Three Parts To Being A Tech Lead

In the last couple years I've been asked about being a project technical lead. I've had the pleasure of doing that for a number of projects, with numerous clients, and at a few different companies.

In general I break down my work as a lead into three categories:

  1. Doing some engineering and development.
  2. Mentoring members of the team.
  3. Leading the vision in and outside the team.

Doing Development and Engineering

If you're going to lead a project you need to do some of the work. If the project is slinging code then you need to sling code. Being a technical lead requires being close to the project.

It may seem silly to point this out. Unfortunately, I'm aware of tech leads who stop doing the work but instead try to be technical people who direct other people. They lose their intimate familiarity with the project and it can easily lead to problems.

Eliot Horowitz writing for Dr. Dobbs noted that even engineering managers should code 30% of their time. I tend to agree when considering his context and believe this applies to tech leads as well. To lead or manage engineers effectively you need to be close to the projects.

Mentoring Others

In engineering and development mentoring should be a way of life. Technology is always changing. Engineers and developers start off their careers very green and need to grow. Mentoring is the way to do that.

A tech lead should try to have a mentor in addition to mentoring others. I've learned so many practical lessons from mentoring and my own mentors in addition to all the technical details exchanged in those conversations.

Nicholas Zakas recently wrote an excellent post titled "How to be a mentor". If you want to learn more this is a good place to start.

Leading People

Leading is different than managing. It's about leading a group of people toward a set of goals. This is where the difference between a more traditional manager, a tech lead and an architect can come into play.

In the Wall Street Journal how to guides regarding difference between management and leadership it says:

With the rise of the knowledge worker, “one does not ‘manage’ people,” Mr. Drucker wrote. “The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of every individual.”

What makes for a good leader? Matthew Lieberman, a professor at UCLA, recently performed an analysis of an employee feedback data set and found,

... for leaders who were strong in both results focus and in social skills, the likelihood of being seen as a great leader skyrocketed to 72%.

To put it another way, a good leader conveys a vision and goals along with the ability to successfully navigate and guide the social aspects of the group.

Leading is about people. Leading people to a clear vision they can be apart of and contribute to.