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Why tech leads should never be ‘on the hoof’

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Juan Rodríguez

I love being a technical lead; it’s one of those roles where you have the opportunity to contribute greatly towards the success of your project and, as well as everything else, you have the opportunity to shape a team and make a positive impact on people’s careers.

A few years ago, before I was a technical lead, I always pictured the role as starting something from scratch, contributing to absolutely everything – helping to discover the path of your project while at the same time building a team capable of delivering with guarantees. Who wouldn’t love to be in that situation? A completely green-field project where you get to be involved right from the beginning.

The truth is, while I have had the opportunity to experience green field-projects and I have thoroughly enjoyed it, this is a rarity. More often than not a technical lead is expected to just take over from someone, to step into their shoes and quite simply make a project happen.

In my opinion this is the hardest part of being a technical lead, letting yourself into somebody else’s house, claiming it as your own and making a difference – fast. I have been in situations where I have taken over from someone whom I profoundly respected as a software developer and the feeling of stepping into shoes that were way too big for me was really daunting. How do you deal with this? What is the priority? How do you make a difference?

I was born in Spain, in the mid 80’s. A country that had only just transitioned from a nearly 40-year old dictatorship into a democracy. Life in the city was not very different from any other city in Europe. However, if you stepped into rural Spain then things were still pretty much locked in time, as if it was still 1936 – just before the Civil War.

Life in my parent’s village was simple, we did everything ourselves. From cured meats, vegetables, bread, olive oil, spirits … to soap! I have very fond memories of my childhood and I am quite proud of knowing what it is like to live of what earth has got to offer.

My grandad had a donkey, she was called Tolana and she was a very important member in our family. Twice or thrice a week, she would walk with my grandad down to the allotment (about three kilometres away) and once there they would both get to work. My grandad would work the land and Tolana would go to the water well where she would pump water out.

I loved going down to the allotment with my grandad, he would let me ride Tolana and she would lead the way while my grandad just followed on the back thinking of the day ahead and what needed to be done. On one occasion, Tolana was not well and needed to rest so my grandad used next door’s donkey to go down to the allotment and I went down with him. The journey was entirely different and I didn’t quite understand why. I was not allowed to ride the donkey and my grandad walked alongside the donkey, holding the reins, rather than at the back like he used to. The path followed to the allotment was also different, a little bit longer but it didn’t matter that much. Once at the allotment, the donkey did not pump water, but he did help us carry some of the potatoes back home.

I often think about this story when considering about my role as a technical lead. Personally, I love it when it is hard to tell who the technical lead is in a team – in my opinion this is synonym of a job well done because the team has nurtured a sense of ownership on what they are doing and this sense of ownership has grown from the bottom-up, so things just work smoothly. This allows the technical lead to appear as if a back seat has been taken but in reality, you are just ensuring things keep flowing throughout the team while keeping an eye on the road ahead and also spending time upskilling people, you are just “enabling.”

This is what my grandad used to do with Tolana and I. While I thought I was in charge of the donkey and Tolana thought she was leading the way, in reality it was my grandad who was handling things from the back. Things just flowed, which allowed him to think on the way down to the allotment what needed to be done while at the same time keeping an eye on what was going on in front of him and acting if he had to.

So, how do you make a difference when you walk into a team that is halfway through a project? Well, your main priority is to not disrupt flow – as with any process that produces anything, your new team is a system and there is a flow that goes through it. This system can potentially be extremely inefficient and have a very minimal flow or it can be a really efficient team with an extremely good flow. The bottom line is that it doesn’t matter – whatever state the team is in you must not disrupt it, let things go as they are while at the same time fully devote your senses into understanding your project, your team, the processes around it, the way coding is done … absolutely anything.

Use your experience to understand what is happening and how it is happening and your top priority should always be, do not disrupt anything unless you absolutely have to. Remember, a good technical lead doesn’t have to be the cleverest, or the best developer, or have the most domain knowledge. A good technical lead is an enabler, someone who manages to execute the simplest technical solution while at the same time nurturing passion for software development and a sense of ownership on each and everybody of the team’s members. A good technical lead enables a solid and consistent symbiosis between the business and the delivery team.

This is what my grandad did whenever Tolana was ill and we had next door’s donkey, he would let the donkey follow his own path while keeping hold of the reins in case he had to redirect the donkey’s path, he would not attempt to do things differently like allowing me to ride the donkey or pumping water from the well, his goal was to allow the donkey to feel comfortable so that we could get down to the allotment and then carry back the vegetables. In essence, his goal was to not disrupt the flow while at the same time entirely devoting his senses into understanding the donkey so that he could react and anticipate if he had to.

With time, little by little, as you find your place in your new team and you feel comfortable with your surroundings you will be able to work on those bottlenecks you have identified. You will be able to transmit that passion for what you do to your team and you will be able to install a sense of ownership for what the team does in each member that will grow from the bottom-up – rather than the other way around, imposing things.

With time you will be able to add your own style to the way in which things are done.

Don’t rush, observe, adapt and focus on becoming part of the team. Eventually, you will be able to drop the reins and walk at the back, like my grandad.

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