you will deliver when you say you will.
  • Crisis management is a crucial competency in a tech leader. One who panics under pressure will only create further panic within the team. The more successful leaders are calm under pressure, and appear to always be in control and able to steady the ship, even in the most stressful situations.

8. Be able to take ownership

A leader takes responsibility for their team’s errors and avoids blaming others for mistakes, or missing deadlines. When a deadline is missed, or a deliverable is flawed, getting it fixed is top priority, not pointing the finger. If there is an obvious culprit, a strong leader would take them aside and explain the repercussions of their actions, and determine how to avoid it in the future.  

Today’s technical experts are poised to make strong, influential leaders. To do so, however, they must rely on more than their technical expertise. Becoming a successful leader is a long-term investment. It probably won’t happen overnight, and several years down the road you might reflect back on your early days as a business leader and wonder how you made it to where you are now. You will make mistakes. You are human, and the beauty of making a mistake is learning from it, and not making the same mistake again. Mistakes are simply one more lesson that’ll make tech leadership come more naturally down the line. Don’t forget that leadership is about people, so genuinely help people grow and do their best job will make you the best leader you can be.

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