Becoming a Tech Lead

I’ve been a senior developer for over a year now and I’m starting to think about how I can grow into an awesome tech lead.

I’ve always wished that there was some kind of manual that would explain to me how to become a tech lead. Which skills I would need to learn and grow, how to know what to worry about and what not. What kind of things I should be looking out for on my team and how to lead a group of developers to make good quality software.

Alas it seems that there is no such manual and you really just have to get out there and try and learn quickly.

A couple of months ago I was fortunate (or unfortunate depending on how you look at it) enough to “try out” being a tech lead while the other senior developers and tech lead all went on holiday for 2 weeks at the same time, leaving me to try to hold everything together while they were gone.

Initially I was quite daunted, but hey you don’t get the opportunity to ‘play’ at being the tech lead without having to actually BE the tech lead very often. I was also very lucky that I was in such a ‘safe’ environment and could fail fast and learn quickly.

These are some lessons that I took away from that week:

  • Trying to stay in the pairing rotation and being a useful part of the pair while starting out in this role is really hard. I started this way at the beginning of the week, but found it too distracting for both me and my pair when I kept getting pulled away for other discussions. The constant context switching every 5 minutes meant that I could never concentrate fully on pairing effectively. Once I took myself out of the pairing rotation and worked on my own, my stress levels and concentration were much better, and I didn’t feel guilty about being an awful pair. It also meant I was free to float around and help anyone else where needed without worrying that I’d left my pair in the lurch.
  • I kept a list of all the things that I saw going on around me that I thought might be ‘smells’. There were a few things that I simply didn’t have time to worry about, making a note of these and moving on made it much easier to not get overwhelmed. I would then come back to the list often to see what I could tackle next or note down anything that was changing. This was very helpful when it came back to handing the reins back over so that they could see what had been happening and any solutions that I had to problems that I hadn’t had time to dedicate too.
  • Don’t let anyone see your fear! There was a certain amount of ‘fake it until you make it’. Present a confident front. Admit it when you don’t know the answer to something and go and find out the answer. But letting on that you’re nervous or that you’re not sure what you’re doing is not going to make anyone want to follow you. I was very lucky that the rest of the team were supporting me and understanding that someone  had to play this role.
  • Trust people. Theres no point hovering over people and/or  micromanaging people. Let them get on with their work and they’ll come to you to ask for input on their own.

Since then I have been “feature leading” one of the main streams of work for our current release which has been really fun. Especially with the ‘real’ tech lead back. Thats another great way of getting experience in leading a technical team. Take charge of a stream of work and become the point person for it. It’ll give you great exposure to teams outside of your own. and let you see the consequences of design decisions that you made earlier on.

See my colleague Pat Kua’s post on Feature Leading here. If anyone has any resources on growing into a technical leader please share!

Notes from Strengths Based Leadership

Now that I am commuting for two hours a day on the train, I have a lot more time to catch up on some reading. The followup of Strengths Finder from Gallup is this book, Strengths Based Leadership.

I am a big fan of the Strengths Finder book and it’s accompanying online test, so I was looking forward to this follow up. See Blogpost: Finding Strengths in Your Team for my post on  Strengths Finder.  I have also been working on a proposal for a conference with a co-worker entitled How You Can Develop Your Team By Harnessing the Strengths of Your Team Members so this topic was right up my alley.

Like the first book you also get a code to take an online test to help figure out your strengths but with a specific slant on leadership skills. Interestingly my top 5 strengths from before were all the same apart from Restorative has been replaced by Relator.

The researchers have identified how these strengths group into 4 overarching leadership styles.

The theory being that lots of the leaders that they have research do not have strengths in all of these areas. Their strengths are normally dominating one or two areas. The key though is that they surround themselves with people whose strengths dominate different areas.

These are some of the biggest things that I took away from this book:

  • If you spend your life trying to be good everything, you will never be great at anything. The greatest misconceptions is that of the well rounded leader.
  • The path to great leadership starts with a deep understanding of the strengths you bring to the table.
  • Be aware of just trying to imitate great leaders that you know. You will spend all your energy trying to be like them rather than figuring out what kind of leader you are.
  • If you are able to to help the people that you lead focus on their strengths, it will dramatically boost engagement levels throughout your organization.
  • Effective leaders surround themselves with the right people and build on each persons strengths. In most cases though leadership teams are formed out of circumstance. The most competent and skilled people making it to the top. Rarely are people recruited for strengths that will complement others on the team. For example seeking someone who could build stronger relationships between the group, or someone who could influence theirs on behalf of the group. Often people will pick people similar to their own personalities and strengths. How are you supposed to grow and adapt to change this way?

The book has three sections

  1. Investing in your strengths
  2. Maximizing your team
  3. Understanding why people follow

With lots of case studies and examples. A good read for anyone trying to find their leadership legs like me!

Bringing Visibility to Retrospective Action Items

I’m a big fan of the Retrospective. I think it’s so important to take time to look back and reflect on how things have been going, and think about how to make things better on your team. There are heaps of different kinds of retrospectives for different occasions and to enable you look at your from lots of different angles.

Regular retrospectives will open up great communication between team members and make it easier to talk about issues and successes.

However, you can’t reap the full benefits of retrospectives if nothing changes afterwards. If the team feels like they are losing an hour of their lives to retrospect and then nothing happens they aren’t going to be keen to have one again.

Some things that I think are important:

  • Retrospectives should happen regularly. Every 1-2 weeks AT LEAST.  More than that and the feedback cycle is too long, the retrospective will likely take hours because so much stuff has built up.
  • Keep them energetic, change up the format often and get different team members to facilitate and take ownership.
  • Keep them constructive, follow the prime directive and ensure that there are action items that have owners and are achievable.

I recently joined a team that was feeling quite disillusioned with their retrospectives. They were every 3-4 weeks, and the same issues came up time and time again. Nothing was changing and the team was frustrated. On my second day on the team we had a session and everyone was grumbling before we had even started, that it was pointless. It broke my heart.

I felt like there was a massive lack of visibility to the items that had come up, no ownership and no follow-up.

So I got hold of the items that had come up and created a Retrospectives Action Items board that lists all of the action items, their owners and equally as importantly, which ones we have actually achieved so that the team can see that we are making headway.

This board lives next to the story wall where we hold standup so that we can talk about the items every few days, see progress (or lack there of) and provide a friendly reminder. (My crafting skills pale in insignificance compared to some of my past team mates, so sorry about that!)

  • Ensure the whole team can see the action items and who’s responsible for making each one happen.
  • Regularly bring action items up and check progress during standup, remove any blockers if necessary.
  • Celebrate the items that do get done.

So far this has worked pretty well. I already feel there is a better energy and things are changing as a result of our last retrospective. Next mission, get them to happen much more often!

Group Feedback Sessions

It’s that time of year again… Spring reviews.

Now I have been on teams that are great at giving and receiving feedback, it’s adhoc, it’s frequent, and often immediately following the event that you are getting feedback about. I have also been on teams where this wasn’t the case. I think that unless you have that culture of continuous feedback on your team from the start, it’s quite hard to break that mental barrier, and can feel like getting blood from a stone. It can be a daunting and intimidating prospect to even ASK for feedback let alone give it.

Last week I rolled off a client that I had been at for just over a year, and this was one of those teams that we were pretty terrible at giving each other feedback. As the spring reviews were looming, and providing the kick that we needed, as well as my roll off and a couple of other impending staffing changes, we thought let’s just do a group session and ‘get it over with’.

A couple of people on the team had done group feedback sessions before. I was new to this. I felt a mixture of excitement and fear at the prospect of sitting in a room while everyone tells you what they think of you…. The team has been together for a long time now though and we are all quite comfortable with each other. We were also a reasonably small group of 8, so that made it seem much more manageable.

Our new PM Eric, carefully crafted a format for us to follow and he roped in a couple of our ‘people people’ (HR) to facilitate.

To keep the sessions constructive and focused, there was prep work for each of us before the session. We would each spend time self-reflecting on

  • What I bring to a project
  • What are the greatest challenges I face in the performance of my job.
  • What specific actions I am taking or plan to take to overcome my challenges.
  • What are my goals for the next year

Putting our thoughts into a Google Doc that we would then share with all of the team. It’s a fascinating learning experience to see what is on each person’s radar. Each of us would then add points for each person that we felt weren’t already covered, especially focusing on what they bring to the team. The focus here is that it’s easy to know what you are not so good at, but not always easy to be able to reflect on what you are great at, and what others think you are great at. If someone has identified something that they think they should work on, there is no need for the other 12 people on the team to point it out too. Also gives everyone a chance to process their feedback in their own way before talking through it, and saves you trying to collect feedback while people are talking to you. (because who can ever remember!)

Now to the actual session. We allowed 3 hours, after work, offsite, with pizza and a couple of beers. It was exhausting but well worth it. There were 4 parts to the session.

  • Icebreaker – Everyone taking turn to tell a funny story, either from the project or within the company.
  • What are you great at? – Each person take turns to talk about the 3 things that they are proud of/have done well. With everyone else adding points to it. For me it was actually the most uncomfortable part! Turned into an hour long love fest but well worth it.
  • How can you get better? Speed dating style. Everyone pairs off and spends 3/4 minutes each talking through the feedback that they got from that person and any other questions/clarifications that have come up from talking to others. Until everyone has spoken to everyone.
A MAJOR benefit for me of choosing to do it speed dating style and not round table, is that you have broken the barrier of one on one feedback. Now that you’ve talked together in this setting, conversations will happen naturally during pairing, coffee breaks etc.
If people know what you are working on when it comes to your personal development, they will be able to provide much better and more useful feedback when they see something happening, and encouragement when they see you getting better.
It was a great session that I’m really glad that we did. In a couple of evening’s work, all the feedback we needed for our reviews was collected, and we learnt a lot about each other and ourselves. The team committed to doing one of these more formal sessions every quarter, with the one and one stuff more often. I’m not sure how well it will be kept up, will have to ask them in 6 months or so!
Some lessons:
  1. Think about the format that you want to use beforehand, and prepare. Communicate this plan with the team beforehand so that they can prepare themselves.
  2. Fill in your own feedback and other’s BEFORE the session
  3. Talk about any hopes and/or concerns that the team has beforehand so that they can be addressed and built into the format.
  4. Get someone NOT on the team to facilitate the session.
  5. Hold the session offsite (Incase client discussions come up, also to provide  ‘safer’ environment).
  6. It is the facilitator’s job to ensure that session stays focused and constructive. Push where necessary.

Give it a try and let me know how it goes!