What is a technical lead?#
Tech lead is a role for senior engineers that provides some of the leverage of management, while avoiding most of the administrative burden. It’s a fun role. This post talks about some positive behaviors to think about should you find yourself in this role.
As the name suggests, tech leads lead larger technical efforts. They work with a team, but typically don’t formally manage anyone. The team looks up to them and it’s their job to steer the effort technically, while typically only using the soft power of generally knowing what they’re doing.
It’s a really fun role. I spent most of my time as a tech lead while at Anaconda, and serve in that capacity to some extent in OSS communities. I wanted to share some of the positive behaviors that I think make for a good tech lead.
So, what can a good tech lead do?
Tech lead behaviors#
Solve Hard Problems: as a start, you have to be an excellent developer. You’re going to have to rescue your teammates from difficult bugs, and tackle the core bits of whatever you’re building.
But if you want to solve hard problems then stay a senior engineer. Technical leadership is about guiding rather than executing
Avoid Hard Problems: save your team time by pointing them towards simple solutions when they suffice.
A team lead has to provide paths to solutions that the rest of the team can easily implement. Finding easy solutions is hard.
A team lead often has to say “OK, I can see that your solution works well, but I wonder if we can make it simpler by doing X. This will probably help down the line with future maintenance.”
Avoid Technical Debt: leading a large effort is like playing chess. You make individual moves, but you think ahead about the ramifications of those moves.
If the team has to spend time dealing with, or paying down technical debt then that’s your fault. You should think about simple and extensible designs, so that your teammates can solve individual problems that robustly lead to an efficient solution.
Break large problems down into small ones: building something yourself is easy. Breaking down a large thing into small things that many people can develop on at once in parallel is hard and requires thoughtful design.
In some sense, a technical lead is able to realize the “mythical man-month” by finding a path through the problem that exposes enough concurrency to enable acceleration through parallelism.
Scope problems for your team: a small amount of scoping and support work from you can often save your teammates long hours of work. This can take many forms:
Presenting a problem in context
Provide a recommended approach, and pointers to relevant pieces of the code
Tests that you think should pass that encode important behavior or make the API clear
As you know, a lot of software development time is spent understanding design, and exploring wrong paths. You’re probably faster at this than your teammates, and so it’s a highly productive activity for you. By providing enough detail up-front you can reduce uncertainty, stress, and delays from your teammates’ work, which they will appreciate.
Know your team: In order to properly scope and describe tasks for your teammates you need to know their technical capabilities and preferences pretty well. This arises in two components:
You can match problems to teammates based on interest. People do a better job on problems that excite them.
You can provide more or less detail based on their experience with these kinds of problems.
Explain your thought process: It’s not enough to say “here is a test and a design, please implement it”. Remember that you’re not in charge of anyone here. Instead, you lead by providing explanation and context on why you think a certain path is best.
Bad: Please use algorithm X here rather than Y.
Good: I suspect that algorithm Y here will not perform well when we have many users. I think that it’s O(n^2), which is fine for the test cases that we have here, but given that we’re expecting 10k simultaneous users and the cost here seems to be about 5us, this turns into
5us * 10k ** 2 = 10 minutes
Instead, I think that algorithm X might be a better fit. It’s a bit slower when we have very few users, but should scale much better.
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, keep in mind that you’re not in charge. Overly aggressive tech-leads are unpleasant to work with.
Second, you’re supposed to teach your understanding of the system onto your coworkers, and help them progress professionally.
Advocate for teammates: tech leads are unique in that they
have respect and clout in the company
have a lot of direct experience with individual engineers
aren’t technically responsible for anyone
As a result they are often the best source of information about who is doing well. While you don’t have direct budget authority to give raises or promotions, you do have soft power and can advocate for great teammates.
Conversely, you also know when someone isn’t working out in the team, and can work to address problems quickly before they become serious issues.
A tech lead is like a cool aunt/uncle. People say things to them that they wouldn’t say to siblings or parents, and they’re disconnected enough to easily give insightful feedback.
Communicate directly to stakeholders: a good tech lead can talk directly to other parts of the company (product, sales, marketing). They’re also often called in to deal with important clients.
Because of this, tech leads need to be able to turn on a certain level of professionalism, and also understand the non-technical needs of others. They need to understand why the work that they do is important to people.
Listen, and avoid ego: because of this, tech leads need to listen, and have very little ego when it comes to technical work (I personally need to work on this).
Rockstar developers tend to make poor tech-leads (but awesome senior engineers).
Instead the best tech leads I know are able to tell you what course of action they think is best one minute, and then have their mind changed entirely the next minute. This is often developed with age, or with experience working on technical projects where they are wrong (which happens often if you pay attention).
Respect senior engineers: Tech leads often work alongside other senior engineers who may have more experience as developers, but don’t care to direct the work of others. It’s important to remember that these people are often smarter than you, and seek their technical opinion.
Respect junior engineers: Tech leads often dispense critical feedback about code to junior engineers. This puts them at risk of appearing to be jerks. Good tech leads study human management skills, and how to deliver feedback in particular.
OSS Maintainers make good Tech Leads#
The role of having a lot of technical context, trying to direct many others along a shared technical vision, but not actually having authority over anyone is a role familiar to many OSS maintainers. There is excellent cross-over between these two positions.