How I Became A Tech Lead And What I Learned Along The Way

How I Became A Tech Lead And What I Learned Along The Way

If I tell you how I became a tech lead you’re going to laugh.

You see, I became a tech lead first in my head, and later in reality.

There I was, a fresh Eng 2 who just came back from a leadership training for which my manager at the time had nominated me because he saw leadership potential in me. This training left me so inspired and fired up that for the first time, I felt a sense of alignment and clarity about where I wanted my career to head towards.

I remember telling my manager in our 1:1 after coming back: “I want to be a tech lead and I want to help you build this team”.

In hindsight, I was a bit naive. I didn’t really know exactly what a tech lead was supposed to do, let alone how to be a good one. I was, however, very motivated by the idea of partnering with my manager to make sure we build a great team and ship useful things. I saw the importance of good leadership and got excited about the idea of building a “well-oiled machine” type of team.

The biggest a-ha moment from the training was the realization that being and acting like a leader doesn’t require a title. This gave me permission to act like a tech lead even if I wasn’t one yet. Did I have a team to lead? Kind of, I had a team formed of myself 🙂 . Did I have a large scope? Nope, not yet. But could I communicate like a leader? Yes. Could I ask great questions? You bet. Could I give my peers and managers thoughtful feedback? Absolutely. And could I take the initiative for solving or improving problems I’m seeing around me? Resounding yes. So that’s what I did.

After a few months of consistently showing good leading-by-example behaviors, I was trusted with an important project and a team and officially started tech leading.

This article discusses the role of a tech lead and the various responsibilities they must undertake to be effective and drive the desired results. It also addresses common misconceptions about the role and potential surprises that tech leads may encounter along the way.

Image by Freepik

What is a Tech Lead

The role of a Tech Lead (TL) is not easy to understand, for several reasons.

First, Tech Lead isn’t as standardized of a role so every organization approaches it differently. Some companies either don’t have TLs at all, or if they do there’s usually there’s no specific job description and TLs stay individual contributor (IC) track.

Second, the tech lead role is a hybrid one—not quite a manager, and not quite an individual contributor either. It is, however, a leadership-focused role, as we’ll discuss in the following sections.

Ultimately, the main job of a tech lead is to lead a team of engineers to successfully execute and deliver projects.

My initiation as a tech lead happened at Google, where the tech lead role was fairly established and I could learn the ropes from other tech leads.

Having led numerous projects at multiple companies, I learned that to be a good tech lead, I needed to develop more than just my engineering skills. But first, I had to change how I thought about my job.

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Tech Lead Mindset Shifts

Becoming a tech lead required me to understand that success was no longer about my individual output and my needs, but instead the team output and needs.

Fully owning a project meant I had to spend a significant amount of time understanding:

  • the problem: what is the business need? are the requirements sound?
  • the resources: is the project adequately staffed? do we have enough resources?
  • the stakeholders: who are the decision-makers? which cross-functional roles does the project interface with?

Additionally, I had to get used to doing a lot of non-engineering work such as:

  • partner with the EM / PM to make sure the project is adequately staffed and scoped
  • negotiate for more resources or descoping
  • coach and mentor my team
  • drive and facilitate technical decisions

Overall, the tech lead role is complex and requires a diverse set of skills and experience. To be effective, a tech lead must learn to wear many hats and switch between them as needed. Let’s explore this further.

The many hats of a Tech Lead

👷🏻‍♀️ High-level Solution Architect

When wearing the architect hat, the tech lead must be able to translate business requirements into technical solutions and come up with the high-level architecture of a project. They must weigh the pros and cons of different options and make decisions that are sound and meet the requirements.

The tech lead is not expected to have all the answers, instead, they need to be resourceful and get the answers by empowering and leveraging the team.

👩🏻‍🍳 Project Manager

Tech leads need to plan and help prioritize the work for the team. They also need to figure out how to distribute the work so that the right people work on the right tasks. The TL is also usually responsible for managing tech debt.

In order to scale themselves, the TL needs to delegate work, while ensuring nothing gets dropped.

In the absence of a dedicated Technical Project Manager (TPM), it’s the TL’s job to follow up and make sure critical external dependencies are on track.

🎩 Team Leader

Unsurprisingly, the tech lead needs to act as a leader for the team.

The TL should be able to effectively communicate the requirements and goals of the project to the team and ensure that everyone is working towards the same vision.

They need to provide technical direction and guidance, especially to the more junior engineers, and ensure that everybody is unblocked and efficient.

🪖 Individual Contributor

Because tech leads are so busy, they are not expected to be the main developer of a project, but still work side by side with the team and contribute to the code base. Wearing this hat is challenging as TLs usually have to context-switch a lot and their time is quite fragmented.

🕵🏻‍♀️ Quality Assurance

Tech leads must ensure that coding guidelines and best practices are understood and adhered to, promoting consistency and readability of the codebase. During code reviews, they provide feedback, identify potential issues or bugs, and guide developers in improving their code quality.

Tech leads work with the team to define a testing strategy that includes unit tests, integration tests, and any other relevant testing approaches. They may also be involved in creating tools to support the testing process.

Lastly, tech leads may identify performance bottlenecks and work with the team to optimize critical areas of the project.

🧢 Stakeholder Manager

As a stakeholder manager, the tech lead must be able to communicate effectively with all stakeholders (EMs, PMs, design, other teams, and perhaps even customers) to ensure that everyone is aligned on the project’s goals, timelines, and deliverables. The stakeholders must be kept informed about progress, changes, or delays that may impact the project’s timeline or scope.

Great TLs also know to solicit and use feedback and input from stakeholders throughout the project.

TLs often need to translate technical concepts into simpler terms for less technical individuals to understand, yet another reason why communication needs to be a TL’s superpower.

🤠 Mentor and Coach

Everyone on a given team won’t perform at the same level, either due to seniority or skillset. That’s why tech leads need to occasionally wear the mentor hat and provide extra guidance and support where needed. Tech leads are expected to help team members grow by providing opportunities for developing new skills or taking on new challenges.

I found having 1:1 meetings with my team extremely valuable to make sure I know what’s going on, anticipate potential issues, and give feedback.

⛑ Ready to Fill in Gaps

If the list of hats wasn’t long enough, the tech lead needs to also be adaptable and a good problem solver. Things rarely go according to plan, which makes tech leads face unexpected issues. They need to think creatively and outside the box and fill in gaps where needed.

Takeaway

If you want to become a tech lead, start by showing leadership qualities such as effective communication, asking great questions, and taking initiative in solving problems you see. That’s what got me the role.

Once you’re TL-ing, be prepared to have to adapt to different situations and wear multiple metaphorical hats from high-level solution architect to individual contributor work to stakeholder management.

Finally, try to have fun! Being a TL is challenging, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to see a team come together and successfully deliver on a project. Even though it is a lot of responsibility, it will allow you to have a larger impact on your team and organization.

What do you think makes a good tech lead? I’d love to hear from you!


If you found this post valuable, you might like my newsletter with more posts like this!

Check it out here: https://thecaringtechie.substack.com/

Do you have questions? Let’s connect on LinkedIn and Twitter or shoot me an email at thecaringtechie@gmail.com



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