By: Akanksha Mehta
March 11 2021

Understanding Technical Leadership

Technical leadership means overseeing a team of technical professionals at a software company. The led teams usually deal with software development and engineering. It is a designation of high responsibility, balancing thinly between being a strong leader figure and being approachable and personable while dealing with the team members. There is also a huge amount of accountability involved in the role with respect to both the organisation and team members, as a technical leader forms the essential link between both and coordinates the overall working of the tech departments to the board, and conveys essential inputs back to the teams. 

Thus, a technical leader ensures that ideas from the top are appropriately represented in the final product and that communication among various groups within the organisation is never derailed. 

The principles of technical leadership

Like any other position of fundamental importance, there are certain principles on which technical leadership basis itself on.

The right technical knowledge

There are multiple roles and responsibilities associated with technical leadership. One of the first things that the leader must be proficient in is a broad knowledge base about his craft. Every member of the team turns to the leader whenever any issue arises, hence the tech lead should always be prepared to review the code, scrutinize the related documents and lastly, code - for one always learns better by example. Knowledge about technologies like PHP, JavaScript, C++ is also quite important. 

The technical leader is also involved in the hiring process of the organisations, hence he should take into account bringing diversity and inclusion into the team while at the same time hiring the brightest minds.

Pritish, Senior Drupal Developer leading multiple projects at OpenSense Labs, asserts that while languages do form a part of the entire learning process, it is more important to be good with object oriented concepts and logical thinking. He also believes that to realise the optimum working potential of the team, it is important to arrive at the solutions together which means that there shouldn’t be rigid demarcation between the responsibilities of the members. The focus should always be on the bigger picture i.e. the perfect outcome.

Exemplary techniques  

As a person everyone in the team looks up to, the tech head should lead by example. Part of the job description is also to provide motivation in the form of utility techniques and acting as a guide to every resource whenever they need assistance.

Proactiveness  

As the leader of the team, a lot of work is dependent on you for clearance and progression. Hence, the leadership needs to be ultra responsive and swift with decision making. 

Ideally, the present state of the project should be at your fingertips at all times, ie, you must always be aware of each little step that your team takes. An even remotely possible hurdle should be brought to your notice in advance. 

Responsibilities of a technical leader

With great power comes great responsibility, and the leader stands accountable at every hour for what the team does. Some areas he must keep track of are - 

The right alignment 

Your thoughts and ideas must always be aligned with the company’s values and ethics, and this underlying bedrock cannot budge. Every action should be analysed keeping in reference the company's norms, which will act as the guiding compass - enabling the leader to navigate their way through. In addition, there might be plenty of problems that wouldn't be laid out by the organisation and be left to the tech lead for identification and resolution, hence keeping the company principles in mind, each possible scenario must be well thought out.

Communication is key

Without a doubt, improper communication can lead to huge fixes in the future. The person in the leadership role is a senior member with the steering wheel in his hands, which means that his repository of knowledge is far greater than the rest of the team. Proper articulation of that knowledge is essential if optimum performance is expected from the team. The mission and the vision should be communicated well, as everybody needs to have the same idea of the end product in mind. 

As a part of his leadership role, the tech lead should understand that communicating also translates to bringing in regular motivation and keeping the team spirit going. For example, take a look at how the right kind of communication between developers and designers can be beneficial.

Being a leader at all levels

Contrary to popular notions, technical leadership includes way too many backend functions to keep the team from derailing. the leader is one who resolves conflict, is constantly involved in constructing and reviewing ideas, and is the first person on the ground to scrutinize a problem when it arises - consequently taking the lead to solve it. 

Even in the tech side, when improvements in UI or an API are made, it is the leadership's job to push those improvements into the lower layers of the stack and adding to the component library. Thus, the tech lead not only paves the way for the rest, but also fosters collaboration within the team to come up with solutions. For instance, check out how collaboration between designers and developers during code review yields great results.

Blue text reading 'being a systems technical leader' and multiple black texts reading the different reponsibilities of technical leadership arising from it
Source : ResearchGate


Craftsmanship Pursuit 

The leader should always keep in mind to deploy as many tools as possible to make the job of the team easier. New techniques should always be welcome, for example, if there is a need to to work on data visualisation features, tech like Angular should be brought to use to prototype the features. This significantly reduces the overall time taken to wrap up the project.

Project Management 

Not just the first to arrive, the tech lead is also the last person to leave the ground. Top notch management and leadership skills are needed for not only the end-to-end management of the ongoing project but also for managing potential crises. Identifying core responsibilities, their proper delegation, and punctuality in delivering the project are primary responsibilities of the leadership. Read how human psychology plays a vital role in project management.

This narrative is substantiated by Abhijeet, Project Manager at OpenSense Labs. As homes turn into offices and beds turn into workspaces, he says that there are multiple issues that crop up simultaneously when it comes to managing a team remotely. For instance, direct supervision and short feedback loops go out of the window. With each team member working according to their own convenient timings, blockers need to be identified far ahead in advance, as there isn’t much scope for emergency meet ups to solve problems. Motivation keeps faltering often, and requires regular standup calls to stay afloat. Work overlapping across several departments only needed a walk around the office to conclude, but in remote environments, might even take a day or two.

Overcoming the Challenges 

While a position of such responsibility might look challenging from every aspect, it is best to stay aware of the very imminent ones from the beginning. 

Team building

A challenge that every technical leader is bound to encounter is finding talent suited to one's requirements and also retaining it. Technology keeps changing at the drop of a hat, but relevant skills and workforce cannot appear out of thin air. Hence, the team should comprise members that are at the least are skilled in areas that could see rapid change in the near future, like AI, data science, analytics or software engineering. Team members must be kept motivated and engaged, so that they have more than just monetary reasons to stay. More on team health and productivity here.

Vinit, Senior Drupal Frontend Developer at OpenSense Labs, adds that learning from and recalling one's own experiences is imperative while one works with their team. It is important to realise that every person is different in ability and skillset, and the tech lead must acknowledge that. The person should make it his own responsibility to bring equity on the table by assisting each resource appropriately, as understanding the technicalities of the role might not be easy for everybody to grasp in one go.

From team player to team leader

The transition might look organic, but one is bound to be overwhelmed being in the profile of a technical leader if their previous experience was that of a team member. From walking solo to leading the path, from being accountable for yourself to taking a bulk load of responsibility, the transition is anything but natural. 
Being a constant visionary 

Unlike the rest of the team, the tech lead cannot live in the present. A good leader is not one who delivers just once, but constantly. Every possible outcome of the decisions to be taken must be anticipated by the head before execution to bring out the best in both the short term and the long term goals of the organization.

Managing remote teams

Now more relevant than ever, managing remote teams has emerged to be quite a head scratcher. Wanting the team to move together when each member is set up in a different location can be challenging even for the most experienced of players. Hence, a technical leader is more of an evolutionary role, and requires the person to be able to constantly adapt to changes and implement them too. Read why collaboration in remote working is important.

Stress Management 

The tech sector is widely known for short project cycles and stressed timelines. The tech lead must be prepared to face scenarios of severe burnouts within the team, and that too, regularly. Outlets for letting the stress roll out must also be appropriately discussed as well as practised in case of heavy workloads. Therefore, an essential quality of a technical leader is also to display a certain level of emotional intelligence to get the team spirits up and about during these rough patches.

Anmol acknowledges the problems that remote working has brought, as being a senior software developer at OpenSense Labs he is obligated to take up a managerial role every now and then to act as a mentor for the rest of the team. He states that with challenges like limited visibility of each other’s work timings and schedules, it becomes quite a task to sync the thoughts and channelize the workflow of the team. The key to handling dwindling accountabilities is to always maintain a positive atmosphere in the team, hold healthy conversations, and try to stay as connected as possible despite the distance.

Conclusion

It is near impossible to list down all that might be needed to completely understand the role of a technical leader because of how dynamic the profile is. Having said that, a curious hard worker with a thirst for knowledge is sure to make a great head in such a working environment.