Another point of view on how to be an effective tech lead. (No. 70)

Pick three things and get into the top 25% of each of them says Edmond Lau

Hey Tech Leads,

Today, I’m going to summarize Edmond Lau’s post on being a tech lead, What Does It Take to Be an Effective Tech Lead. Edmond is one of the cofounders of Co Leadership, a consulting and training company focused on engineering managers.

Edmond opens his post by telling you about his experience suddenly being responsible for a team of four at a startup. He does use the word “suddenly,” but there must be more to it than that. Most tech leads I know don’t spontaneously combust 💥 into tech leads. (Just kidding if you read this, Edmond—but I would like to know the story behind your ascendancy to the tech lead role.)

Success as a tech lead

Anyway, Lau relays a few stories of his own early struggles and challenges that might be familiar to tech leads, including a situation where he found himself fielding support texts from the top of a volcano in Hawaii, on vacation, when a server process died—as tech lead, he intentionally made it so he was the only one on the team who could support it. 

He leads off with this important question: what does success as a tech lead look like?

I’m getting away from Edmond’s article, but have you ever asked yourself that question? I bet you haven’t. I suspect, most of the time, you’re just working your way through your day, making a few tweaks here or there.

But, of course, it’s a profound question you really should stop to consider for a moment. What would success look like for you as a tech leader? 

  • Shipping something awesome?

  • Building a more impactful team?

  • Getting a promotion?

  • All these things? 

  • None of them?

Even if you have asked the question, were you able to answer easily or crisply? I bet few of you can. It should be a deeply personal question, of course. But it should also be informed by what your team and company needs in this moment as well as where you want your career to go long-term…

The many faces of effectiveness; getting really good at three things

Anyway, getting back to Edmond’s article, he suggests that there are many different faces of effective tech leads: those with disgustingly strong tech skills, those who are gifted organizationally, and those multi tasking monsters who seemingly wear many different hats effectively.

His approach differs from mine somewhat. We’ve both seen many different flavors of tech leads who approach the role in different ways but yet who all seemed to be effective in their own way. Different from Edmond, my approach to this diversity was to find some commonality among them and come up with the model that I call the Four Core—the maybe 20% of skills you need but will get you 80% of the impact you need.

In contrast, Edmond’s approach is even more flexible than mine. I share it because, as I’ve said many times before, I don’t claim to be the only route to effectiveness, and Edmond’s approach might be just what you’re looking for.

Specifically, to be effective in the role, he argues you should pick three things that you can get really good at

If I read him correctly, those things could be pretty diverse: product management, UX, front end engineering, DevOps, coaching, mentoring, whatever. Using this logic you could literally paint your own version of an effective tech lead.

By “good” he means, working your way into the top 25% at your company at these things—not necessarily the top 1%. Areas like frontend engineering, UX, coaching, mentoring, whatever, Microsoft Access maybe? 

So there are two dimensions to his advice: (1) pick three things and then (2) get really good at those three things. 

I’m uncomfortable with his approach “as is” without some guardrails around it. I think picking any three things that you’re really “passionate” about (sorry… had to shower off for a minute for using the p word… k I’m back) could be good for being a strong, valuable individual contributor at the company.

Thus, to put my own tweak his approach: your three choices should be dictated by the context of your team, moment, and role. Sure you have freedom of movement within that context, but if you’re in a role where you need to ship a new React front end by the end of the quarter, this might not be a good time to build a brand as the top 25% at the R programming language in your company.

Also, I’m a little concerned about the notion of “being in the top 25%.” Some would struggle to be in the top 25% of one thing, let alone three. And, for some big, successful companies, being in the top 25% of any one thing might be pretty competitive. (Might work great for a small company though.)

And besides, I think you should focus on being the best YOU you can be instead of comparing yourself among others. (❤️ u tech leads just the way you are)

But seriously, there could be a lot of merit to his approach for you —as is—that I’m not seeing.

Finish strong: finish with IMPACT!

He wraps up a interesting point that warms my heart, however. He says, look, effective tech leads are focused on making sure high leverage projects ship. Then he quotes from his own book he wrote—maybe you read it—called the Effective Engineer. He says, “impact produced per time invested is the central, guiding metric used by effective engineers.” 

You know I love talking about impact—and that’s a very software engineering way of talking about impact.

It’s Wednesday. Have an impact tech leads!


Thanks for reading!

The Tech Lead Coaching email list and podcast are written and recorded by Michael Rice to bring more clarity, certainty, and confidence to my tech leads.

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