Life/Work

Next Level : 5 Rules for a Rookie Tech Leader:

At this point in my career something weird has happened. People look at me expecting me to answer questions. They expect me to hack my way through the jungle of technology and find a path to business value. They expect me to lead. Or in other words: at sometime in the recent past, I transferred from a contributor – to a leader.

But, I am not an executive or a PhD. I am not a battle hardened veteran of a dozen product launches. I am not on any boards, I have not written any books, and I do not walk into a room with every single person knowing my name.

What I have done is build a reputation for executing where it is difficult. I have demonstrated my passion for technology and my love for problem solving. I have shown that I love talk to people about tech as much as building tech. And through all this I find myself in an interesting position. There is more riding on my shoulders than ever before. But more than that; there are really good, hard working, and intelligent people that are looking to me to help them achieve success. Which means I can now fail more than just my family or myself. Which is a much more serious place to be.

Out of this I have been trying to ensure that I am not just the Special Forces style engineer. I do not just drop in, kill all the problems, and then zip out with a quick helicopter extraction. I have to build value that lasts. I have to enable others around me while still delivering my unique technical value.

Out of this I have been thinking about the core principles I want to adopt in this process. After rolling these around in my head for a month or so I have decided to share them.

5 Rules for a Rookie Tech Leader:

#1 – Create places to live not a mansion

An interesting aspect of technical leadership is the ability to take credit for progress (and if honest, failure also). Because of this, you naturally approach every project or challenge with this in mind. And some leaders develop the habit of staking out real estate in the technical mind-share. They become the gateway to anything they are an *authority* on. Worst than that – they make a habit out of squashing up and coming tech stars that would even have the slightest chance of challenging their rule. Value for them is using the newly cleared trail they blazed to build a mansion and live there. And then expand this out as much as possible to somehow make them invaluable and irreplaceable.

This is an unnatural and poisonous place to be and many of you reading this can probably think of people that fit this role exactly. A person who develops into this role is as valuable as a growing tumor on your lung. They changed from being a person that drives execution to a person that controls execution for his or her own purpose. This is not who I ever want to become.

Instead I want to be the person who builds homes in tech for others. I want to make the challenges easy to consume for those behind me. I want to look back and see people living in their own resident value that I helped break down the walls and make possible.

To avoid this pattern in my own work I will focus on a few key rules:

  • I will publically (!) inquire and listen to people about their viewpoints and ideas.
  • I will accept ideas that are honestly better than my own.
  • I will plan everything I build to not require myself around to run it.
  • I will recruit people that can do what I do and add value to the company.
  • I will NEVER take credit for work that I did not do. Instead I will ALWAYS credit the true contributors.

#2 – Success is more important than your ego

I have worked with people who would actively try and kill a good idea or project that did not have their name on it. An extension of the mansion-dwelling tech-Nazi in the rule above is the glory hound. When it is all about you then it is really hard to be about anyone else. And I am not going to argue about why community is better than going solo or why building a tribe is about you giving and not you getting. I am arguing that you are actually killing your own reputation and growth with this pattern.

In the end you are as valuable as the sum of you effect on your company. So if you contribute several key projects but then turn around and kill off many other good ones because you did not think of them first; you may actually come up in the red as a value to your company. And do not be deceived that people around you, under you, and above you are not aware of this.

I will support a project that is valuable but may not have my name on it just as much as my own. I will applaud good ideas and get just as excited as if they were my own baby. I will bleed genuine enthusiasm and encouragement for those around me. I will have my value in the black.

#3 – Give out more praise than advice

Short and sweet: just because you are in a position where your opinion matters, that does not mean your opinion actually matters. You should listen and respond with any and all advice that is appropriate. But stay away from the dangerous zone where people come to you with good ideas and all you do is tell them how you would make it better. This can quickly change to a point where nobody wants to go to you at all. People want good constructive feedback. But deep down inside they want validation that what they did was worthwhile. And they deserve both. Wrapping advice on the project with honest positive feedback on all the incredible good value they created is a great way to balance this out.

I will give out honest praise on beautiful tech and avoid trying to become the advice machine.

#4 – Knowing how doesn’t mean you have the know-how

Do not get too confident that you know the way. Technology changes so fast that anyone who thinks that they have the patterns down for approaching any problem is an idiot. You need to approach everything by utilizing everyone around you. Your job as a leader is making sure the goal is reached. Sometimes that means a lot of reaching into your own tool chest of experience. But, sometimes that means pulling wisdom out of individuals around you and propping them up into a place where they can do what you cannot.

I will be honest with myself on what I do and do not know. I will continuously develop my own skills while utilizing the skills of my team and peers.

#5 – Keep your promises more than your schedule

People look to leaders and see what they have done. They know about your success before. They know what others say about you. You can destroy all of this by being a flaky and irresponsible person in the day-to-day interactions with your teams.

Keep your promises. Do not make promises you cannot keep. Even in the small things. When people see that you care about your interactions with them, you built true trust in a relationship. Why should people trust you in the big projects or designs if you cannot keep a lunch appointment? Respect is a two-way street and you can destroy your own by stepping on everyone else’s.

Part of this is learning to manage demands on your time. The other part is consciously thinking about others and how you affect them. There is no more valuable a leader than one that people WANT to follow. No matter how rock star you are, if nobody wants to join the band – your leadership career will never grow.

I will manage the demands on my time. I will keep commitments I make. And I will sincerely apologize when I realize I let someone down and not just sweep it under the rug.

These are the rules I want to live by as a tech leader. Only time will tell how well I can stick to my own advice. I hope this was useful to someone else in my position.

.nick