For the fourth year in a row White October Events and Meri Williams organised The Lead Developer: a two-day conference covering topics from leadership to self-improvement and team dynamics, mixed with some technical talks. This year Ordina JWorks travelled to the Barbican Centre in London to attend this amazing and inspiring conference for the very first time and returned home energized and full of ideas!
As tech lead you have to be a great developer. But you also need to be a good team leader, be commercially astute, and stay on top of all the tech developments and trends coming over the horizon. With a balance of content across team, tools and tech, The Lead Developer conference is designed with the complexities of the job in mind.
In this blogpost we will summarize some of the talks that are mainly focused on personal development of a team lead. All talks were recorded and can be found on The Lead Developer London 2018 YouTube channel. Highly recommended!
‘First steps as a lead’ by Dan Persa
Why become a lead in the first place? According to Dan Persa, dealing with people problems is much more interesting than dealing with computers, but each company interprets this in a slightly different way. Some call it “tech lead”, others call it “people manager”, but in either case it is your job to understand what the role is all about and check that it fits your expectations. Becoming a lead is not a natural evolution for a developer. It’s a career switch and not a promotion; because a different skillset is required. The Don’t-Repeat-Yourself principle, which is a key principle for each software developer, does not apply when working with people. Communicate things over and over again. Repetition is key.
Getting into leadership is not trivial, so ask people around you for help. How do you learn these leadership skills very fast?
- Shadow a mentor to ensure a smooth transition and not feeling lost.
- Don’t just read books, but put them in practice as well.
- Reflect and remember good and not-so-good behaviour from your former leads.
As a lead you need to create an open and safe environment with mutual trust. But how you do earn the trust and respect of your team?
- Open yourself up to be vulnerable.
- Have regular one-to-ones.
- Be transparent in decision-making, especially around performance evaluations.
- The best solutions to problems come from the team, let them take ownership of the problem.
- Create a feedback culture: give feedback as soon as possible after the action in need of feedback happened, decouple development feedback from performance evaluations, and organise health checks meetings.
- Celebrate successes!
‘Building sustainable teams to handle uncertainty’ by Jenny Duckett
What can disrupt a team?
Because we frequently make deliberate changes about how we’re working in our team, change is often a good thing. However, there’s uncertainty involved.
- People can leave or join the team; team members can feel un(der)valued. The dynamics of personalities and opinions change whenever people change.
- It can be hard for teams to make decisions and handle roadmaps while senior leaders move. Revisiting decisions that you thought you’d settled and making progress can be hard.
- Shifting wider priorities can make a team feel frustrated and disempowered.
- Re-organising teams out of existence can make people feel undervalued as individuals.
- Even things like desk moves can have a significant impact on people. More about this on Lara Hogan’s blogpost.
Putting people through these things more than occasionally, will result in a retention problem. The way changes make people feel is at least as important as the change itself. Emotions are critical.
What can you do to prepare?
First of all, work on yourself so you can sustain through these disruptive changes and be able to support your team better as a result. You don’t need to do it all yourself: let go of details, give people your trust and assume positive intent. Set yourself up to lead sustainably.
Make your team’s work ownable by stopping to split efforts and starting to define a single and clear goal. Communicate this goal over and over again. It will feel like you’re just repeating yourself and you’re boring people, but it’s reassuring just to know that the goal hasn’t changed. Give your team the background they need for each piece of work by adding context to user stories, organizing story kickoffs and running workshops.
Empower your team to take ownership by embracing opportunities for positive change. Also become great at integrating new people by assigning them a mentor. Let them improve your onboarding guide and technical documentation. Make it clear that you value learning as part of everyday work, recognise that everyone is always learning. Share understanding of your work in the team, the whole context is important. This can be done by writing good commit messages (also the why not just the what), but also by documenting decisions and the reasons for it, and keeping your documentation up-to-date. Taking ownership helps people handle change.
Support and grow individuals. Use every piece of work to help someone grow and start with individual needs. Effective delegation can be accomplished by being clear and explicit, explain what’s happening and why. Also set the scope and boundaries, what’s the problem that they’re trying to solve, who’s involved and when should they bring questions to you. Grow the next generation of leaders by teaching people to do your job and make yourself dispensable.
Show your team where they fit into the wider organisation and how they relate to its goals. A wider view helps people adapt when things change. Don’t over-insulate your team because when something gets through your shield, it will be very disruptive. Grow people for a resilient team and organisation, and encourage your team to show off their work, to be proud of it.
Make sure that your manager understands how much work it takes from everyone to build a team that works well and the time it takes to become familiar with the domain they’re working in. Ask them for support to build a sustainable team and show why all your team’s work matters. Good communication about change is vital.
‘The hardest scaling challenge of all - yourself’ by Christian McCarrick
- Be an effective communicator: as you grow, you’ll get better at getting your point across to larger and larger groups.
- Communicate up to the manager, across peers and down to your team.
- Personal branding and self-promotion are important: have confidence and show the value of your work.
- Create a safe environment by genuinely praising other people and giving honest feedback.
- Seek out for negative feedback and ask specific questions for better feedback.
- The most important communication skill to learn is how to say “no” without feeling guilty.
Prioritization & Time management
- If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.
- The Eisenhower Matrix: How to make decisions on what’s urgent and important.
- Multitasking is an anti-pattern, so write down all the things you need to do and keep a journal.
- Turn off email notifications. Instead, schedule short blocks during the day when you quickly check emails and schedule longer blocks at the end of the day where you tidy things up.
- Get into the zone by blocking your calendar: dedicate time to specific things.
- Make yourself a priority once in a while. It’s not selfish, it’s necessary.
- Obsess with the things that matter!
- Move away from “How can I get things done?” to “How can this task/decision/goal get done?”.
- Not delegating properly is one of the biggest anti-patterns and limits the scaling your entire team because you become the bottleneck around decision making.
- Let things go!
Personal development & mental health
- Leading takes energy and often gets lonely.
- If athletes get injured, they sit on the bench. Mental fatigue and burnout are issues that affects us more than we might think.
- Excercise, meditate (tip: Headspace), and read every day.
‘Go slow to go fast: building strong foundations for leadership’ by Alicia Liu
Alicia talked about how her rapid increase in job responsibilities in a rapidly growing startup led to an increase in stress, difficulty sleeping, and ultimately depression. She wrote a great blogpost and gave a very inspiring talk about the tools she used to recover from depression and insomnia, and how she became a better leader and manager.
A lot of engineers are promoted into management because they’re good engineers, regardless of their management skills. Some people are naturally good at both, but if you’re good at engineering, it might actually be harder to develop leadership skills. Coding drains a lot of mental energy, while managing others requires lots of emotional energy. Being a good engineer doesn’t make you a good leader because information is not the same as knowledge. You can’t study to be a leader, you’ll have to change and embrace discomfort to become a good leader. Be humble by listening to others, being present with each person and regularly switching context is a hard thing to do. Focus first on form then speed. Mastering others is power, mastering yourself is true strength.
“A gardener doesn’t tell plants how to grow. A gardener creates the best environment for the plants to flourish. But you still need to know how to garden, and you need to know what to weed out. Leadership is about dealing with the unknowns.” @aliciatweet #LeadDevLondon