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Level Up - Issue #146


Level Up

May 29 · Issue #146 · View online

Level Up delivers a curated newsletter for leaders in tech. A project by Ideal for busy people such as Tech Leads, Engineering Managers, VPs of Engineering, CTOs and more.

“We don’t need a tech lead”
I hear this phrase several times when I run training. I notice it’s often from individual team members who have never had the responsibility of leading a team. When I ask questions about why, I often find out they mean, “We don’t need a tech lead” because they are often thinking about a bad tech lead. I get it. No team member needs (nor deserves) the micromanaging tech lead, who allocates tasks or coding activities instead of interesting challenging problems. Let’s look at two scenarios.
Scenario one: You have a development team of 6 people. They get along really well with each other, they actively support each other and each person demonstrates leadership, stepping up when they notice a problem, and the team can easily resolve any disagreement in a smooth and healthy manner. Your team continually invests in quality practices and has built enough credibility with other people (e.g. product people or other higher-level managers) that they give a lot of autonomy to the team to decide on what to work on. Does this sound like your team? Congrats, you probably don’t need a tech lead. Is this common? Unfortunately, nowhere near enough.
Scenario two: You have a development team of 6 people. Most people get along, but two developers fundamentally disagree with how to build software. They don’t want to make a big deal of this, so their conflict surfaces indirectly in snarky comments in pull requests, extremely nitpicky code reviews, and rude comments in team meetings. The other team members don’t feel like it’s their place to intervene, hoping the issue will resolve itself. To avoid confrontation, the two developers who disagree with each, tend to pick up work in different areas of the codebase, implementing features the way they see best. Other team members need to “remember” to switch styles when working in different parts of the codebase, slowing their work down or sometimes making it extremely difficult because they have to make a single change with several different approaches. Team meetings tend to be brief to avoid the chance of an escalation. The last time, a heated discussion erupted into a shouting match and a Director of Engineering had to be called in to mediate. Does this sound like your team? Firstly, I’m sorry. Secondly, this team could use a tech lead.
Leadership roles exist not to dictate how things should be done, but to provide fast feedback to help alignment. Where groups of individuals naturally align, the formal leader doesn’t need to take an active role. Consider leadership roles as a backup mechanism. In case the team gets stuck, a local leadership role is there to step in when no one is and no one wants to. In scenario two, the absence of a leadership role means disagreements, and misalignments fester, growing over time. These issues typically don’t go “away” and end up escalating until a leader (external to the team), is either called to intervene/mediate or has to because it is clearly detrimental to the business.
Formal leadership roles exist not because people want to inflict bad leaders on teams and individuals. Formal leadership roles exist as a risk management strategy, to provide support and fast feedback. After all, your CEO can’t (and shouldn’t) need to intervene in every team issue that escalates.
Enjoy this week’s newsletter, and please pass it on to a friend or colleague who might benefit.
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"We don't need a tech lead" (Maybe not yet...)
"We don't need a tech lead" (Maybe not yet...)
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Mike Schroepfer
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Thanks for making it this far! 🤗
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Patrick Kua, Postfach 58 04 40, 10314, Berlin, Germany