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How to be a tech lead

My advice for new technical leaders.
How to be a tech lead

Recently a dear friend received a well-deserved promotion to lead engineer. After years as a single contributor, he had trouble getting his bearings as an engineering leader. When his first major project started a death spiral, he reached out to me for advice. This is the email I sent to him, reprinted with his permission.

Hello Sam,

Don’t give up. Things might seem bleak right now, but things will get better. I think that your problems can be solved, rather easily, with a relatively minor adjustment in mindset.

If you can humor me, I’d like to present the following analogy.

Since you grew up on the East Coast you probably know something about crew, or the sport of rowing. In crew there are several different boat and crew configurations, but the most well known boat is an “eight” which accommodates eight crew members sitting in a row.

Rowers are typically selected for physical attributes. The best rowers have long arms and legs and a seemingly infinite appetite for pain. Rowers are incredible physical specimens whose brawn propels the boat through the water.

At the stern of the boat is a diminutive figure with a megaphone calling moves to the rowers as the boat cuts through the water. This person is the coxswain. Many coxswains weigh less than 140 pounds, because extra weight creates more drag on the boat, and more work for the rowers.

The coxswain cannot be deadweight. His or her job is too important.

Because the coxswain sits in the stern, facing forward, he or she is the only person who can see where the boat is headed. So part of the coxswain’s job is to steer while responding to the environment and managing the feel of the boat on the water.

The coxswain is also the only person on the planet who can see the faces of the crew. Therefore, the cox is the only person who can respond to their pain. The cox knows when a rower has more to give and he knows when the rower is close to breaking. The cox knows how to motivate the crew to overcome adversity and defeat the competition.

A boat without a good coxswain faces certain disaster. The rowers will be out of sync. They will row without power or rhythm. The boat will run aground and the competition will leave them behind.

Right now your team is a boat without a coxswain. By all accounts everybody is working their asses off. But without someone to focus and direct that power, your entire team is just leaking energy and burning out. Pretty soon your best devs are going to bounce. Once those floodgates open, your job is going to become much harder.

So here’s what you have to do. If you want to turn your team around (and save your sanity) put down your oar. Move to the stern of the boat. Pick up your megaphone. Get your head around the idea that you’re not a rower anymore. Become the coxswain your team needs.

If that’s too abstract for you, let’s put the analogy aside.

The biggest mistake you’re making is that you’re trying to write code like you did before you became a lead.

Why is this a mistake?

Coding by its nature requires deep and intense concentration for long periods of time. Every time you indulge yourself in heads-down focus work you are incurring massive opportunity cost:

  • You can’t observe the faces of your team, so you lose touch with how they are feeling. You can’t motivate your team when you’re not connected to them.
  • You can’t see where you are in relation to your competition. Is your team applying force to tech that will drive growth and revenue? Or are you just doing resume-driven development?
  • You can’t steer away from obstacles and pitfalls. Remember, projects don’t fail because of the unforeseeable. Projects fail when the people at the wheel aren’t paying attention.
  • You can’t find and exploit force-multipliers. Without force multipliers your team can never scale to meet the mountain of work coming down your pipeline.

To confront the brutal reality, your boat is running aground and your crew is burning out. You have problems that cannot be solved with code. Until you reorient yourself and start to steer the boat, coding is the last thing you should be worried about. Let the crew deal with the coding. You need to start steering.

Am I saying that as a lead engineer you can’t ever code? No. I am asserting that a lead engineer earns the right to code by having an optimized team.

Your team is definitely not optimized, but with your leadership, it can be.

Hang in there!

p.s. I forgot something important. To the spectators, the coxswain is just a little person with a megaphone. But everyone in the sport knows that the coxswain is the linchpin of any winning crew.

Oddly, though the coxswain is under constant scrutiny by the rowers and coach, he or she does not get credit when a crew wins. Can you be okay with that?