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. :-)

Decisioning

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.

-michael


The Podcast 🎧

Remember I use the podcast to float some ideas and let them take shape. Then I write them here ^^^^. Click here listen to this morning’s raw material!


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