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My Journey Transitioning From Individual Contributor To Engineering Lead

by Blair Motchan

I’m not an expert lead developer and I’m not writing as an authority. Rather, I am writing about my experiences, how I approach my new responsibilities, and how I try to improve myself and teammates as an engineering lead.

The roles and responsibilities of a “lead developer” (and the title’s variants) have always been a bit vague to me. Not to mention that every company and department treats the position differently. So, when I became an “engineering lead” I was a bit unsure of what my next steps would be.

Fortunately, I have some great mentors at Label Insight, and our department has adopted the philosophies found in The Manager’s Path, Camille Fournier - O’Reilly Media, Inc, USA - 2017. Both have shaped how I’ve decided to lead, and I’ve outlined some strategies, thoughts, and advice below.

Transitioning away from being an individual contributor

According to Fournier, “Your highest priority as a tech lead is taking a wide view of the work so that you can keep the project moving.” — The Manager's Path, 32. Transitioning away from an individual contributor was one of the hardest steps for me because I had to “let go” of development as I formerly knew it. Instead of being the person who could handle and manage any project or task, I have stepped back and now equip my teammates to do the same.

“You should continue writing code, but not too much.” — The Manager’s Path, 32.

I now spend most of my time gathering better requirements, facilitating team discussions, creating architectural diagrams, answering questions, and working more closely with project managers and stakeholders. I still work on smaller, less critical stories, though. The Manager’s Path recommends still staying highly technical at this stage so that you can understand, point out, and prioritize the team’s pain points and bottlenecks, and also keep the respect of other engineers. — The Manager’s Path, 77.

Mentoring, coaching, and managing

My approach involves helping my teammates work and excel in areas that they are interested in that also have a high value to the company. I benefit from this because I get to know my teammates and company better. My teammates benefit because they take a closer look at what motivates them. Finally, the company and department benefit because people are working on areas they are the most interested in.

Know your environment

“The important thing for you to start doing now that you’re in management is to learn how the game is played at your company. Every company has its own variation of the promotion process, and you’re probably in this role because you survived it.” — The Manager’s Path, 69.

Merit is determined differently at every company and department, and every company values certain types of work more than others. Potentially most importantly, every company has different processes and procedures for getting raises and promotions. Having a good grasp on all these areas will help you identify how to best help the engineers that work with you.

Understand your teammates

Knowing how to be successful at a company is not enough when you are leading others or are a lead developer. I try to understand how the engineers I work with are motivated so that I can help them be as successful as possible. Engineers want to do a great job and write great software but translating that desire into motivation is not always easy.

While information from personality tests is important, I prefer to just get to know people very well through regular one-on-one meetings and working closely with them. Patterns will emerge that will indicate what motivates them. As Fournier put it, “... get to know the person reporting to you as a human being.” — The Manager’s Path, 56.

Lead by example

I apply “The Golden Rule” to my personal and professional life: I try to be the teammate for others that I’d want for myself; to me, this is the essence of “leading by example.” As a leader, people will look at you as a role model and will either adopt your behaviors or believe that the way you act is accepted behavior at your company and department.

When leading by example it is imperative to keep a positive attitude. It only takes one person with the right attitude to make a difference and begin solving a problem and then others will follow suit. Similarly, it’s important to celebrate achievements and accomplishments because the positives will overshadow the negatives. According to Fournier, “the trick is not to focus on what’s broken, but to identify existing strengths and cultivate them.” — The Manager’s Path, 119.

“Play to your strengths, admit your weaknesses, try to improve, and be honest.”

If you find yourself in a similar position, I hope some of my thoughts help you to be a better leader or lead developer. Earlier in my career I did not know what to look for in a supervisor or manager, and I now try to provide the leadership that I realize I was missing. My final piece of advice is to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as a person in order to be a successful lead engineer. Play to your strengths, admit your weaknesses, try to improve, and be honest.

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