What Makes an Effective Technology Leader?
Every organisation, every team and every product has different challenges and goals. This makes defining the Technical Leaders within a team a very difficult task.
But, regardless of agile team structures and ever changing project briefs, there are still some skills that the very best Technical Leaders use to manage engineering and technical teams.
In this article, we bring together a variety of different technical leaders, to discuss the skills needed to be successful in the role, their route into the role and their advice for future leaders.
Richard Rodriguez, Chief Technology Officer at Fleet Assist
Richard Rodriguez, is the CTO at supply chain management company, Fleet Assist. A lover of the technical, hands-on aspects of his job, Richard has worked his way up from individual contributor level where he got an idea on how not to lead technical teams.
“Unfortunately, you get bad leadership and are asked to do things that are unreasonable. So there is always that interest on how things could be done better. It’s always in the back of your mind.”
Working in an agile environment, Richard believes the agile culture that comes with the methodologies informs technical leadership approach and also gives a platform for contributors to display their leadership qualities.
“The agile culture is very much about improvement, self improvement, team improvement, and reflecting on yourself and reflecting on the team. And what that does, is that gives everybody a voice. And with that voice, you start to recognise who the natural leaders are in any team setting. And for some reason, I feel like I've gravitated towards being a leader, I think, because I'm not afraid to speak my mind, I'm not afraid to put my thoughts out there.”
Staying close to the agile methodologies, Richard found himself being a leader, not by title, but by nature. When the opportunity came up to lead a small team, as he’s doing now, Richard was keenly poised to take his natural position as a leader into a more formal setting. Never losing sight of the agile culture that helped him find his feet as a technology leader, Richard is expanding his leadership skill set every day.
“The Agile Culture invites people to step up and do whatever it takes to get the job done. You’re encouraged to be part of everything and make it all better. It’s a really healthy culture and it’s certainly helped me grow into my role.”
What Makes an Effective Technology Leader?
Having found his feet as a manager in a healthy, Agile culture that promoted leadership qualities organically, Richard is now focusing on helping his team achieve their goals. The key to effective technology leadership, for Richard, lies in the joining up of the two aspects of leadership.
“You manage the people in your team and you manage the work. I think you have to try and join the two up and provide a clear vision and direction.”
Unifying the two aspects of professional life helps Richard understand the vision of the company and translate them for the team.
“Crucially, it’s about being transparent with that direction and finding ways to keep people engaged as opposed to just telling people what to do.”
Asking the right questions, understanding your team and supporting them throughout their career will help you keep them engaged. Having this consistent open dialogue will help you strike the balance between what’s possible and what your colleague feels is management. Finally, for Richard, it’s also about how you then go back to the rest of the business.
“That transparency goes both ways. Sometimes you need to go back to the business, and say this is too much, we can't do this. Here's what we offer instead. it's really just about trying to keep things simple. Keep the direction clear.”
A Leader Trusts Their Team
This article is about leadership in technology, but the broad brushstrokes of leadership can be applied to more than one canvas. Leadership elements that you pick up in one industry can easily be transferred to another industry with a bit of hard-work needed on understanding the subject, the challenges and the objectives.
One of these broad brushstrokes, for Richard, is trust.
“Outcomes are more important than Outputs. That is, it’s not what you do or how you do it, but the impact that has. That’s important because it means you can give the team a clear definition of a successful outcome, and give them the freedom to achieve it however they prefer. This empowers and engages their intelligent and creative minds, and builds a feeling of trust.”
A Leader who trusts their teams will find themselves having a much easier time setting the direction of travel and ensuring that the team knows where they’re heading. For Richard, there are many routes into technology leadership - with industry and technical experience helping you on that journey.
“A bad route to being a technical leader would be someone who's just purely technically minded. I think you have to have that leadership quality, that leadership mind, which isn't it's not about knowing how to do the job, best. It's about it's not about doing the job well yourself. It's about recognising what the signs of success are. And then finding your team and helping your team to reach that success.”
Ian Brunton, Software Development Manager at Red Bull Racing & Red Bull Technology
Ian Brunton is a Software Development Manager at Red Bull Racing & Red Bull Technology. Ian’s route to technology leadership came after a previous mentor of his recognised his skill set in understanding people.
“Sometimes the best developer on the team gets pushed into being the manager because they’re seen as the best - but that isn’t always the right decision for the business. Being the best technically won’t necessarily help you understand the team and understand how to motivate people.”
Ian, who was given an opportunity because of his leadership qualities, is the first to admit that it took him a while to decide if leadership was actually something he wanted to do. But when a project came up that needed someone to drive it forward, Ian was ready thanks for the continual development mentality he and his team believe in.
“As a junior developer, make sure you’re talking and listening to your team and your manager. A performance review shouldn’t just be a sit down and box tick exercise, development towards leadership should be a continual thing. It’s a bit like dental hygiene, you can’t just make efforts to improve once or twice a year, it has to be done every day. If you do it rigorously and continuously - something will come up.”
Manager and Leader Are Two Different Things
There has been plenty of debate around the nuances between the two roles of Manager and Leader. Some might say that Managers embrace process, seek stability and control, and instinctively try to resolve problems quickly—sometimes before they fully understand a problem’s significance. Leaders, in contrast, tolerate chaos and lack of structure and are willing to delay closure in order to understand the issues more fully.
For Ian, the differences are more subtle.
“Management is very much about getting things done, making sure your team is trained and helping them through processes. Leadership, I think, is defining a vision that tackles a problem and engaging your team to come help you solve that problem. Really, you need to know how to use both aspects.”
Sometimes a leader has to be very focused on management and just getting something finished. At other times you need to really inspire the team to push in the right direction and help them grow in that way.
“You can have people that are great managers, but aren't necessarily brilliant leaders. Equally, you can have people that are fantastic leaders, but aren't necessarily great managers. I think there's a lot of people that are probably somewhere in the middle, but understanding the difference between them, and knowing when to really focus on the skills that come within each skill set is quite important.”
Never Stop Reading, Never Stop Learning
For those looking towards technology leadership as a goal in their career, Ian recommends learning as much as you can, even diving into the psychology of people management.
“Understand how people work, and begin to read the signs of people from their body language, not just their words. Understanding things like transactional analysis is really important, it will help you in your own life, whether you're a manager or not.”
That knowledge is also incredibly accessible. All you need is the drive and willingness to learn something - and access to the wonderful world of the internet - to develop a skill that will help you no end in your leadership style.
Outside of that learning capacity, Ian also believes it’s key to understand people’s capacities - emotionally and professionally. To this end, Ian uses the analogy of the ‘emotional bucket.’
Everybody has an emotional bucket that is fixed in size. Some people’s buckets are large, and some are small, but your bucket never changes in size. Everything in your life goes into this bucket, whether it's at home or at work, good or bad. If somebody suddenly seems out of character at work, it might be because their bucket is full.
“If you don't have any idea of how full their bucket is, you don't know whether you can push them harder or whether you need to take some load off of them. As a manager, you need to know, what's the wellbeing of my team? Can I push them harder? Can I give them more work? Or do I need to help support them more to get through this stage of a project. This shouldn’t only be the responsibility of the team leader, you can do this as an individual as well. If you can spot these signs, you can help the whole team succeed.”
Peter Leopold, Software Development Manager at eSight Energy
Peter Leopold is the Software Development Manager at eSight Energy. Working initially as an individual contributor and moving into a project manager role, Peter’s route into leadership has seen him take on different roles within the same team and always with a significant slant towards the technical aspects of his role.
“I always had a technical element, I was very knowledgeable in my field. I’m not one of those managers who doesn’t understand what the team is talking about - they come to me for guidance. I believe this also helped the team to accept my role change.”
With his team already well aware of Peter’s capacity as a technical contributor, a peer and a leader - Peter’s challenges came in the form of juggling the different responsibilities that came with leadership.
“Getting hands off that's more difficult, because we have a small team, and there are a lot of technical challenges in our company and in our product. So I kind of have to be hands on. I don't programme too much any more, but I don’t mind if I have to help out. And I do review code, and we discuss technical requirements in meetings.”
Do you need to be technical to lead a technical team?
We interview many technical leaders from incredibly diverse backgrounds - each of them bring their own brand of leadership and experiences to the role. We always like to ask about where leaders stand on the technical knowledge a technical leader needs to be an effective leader.
We asked Peter where he stood on this debate.
“I'm an engineer by training but that doesn't mean that somebody who is not technical cannot lead a team. But I think when you work directly with the people who are building something, you need to understand, you know, what they are doing. You need to have some experience and have ambitions and the ability to learn and to adapt to new challenges has to be in you from the start.”
Leading a tech team doesn’t mean that you know everything about technologies that you and your team are using. Very often it means that you know enough to move the development forward.
“If a leader understands the development process and has been working with developers for a long time, it can work. Even if they never developed a single line of code.. So, again, for me, it helps to have development experience or to have worked closely with it.”