How to start seeing yourself as a tech leader (No. 64)

To see yourself as a tech leader, step into tech lead moments and watch what happens!

Tech leads,

You’re probably wondering about this tech lead role and how it is that you’re supposed to lead. What are you supposed to be doing? How are you supposed to do it? What’s the right thing to say? If X happens, what Y action should I take? 

What if I tell you those are all interesting questions, but I think the only reliable answer is that you need to start seeing yourself as a tech leader. Once you see yourself as a leader, answers to those questions will come more easily, naturally, and authentically than any training or checklist could possibly prepare you for. 

But how?

How do you begin to see yourself as a leader?

How do you begin to see yourself as a leader? That’s the question we’re going to focus on this week.

Don’t you need some training in leadership or self-reflection before you can start to see yourself this way?

In a word, no.

Instead of relying on our analytical, professional habits and trying to think our way into leadership, the better approach is to plunge into the new behaviors and acts of leadership. I call them “leadership moments.” 

Step into them tech leads!

When you take the plunge, you’re going to make new discoveries about leadership work and about yourself that you could never, ever read about on the internet. 

Sometimes I think of learning to lead like learning to ride a bicycle. It’s not possible to write a description of how to ride a bike that could do you any good. You can’t think or study your way into it. Instead, you need to experience the feeling of balance, pedaling, braking, and turning for yourself.

What happens when you take the plunge

When you plunge into leadership moments (say, to cite just one of millions of possible examples, speaking up for your team in a meeting with engineering management), you go through an internal and external process says Herminia Ibarra in Act Like a Leader Think Like a Leader.

Externally, when you start stepping into leadership moments, you start to develop a reputation as someone with a capacity for leadership.

Internally, by engaging in new projects, new activities, interacting with new people and teams, and the myriad other things you might do, you go through personal change. By facing the uncertainty of new situations and new actions, you develop new insights about yourself. As you take more and more actions, these new insights and learnings start to reshape your view of yourself as a tech leader.

And, as we talked about last week, when your self-identity is congruent with your work, it’s easier to be more effective. Tracking and adjusting is a real chore when you see yourself as simply a software engineer. But when you begin to see yourself as a tech leader, you begin to see those activities as indispensable to who you are now. 

Have an awesome Monday tech leads!


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Just need 1% more from you TODAY tech leads! (No. 63)

Don't wait for a big change to start seeing yourself as a tech lead; just give me 1% today. And tomorrow.

Hey Tech Lead,

If you’re still clinging to your identity as a software engineer, then you could be holding yourself back in your tech leadership. I’m not saying you need to let go of that identity, by any means. All I’m saying is that if you don’t start to embrace another identity as a tech lead, you’re going to sabotage your growth

We talked about this very topic on Monday, and today we’re going to continue that conversation today. I’m going to wrap it by suggesting that you only need to do 1% better today. And tomorrow. In fact, don’t even try to do any better than 1%

When you’re still not seeing yourself as a tech leader

Let’s say you’re not really seeing yourself as a tech leader yet. Why is this problematic?

After all, for some of you, you’re still like 90% technical. What’s the big problem.

First, you’re going to miss some important new distinctions in your early days in the role. By distinctions, I mean little tiny details in your day to day that show up based on actions you take as a leader. For example, you may miss minor body cues from your team or important moments where they are actually listening to some things you’re saying to name just a few of the millions of things that might happen day to day, both good and bad.

Second, if you’re clinging to your individual contributor role, then the activities I recommend, especially the Four Core, are going to feel like a real drag. “Software engineers optimize code or come up with innovative solutions to hard problems; they don’t have to send six follow up emails to their product manager to make sure they get an answer to a simple question,” you might say to yourself. 

Or, you might say something like, “didn’t I already tell the team why we’re doing the project last week? Why are they already drifting so far away from a vision I gave them just last week?!?! This is so frustrating. If I were just writing code, I wouldn’t have to deal with these frustrations.” 

Or, “I thought if I told people to do something, they would do it. I’m the ‘tech lead.’ Why is nothing happening?”

It makes sense why you’re asking yourself these things. Don’t be too hard on yourself. I don’t mean to be hard on you either. In some ways, you’re doing it to protect your sense of confidence. As you venture into this new world of leadership, you’re not going to be very good at it. So it’s perfectly natural to retreat into a role you feel confident inbeing an individual contributor.

Your binary view of tech leadership

If you cling to your individual contributor role, I have a feeling that you may also have a binary view of tech leadership, or at least you revert to a binary view when you’re early or struggling in the role. 

What do I mean by that? 

Well, when you think of your role as software engineer, you probably have a deep sense of what it takes to succeed as an engineer.

  • You need to be good at writing code.

  • You need to have a solid sense of your product’s or app’s architecture, environment, and related systems.

  • You need to be really good at git or source control.

  • Great at writing unit tests.

  • You need to be good at putting together great pull requests and giving good feedback on other people’s PRs.

On each of these activities, you probably have a pretty clear understanding of how good you are at these activities. It’s not like you’re a great software engineer or not. It’s more nuanced than that and you know it. It’s how good you are at these things in aggregate.

But when you think about leadership, or even big leadership tasks like listening, it’s very likely that you think of your leadership in a very binary good/bad way.

On good days, when you’re feeling pretty confident about yourself generally, you might simply think your team members are good or bad at following your directions. On bad days, when you’re riddled with self-doubt, you may blame your own leadership by saying something absolute like, “I’m not a good tech lead.”

You wouldn’t have said something like that about being a software engineer. Just because you don’t know every little nuance of git doesn’t mean you’re a bad software engineer. But when it comes to soft skills, we often do this lame binary analysis.

Don’t try to see yourself as a tech leader RIGHT NOW with 1% improvements

You already know what I’m going to say next. You know intuitively that leadership is a lot more nuanced than simply good or bad. You know it, but I do think you could use a reminder today.

More important than a reminder, however, here’s the big idea: don’t try to make big moves on that continuum. First of all, it’s almost impossible to make big jumps in progress. It happens sometimes, and sometimes it can feel like you’re making a lot of progress. But those moments are rare.

Worse, when you focus on making a big jump, it can also tempt you to procrastinate. You might say something like, “Oh, I’ll do better later, after we get through this release cycle.” Or you think you’ll pick up that book someday that will help you make a huge leap in progress.

Instead, ease into it. To truly change your identity, you have to see yourself internally a certain way, but you also need it reinforced with evidence. It probably took you years to see yourself as a software engineer through thousands of lines of code or debugging sessions. 

Today, start looking for 1% improvements you can make every day to increasingly see yourself as a tech lead. That’s how you form a strong habit, according to James Clear in the book I’m reading, Atomic Habits

The powerful idea isn’t to get 100%, 50%, 25%, or even 10% in the short term. The way to really start embracing the role is to focus on small, 1% changes—just small incremental improvements. In fact, they may be so small that they’re barely noticeable to anyone but yourself. 

Here are some random possibilities:

  • start showing up at important meeting just a little more prepared

  • come with one or two key questions ready to go or you 

  • get to the meeting just a few moments earlier than usual to get comfortable in the room, instead of trying to cram in one last pull request that can wait until after the meeting.

  • listen a little more closely: close your laptop while talking to someone for just ten minutes longer

  • put your phone on do not disturb while talking with someone on your team

  • speak up about one thing you’re concerned about

  • share one idea with someone today

  • get up from your desk and talk to one person on your team that you haven’t talked to in a while

Hopefully you get the idea: just tiny things—tiny improvements. None one of them, by themselves, will make much difference. But if you start compounding these little 1% changes, the big idea is that if you’re consistent every day for a year (and yes you can work on your leadership over the weekends), then at the end of the year you’d be a whopping 37 times better at being a tech lead than you are today.

And you’d have a ton of evidence to prove to yourself that you are, finally, a true tech lead.

It’s huge, but it’s also only 1%. Start now tech leads!


Let’s Talk! 🤙

Hey I want to hear from my tech leads. Book some time with me so we can talk 1:1. It would be great to know you better—maybe I can help you wherever you are in your current tech lead journey!

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Still thinking of yourself as a software engineer? Maybe you're holding yourself back. (No. 62)

"You should be far more concerned with your current trajectory than with your current results."

A saying goes something like this: if you want to know what the strategic direction of a company is, simply read whatever random book the CEO bought at the airport bookstore before a recent flight. Similar logic applies to what I’m going to do with today’s letter.

I recently picked up a book myself, and now I have some really powerful insights for you today.

Specifically, I’m sharing some ideas from Atomic Habits by James Clear. Obviously, Clear isn’t writing to tech leads or first line tech leadership, like engineering managers or startup CTOs, the way I do. But the concepts he teaches are helpful, if applied to your role, which I’ll try to do here.

Small Habits > Big Accomplishments

Clear’s basic premise is that becoming great or accomplishing something big is the result of your day to day, small (“atomic”) habits.

When thinking about huge accomplishments, whether they’re shipping a new product, a big promotion, a huge stock payout from years of hard work, or whatever matters to you, “[i]t is so easy to overestimate the importance of [those] defining moment[s] and underestimate the value of making small improvements on a daily basis.”

He offers compound math as evidence: “if you can get 1 percent better [at a task] each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.”

The question, of course, is how to change those daily habits. He has a lot to say on this point. I’ll try to report back more this week as I explore the book a bit more on some useful tips for you.

Want To Make A Big Change? Shift Your Identity as A Tech Lead

Let’s start this week with a big insight. According to Clear, the easiest way to change habits is to change your identity. Your identity can be thought of as the way you see yourself combined with evidence that you are who you think you are.

Let’s say you are trying to stop smoking, and someone offers you a cigarette. You could say, “no thanks, I’m trying to quit,” or, “no thanks, I’m not a smoker anymore.” In the first case, you still think of yourself as a smoker so it’s a mental struggle to say no. In the second case, it’s a bit easier because you’re being consistent with your own identity.

As you turn down more and more cigarettes, that sense of identity--“I’m not a smoker”--gets stronger and stronger through more and more evidence.

As I was reading this part of Clear’s book, I wondered about you. When you think of yourself as a tech lead, do you, deep down, still see yourself as an individual contributor software engineer?

If you do, then the tech lead activities I recommend (especially the Four Core), might be uncomfortable at best—a slog at worst. For example, truly listening to your team might be a chore if you’re really “just a software engineer” at heart and can’t wait to get back to your desk to code. Tracking and adjusting will be tedious, to say the least, if you’d rather just be writing code.

Furthermore, you’re going to focus on the missteps and discomfort that come with early days on the role as evidence that you’re not really a good tech lead—that you’re fundamentally an engineer at heart.

On the other hand, if you see yourself as a tech leader, then those additional leadership tasks, like listening, being active and engaged, crafting visions, and the dozens of other things you’ll have to do, aren’t going to feel like such chores.

It’s not that you won’t still see yourself as a software engineer Instead, you can be be consistent with who you are as a software engineer—an engineer who can now lead. When you see yourself this way, you’re going to want to get better. You’re going to start to see evidence that you can do it. Leadership is going to become a habit, which will lead to great things.

That seems like a particularly powerful thought to share. Let me know, tech lead!

Have a great start to your week.


Let’s Talk! 🤙

Hey I want to hear from my tech leads. Book some time with me so we can talk 1:1. It would be great to know you better—maybe I can help you wherever you are in your current tech lead journey!

Schedule 30 Minutes

There will be no posts this week

Workin' on the foundations

Hey Tech Leads,

There will be no posts this week. You’re going to have to, somehow, make do without me. YOU CAN DO IT TECH LEADS!

Over the weekend I started revising the book, and I realized… holy sh… crap… it needs A LOT OF WORK.

Really, the book (which I’m not even going to link to right now) should be the foundation for most of this. So it really needs to be good.

Further, I have TWO presentations I have to give at Desert Code Camp in Phoenix on Saturday. I’m pretty much prepared for them, but want them to be tight. If you’re in the Phoenix area, swing by! Phoenix has a nice little tech community. Low on ego, high on community.

The first session is, naturally, How To Be A Tech Lead. Right now I’ve got about 70 sign ups, so that’s pretty cool. I’m going to try to record it, and then I’ll share the recording with you here and on the podcast.

The second session is on how to build apps that make the most of Kubernetes. See? I’m still kinda technical—for a manager, anyway :-)

See you in Phoenix!

Be visionary. Be decisive. (No. 61)

Your tech lead/EM role might make a lot more sense if you have a clearer sense of why we need managers

Hey Tech Leads,

I have important news for you: it’s Friday. You made it!

My goal in writing these letters and recording the podcast is to try to give you more clarity, certainty, and confidence in the tech lead role. I’ve really been emphasizing the clarity part this week by trying to change the way you think about the tech lead role by changing the way you think about management. 

As I mentioned on Wednesday, I suspect you might have perceived the role of tech lead or manager from your perspective as an individual contributor. We all do. But actually, the main role of management isn’t to handhold individual contributors (as I assumed early in my career) but is, instead, to assure investors or other stakeholders that the business or organization can accomplish a mission. Usually this means giving shareholders a return on their investment.

Thus, as we’ve been talking about all week, there are three big categories of activities all managers, including tech leads, need to undertake: 

  1. Formulating a vision or hypothesis about the future—seeing into the future

  2. Making decisions about what the team or organization needs to do to capitalize on the future

  3. Acquiring and directing the organization’s resources to execute on those decisions.

This applies no matter what level you’re at—whether you’re the CEO, the CxO, the SVP, the VP, or just the TL. 

On Wednesday, we talked about number three in that list. Today, we’re going to focus on the first two: making a judgment about the future and then making decisions as to what to do about it.

Obviously, you’ve witnessed visionary leaders like Steve Jobs going through those motions. It may seem like something you can only do if you get to that level. But even as a tech lead deep inside an organization as big as Apple is now, you have both the ability and probably the mandate to do some of these things.

What questions should you ask about the future?

Do you have a clear vision of where your team’s contribution to the company’s future is going? If not, I have a few questions for you to consider.

  1. What’s on the product roadmap for the next year or so? 

  2. If you haven’t seen a product roadmap, how can you get it?

  3. If no one has it, who can help you at least sketch one out?

  4. What will your product or work look like to support that road map?

  5. Where is the company going overall, both technically and as a business? 

  6. How is your team growing (or not) in capabilities? 

  7. Is your team ready for whatever is coming in the future?

  8. When you consider the future, do you see the people on your team happy and productive? Or are they working for someone else?

  9. How is the health of your tech stack—is it maintainable and can you find talent that wants to work on it if people suddenly leave?

  10. At the end of next year, what list of accomplishments d you predict you are going to be able to point to?

  11. What risks are out there in the future for your team?

  12. How are other teams changing and shifting and where are they going? 

  13. Is your team going to be part of the company’s future or legacy?

There are probably a dozen other questions I didn’t ask that you know from your own context that you need to ask yourself, your team, and your organization.

The point is to occasionally carve out a least a few minutes to consider the future—to really, seriously think about what may happen. You don’t even have to write anything down. But ideally, if I asked you on the spot what the future for your team looks like, you’d be able to give me a reasonably complete and clear answer.

I’m willing to bet you don’t have one right now, do you? Email me if I’m wrong. :-)


I once had some guy ask me about my “decisioning” in an interview. I stared at him across the conference room table for a longish moment while my brain was saying to itself, “What… the… F… did he just say?” More uncomfortable pause, “Is that a word??”  

I didn’t get that job. Not sure I even wanted to work at a place where people use words like that, especially as arrogantly and pompously as the way he asked me! ;-)

Anyway, now that you have a view into the future, you need to make some decisions. 

  1. What should your team look like in a few year? 

  2. What mix of skills?

  3. Who needs to develop new skills?

  4. What technical changes do we need to make today to prepare us for the product roadmap?

  5. What technical or political choices should we make today to make sure our work and our team is still contributing at a high level tomorrow tomorrow?

  6. What do we need to change about our tech stack to ensure that the product is healthy and viable long-term?

  7. If there are risks ahead for us, what should we do today to mitigate them while minimizing any hits to our current velocity?

Once you know what your vision for the future is, you’ll know the right decisions to make. Make sure you’re making them consciously, and not making knee-jerk decisions when you considered the future in the step above.

Maybe you take no action at all, but that’s a decision too. You’re deciding to do nothing. And it might be the right decision, just don’t let it be a thoughtless default choice.

Remember: You are resourceful!

One thing to consider, that I tried to hammer into you on Wednesday, is that you have a lot more resources than you think. You have people, time, physical location, technology, other teams, and so much more. 

So don’t let a negative or myopic view of your resources affect the decisions you make too much. Make decisions that stretch you and the team. Go get it tech leads!

And have a nice weekend.


The Podcast 🎧

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