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 in—being 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!