Technical Leadership: It’s Not Really Technical at All

Technical Leadership: It’s Not Really Technical at All
Reading Time: 4 minutes

In this article:

  • Efficient technical leadership offers guidance in employee skill sets in context of company priorities and the job market 
  • Investing in people as a driver for enhanced teams 
  • 7 Tips for technical leaders in developing and maintaining a healthy work environment

What makes a great leader, for a custom software development company or in any other endeavor? Some may say charisma, intelligence, team player, to name a few. Then, what makes a great technical leader? I’ve read the books and tried to practice them to the best of my ability. Over the past 25 years in technology, my learnings can be boiled down to a single statement and philosophy:  

“My job as a leader is to ensure my team members have the skills that would enable them to work anywhere, yet provide an environment that makes them choose to work here.”

– Dave Moore, Former Chief Innovation Officer at GAP

That’s it. Sounds easy at first, doesn’t it? Let’s break it down.  

Part 1 – My job as a leader is to ensure my team members have the skills that would enable them to work anywhere

The profile of a technology professional – their skills, background, personality – change in the light of where innovation is headed. Around 75% of respondents from Stack Overflow’s 2020 Developer Survey said that they learn a new technology every few months or year. Software and Data Engineers often question whether their current skill set fits tomorrow’s business and technical needs. In my experience, people perform better when they feel well-equipped to adapt. 

To achieve this, I believe in investing in people, including acquiring or refining skills. In many cases, I provide input on what those skills should be – mainly ones we need on our team and that are easily transferable. You might have someone in a QA role that wants to be a security expert. Or, there might be a developer that wants to be a product manager. Regardless, they want to acquire a new skill set that their current role doesn’t require. Technical leadership involves mentoring these individuals and easing their concerns in the face of job market changes. 

The best way to have internal value is to have external value. In practice, this translates to the dilemma of learning an internal proprietary technology compared to a global, more compelling one. For example, if you’re a programmer working on game engines, would you rather work on a game that uses a proprietary engine or one used by dozens of game companies in the industry? One gives you much more market value than the other, thereby decreasing your anxiety in the event of job changes. 

On the other hand, sometimes people adopt new technologies for the sole sake of marketability. That’s where your role as the technical leader comes into play, providing good justification for any new technology adoption. Don’t adopt any technology for the sole purpose of skill acquisition because someone said they wanted to learn it. You must balance the needs of your organization and map those to individuals that best fit the profile. If the new technology meets these requirements, then invest in acquiring these skills. 

Part 2 – … yet provide an environment that makes them choose to work here.

This second half of the statement is more difficult to accomplish. Not all team environments or cultures are the same, however, the best ones do have many similarities. These characteristics include: 

  • Titles are left at the door.  Meritocracy is the name of the game; the best ideas win regardless of who they come from. 
  • Lead by example. If you’re requiring your team members to get cloud certified, why not start it off with you being the first one to do it?   
  • Failure is used as a teaching aid. Failure should not only be tolerated, but celebrated for all the things that were learned in the process. Being truly agile means trying, failing, learning and adapting to achieve innovation. 
  • Hold transparent discussions involving radical candor in every angle of the team – horizontal or vertical. Lean into having difficult conversations. 
  • Give attention to people frequently, not just at annual review time.
  • Show a genuine interest in the people on your team.
  • Strive for a work life balance. A healthy work-life balance reduces stress and a top driver is one of the top drivers of attraction for employees, as reported by Gartner.

The best work environments accomplish all of the above. Omitting a characteristic makes the others less true. For instance, you can’t give attention frequently but not show genuine interest in people. You can’t lead by example but then criticize for failure.  

The good news is that if you focus on the list, and constantly cultivate, you will have a healthy team that can achieve anything. My recommendation is to make a scorecard of each of these and have your team rate it and you, once a quarter. Openly share the results with the team. Be vulnerable and open and then you know where you need to focus the most.    

In Conclusion

There is no finish line to technical leadership, just a constant improvement process. Team members come and go, organizations change, projects are born or die, etc. There’s always something to address, optimize and improve. The reward for your hard work on this investment is a healthy, productive team and friendships that go well beyond corporate borders.

Here at GAP, we incorporate our values – such as investing in people – as pillars in driving the progress we continuously aim for. If this article interests you and you are a technical leader, you may join my secret underground Slack channel or read more thought leadership articles. GAP also provides application and modernization workshops for ideas on technology. Please reach out to us if you’re interested in discussing topics like this and others with your peers across all industries.