Technical Leadership

Technical Leadership is identified as one of Matter’s top skills linked to performance and career success. Matter helps professionals tease out blindspots and areas for growth in skills like technical leadership through regular peer-to-peer feedback.

What Is Technical Leadership

Definition of Technical Leadership: Ensures strong technical decisions are made while leading a project.

Technical leaders care about building amazing products and the best engineering teams. Everything they do is about the end user and their teams. These leaders are motivated and highly interested in the details, both big-picture and laser-focused. They prioritize their team’s happiness and productivity by filtering out noise and impeccable delegation.

Great Technical Leaders You May Know

Bridget Frey: Starting as one of a handful of female engineers before rising to be the CTO of Redfin, Frey leads a software engineering team of more than 150 engineers with the goal of building technologies that make buying and selling a home less complicated. But, before she settled in to make that her goal, she first wanted to crack the nut of diversity in her field. Now nearly 32% of her team are women. Focusing on big data, analytic engineering, and system architecture, Frey makes sure that the right information flows in the right directions.

Cathy Polinsky: Having worked at companies for powerhouse tech companies like Amazon and Salesforce, Polinsky became CTO of Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service. Referring to the difference between being a developer and being a technical leader, she detailed that “When you’re a manager, and you’re not actually writing the hands-on code and influencing through people, things take longer… but your impact is much broader, and if you can stick through it you find other ways to see your impact, and that you can be really proud of the people and lives that you can influence.”

Gerri Martin-Flickinger: As the CTO of Starbucks, Martin-Flickinger has made it her personal mission to make the coffee giant’s technology as easy to use as it is to access one of the chain’s more than 28,000 store locations. Customer satisfaction is her number one concern. In an interview, Martin-Flickinger explained that “tech has to amplify that human connection, not get in the way of it. It is not about building cool, shiny tech. It’s about building tech that appeals to that connection and craft that is uniquely Starbucks.”

Why Technical Leadership Is Important

  • Motivation: As the leader of the team, you teach through example. In technical leadership, perhaps more so than other leadership fields, it boils down to a bottom-up approach: being a servant to the team, working side-by-side with them to help them solve problems and achieve their goals.
  • Hiring: Getting the best and brightest engineering talent is vital to a good technical leader, but so is diversity and inclusion. A functional team is a team that encompasses all points of view and voices.
  • Scale: Engineering leaders delegate and ensure their team is efficient and productive. They protect their team from distractions and interruptions by juggling all the many stakeholders’ needs and wishes while making stable, clear decisions. This empowers the group to work efficiently and productively, allowing business to scale.

What Technical Leadership Isn’t About

  • Control: Engineering leaders don’t lead through mandate or authoritarianism. Instead, they focus on hiring and leading productive, motivated teams.
  • Rigidity: Technical leaders need to be flexible to handle the many stakeholders that are involved in engineering projects. While it is important to maintain a consistent vision for your team, you should be willing to bend without breaking.
  • Brilliant Jerks: You don’t want to hire someone who might be a brilliant coder, but who is toxic or bad for the team. As Apple’s Steve Wozniak said “It’s not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

Abilities That Lead To The Mastery of Technical Leadership

Attracting talent: Attracting talent means actively participating in finding new team members rather than passively awaiting relying on a recruiter. A manager must continuously spend time on attracting the best possible talent.

Being a servant of the team: The best engineering leaders are able to not only provide vision and direction to the team but are also able to focus their energy and effort on helping the team. A great engineering leader works to identify and eliminate roadblocks that are keeping their team from performing at their very best. This is the essence of servant leadership.

Being humble: Great technical leaders don’t assume they have all the answers. If they don’t know the answer to a question, they are happy to defer to another team member or to find the answer and get back to you. To them, giving a helpful answer is more important than looking smart.

Being trusting: The very best engineering leaders know how you take your coffee, your wife’s name, and your favorite music. They care deeply about the people on their team. These are the types of engineering leaders who get the very best work out of their team.

Communicating the mission and vision: The best engineering leaders need to be able to communicate the mission and vision for their teams. This is as important for managers as it is for executives. A team’s mission is why the team exists. A vision is how the world will look in the future if the team accomplishes its mission.

Motivating people: People need to be kept engaged and excited to stay with a company. Regular 1:1s, praising accomplishments, team events, compensation, and shipping high-quality products can all be compelling ways to keep employees engaged.

Protecting the team from interruptions: Interruptions and meetings are greatly loathed by developers. They destroy their productivity. A manager should constantly be removing distractions, ensuring that they have large blocks of uninterrupted “maker time.”

Remaining calm under pressure: While the natural reaction during a time of crisis may be to panic or lose your cool, keeping calm and buffering your team away from unnecessary stress during that time can make or break their ability to quickly and effectively resolve the situation.

Staying positive: As a leader, people look to you to know how they should feel about the organization, both consciously and subconsciously. If you are upbeat and enthusiastic, the people around you are more likely to be optimistic and happy. If you are negative and pessimistic, your team is probably grumpy and depressed.

Explore Roles That Benefit From Technical Leadership

Who can benefit from practicing technical leadership? Matter is helping professionals at all levels get actionable feedback to improve their technical leadership.

  • CEOs who are looking to become better leaders and cultivate company culture
  • Designers who want to grow their professional and soft skills
  • Freelancers who work without a traditional team and want feedback
  • Project Managers looking to improve their cross-functional collaboration skills
  • Software Engineers who aspire to become a tech lead or manager

Explore Complementary Skills to Technical Leadership

Technical Leadership shouldn’t be practiced in a vacuum. Improve your technical leadership by exploring and developing these complementary skills.

  • Analytical Thinking: Applies logical thinking to solve complex problems
  • Code Quality: Writes long-term useful and long-term maintainable code
  • Hiring: Convinces talented people to join your team and/or company
  • Technical Acumen: Grasps the technical details required to lead a project
  • Vision: Possesses innovative ideas about how things can be vastly improved in the future

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