My journey out of management has created some space for me to think about how to grow as a technical leader. There isn’t an easy recipe here. In management, there is a clear list of things for everyone to work on: organization, EQ, delegation, effective status reports, efficient meetings, wrangling backlog negotiations, etc. There are similarly obvious moves on a purely technical track: learn technology X, complete a Staff project, mentor other engineers in their technical ideas and practices, keep track of and evangelize tech debt, improve monitoring and observability, etc.
Both of those lists appeal to me. I have spent time focusing on both, and liked that time. If that’s what I kept doing, it would almost be alright. But I feel there is an opportunity for something else. For something that fits my personal desires, and that provides a different kind of value. I am a software engineer who wants an outlet for his leadership tendencies that is separate from management. I see others like me, more than a few. Here are some things we can try.
The Three Pillars of Technical Leadership
There are some bedrock principles that leadership can’t happen without. Among these are putting others first, creating trust and safety, and just plain empathy. These and others are important, and can’t be ignored.
Given that, what can we say about leadership that is specific and helpful to software engineers, but doesn’t require a management position? I propose these pieces to add to the puzzle:
- Exemplary Engineer
- Force Multiplier
- Change Agent
When you are a manager, you get an automatic cache of credibility from your position. When you are not a manager, you need to establish credibility in other ways. Being an exemplary engineer is one method.
Being exemplary is only 30% about being excellent. The more important part is being recognized as excellent in the parts of engineering that are important to the engineering culture. Notice the opportunities to miss the mark here: excellence without recognition doesn’t count. Neither does excellence in areas no one puts a strong value on. Put simply, you are exemplary if the organization wants to point to you as an example for others to emulate. As a result, this is as much about synergy between you and the organization as it is about you.
Another force here is that you have to be a strong enough engineer that you can contribute individual efforts at a respectable pace while spending time helping others. Some environments will be more forgiving than others on this balance, but at the end of the day you have to be able to deliver on your “day job”. This means working fast and creating little rework.
Being a force multiplier is often the first way people start making an impact outside of themselves. One of my favorite ways to do this is glue work, which makes a huge difference and gives me a lot of personal satisfaction. Will Larson has a great post about working on what matters that covers a lot of things that fall under “force multiplier” to me, such as “edits” and driving things to done that don’t quite seem to finish.
In my experience, an interesting quality of force multiplier work is that it tends to move with me. When I am on a team I bring it, and when I leave a team a noteworthy portion leaves with me. The impact can be big, but it isn’t lasting at the same level – it needs my presence to sustain it. This is what always brings me to the third pillar.
This is another term that means different things to different people. What I mean by it is “create a lasting difference in behavior or people and teams”.
Trainers and coaches do this. Process evangelists do this. Managers, Directors, VPs and CTOs do this. If you read business books about change they tend to reference giants like JFK and Jeff Bezos. It can be daunting to think of being a change agent in that context. But there are a lot of ways to inspire change without being an inspirational figure.
Speaking up in a team retrospective can create change. Convincing your manager to pay for a team training can create change. Starting a book club can create change. Training the new hire creates change. It doesn’t have to be big. Since changes in behavior are lasting, small ones make a big difference over time.
All Models are Wrong…
Earlier I wrote “I am a software engineer who wants an outlet for his leadership tendencies that is separate from management.” That’s not quite true. I don’t want to find a “pressure release valve”. I want to become a better leader, even when I am not “in charge” at all. My goal with these thoughts is to have a conversation about ways to do that. Already as I’ve talked to people about drafts of this article, I’ve found ways that these ideas aren’t quite right. I’m excited to find more.