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How to go from developer to team leader

How to go from developer to team leader

"To me, this is part of the goal of leadership - to help people become and do what they should be doing and help them get there." - Hampton Catlin

Background: When it comes to the leadership position in tech, the goals, skills, and career path are different from a developer. Last year we had Hampton Catlin as a guest at Git Commit Show. Hampton is the creator of Sass, Haml, and m.wikipedia.org. He has been leading tech teams for more than 15 years. In this talk, he shared his wisdom for being a leader in the tech field. In this post, we compiled our learnings from Hampton's insightful career talk.

Let's first start with knowing what the leadership positions in tech teams are and their responsibilities.

Types of leadership positions and responsibilities

1. Leader of Leaders: CTO/VP/Director

  • Ensure directors below them are empowered
  • Focus on policy and shared attributes between teams
  • Help organize business strategy for technology

2. Manager/Tech Lead

  • Keep the team productive
  • Focus on execution and ensuring the team is 'delivering' whatever they are tasked with
  • Bring clarity to specific questions

3. Senior Individual Contributors

  • The vast majority of Senior Developers must use leadership skills to enable and empower the team around them
  • The more senior you become, the more you shift from your own direct output to helping those around you deliver

How to be an effective leader

Understand the goal of a leader

"Treat people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The goal of leadership is to help people become and do what they should be doing. Help them get there and help them be the best that they can be.

The goal of a leader, a clip from the full talk

Is the goal of being a leader in making people like you, or is it the opposite? Is the type of people not like you to be demanding? Are you just making sure that we ship? Is that the job description, building a road map, attending meetings, talking to people, and writing job requirements? Is that what the job itself. These are parts of all of the leadership sometimes. Depending on what you're doing, they can be techniques, but these aren't actually what you're trying to do as a leader. These are things that you might do during the process, but it's not the actual goal.

The actual goal of a leader is to empower teammates to use their talents effectively for the business and make sure that people are enabled and empowered, letting them do their jobs to make sure they could do their jobs properly.

If you are writing a job description, you should write one that helps everybody get their job done better and understand what they're doing. If you're going to put in a new policy, it's to make sure this has to be the goal of why you're doing it, and if you're about to do something, you think, wow, this doesn't help the team.

There are two essential components when you try to reach your goals as a leader:

Transform the mindset as a leader

Nobody starts a job to be ineffective, angry, disempowered, passive-aggressive. You probably work with people who have these attributes, but they didn't start that way.

When that happens, that's leadership's failure. That's a great sign that something is going wrong. If you have somebody on one of my teams acting like that, that's your thing to fix. Some moment they lost a passion or felt disempowered, which is usually the cause, and then they don't know what a good job is.

Learn how to build an effective team

Google conducted a study called Project Aristotle to understand the dynamics and attributes of effective teams. These five attributes are their findings on attributes of effective teams. One of the most important responsibility of a leader is building a highly effective team.

Check our post: How to hire your core team?

Five keys to a successful team, established by Google

  • Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
  • Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high-quality work on time?
  • Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
  • Meaning of work: Are we working on something personally important for each of us?
  • Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we're doing matters?

Here's the full talk & Q&A "Transitioning to leadership, for devs"

Full recording of the talk on Learning to lead for developers