3 Tips for Leading a Software Development Team
Congratulations! You lead a team now. So what’s next?
Congratulations! You have been named as a technical lead/team lead/lead developer (or whatever term your company has chosen) in charge of leading a software development team.
This next chapter of your career is a milestone for software developers. The mere fact that you have reached this stage reflects how well you have been doing in your career so far.
You may feel excited, anxious, panicked, or a little bit of all these emotions. This is perfectly normal. I was in your shoes just a few months ago when I transitioned from a software developer into a technical lead of an international team of developers in a Fortune 500 company.
I was mostly excited because being in a leadership position at work had always been a dream that I had worked towards for years. However, when I actually started in my role, it was harder than I had expected. Much harder.
I eventually pulled it off — after numerous restless nights and copious amounts of coffee — and even received formal recognition and awards for my leadership. Here are three things that I learned the hard way that will hopefully help you in your new role:
1. Learn like it’s your first job out of college
Remember how eager you were to learn in your first job as a fresh graduate? You need to perform at this same level for your new position.
That’s because good developers don’t automatically make good technical leaders. You may be a code ninja, but leadership requires a skill set that developers don’t regularly flex in most of their day-to-day routines. So be prepared for an influx of practical lessons and new knowledge.
That being said, you must also pace yourself while adjusting to your new position. Just. Slow. Down. Otherwise, you risk burning yourself out and dragging your team’s performance along with yours in a downward spiral.
But to truly learn in your new role, you’ll also need to master the art of active listening. Ask what you need to know from your developers, stakeholders, and other teams that you may work with. Then, listen to them so that you can deliver what they need and ultimately enable your team’s success.
2. Know how to translate technical terms into conversational language
In my early days as a developer, whenever users asked for progress reports on bugs that they discovered in our application, I answered with high-level technical terms. “The database query we use to retrieve this set of financial data is outdated. We will need to modify it,” I’d confidently reply. Seems simple to understand, right? Apparently not, as I learned years later.
When I became a lead, I was immersed in conversations with stakeholders outside of the development team. From these discussions, I observed that the gap in communication between those in technical roles and those who are not is larger than most of us realize. Very few people outside of our technical bubble actually understand what we are talking about.
Because of this, requirements are misaligned, expectations are not met, and worst, technical and non-technical groups can feel alienated from each other. It’s like two people trying to communicate using different languages. There’s only so much they can do.
The key difference in our situation is that we developers can actually speak in non-technical language. It’s our responsibility to adjust how we communicate so that we can truly work in synch with our business analysts, managers, clients, and users. This is especially important for development team leads, who inevitably act as the bridge between our teams and the outside world.
How do we do this? First, imagine you’re talking to your neighbor. If I were to rephrase my earlier example for my neighbor, I’d say, “We’ll need to update how we display these financial records.”
This is simple enough for my neighbor to understand. In this case, excluding implementation details actually makes it easier for them to understand. Practice having this mindset in every conversation and meeting. Eventually, you’ll be able to naturally adapt your tone and become a great communicator for your team.
3. Understand that your team takes priority
When I started my leadership position, I thought that I could still focus on completing my developer tasks for most hours of a day and simply set aside an hour or two per day to deal with matters related to my team. I was so wrong. I wasn’t prepared for the huge amount of time and effort that I needed to commit to my team daily. In the end, I had to dedicate myself to the latter and put the former on a lower priority.
As team leader, you are no longer measured by your output alone — but also by your team’s performance and ability to meet deliverables. Suddenly, your individual tasks don’t matter as much as the tasks that will help your team as a whole. It follows then that you should adjust your work style as a developer for the benefit of your team. Even the smallest changes will matter in the long run.
Do you get thrown off when you are interrupted while you are “in the zone” and doing some coding work? If so, you’ll need to get used to frequent interruptions. As the leader of your team, you must be always accessible to others so that you can quickly answer questions or tackle critical issues that come up.
It helps to be more proactive in communicating with others. Reach out to users and stakeholders to build your rapport with them, actively respond to emails, and catch up with your developers regularly — but not so much that you turn into that micromanager developers love to hate! Finally, if you’re an introvert like me who may groan at times on tasks like these, learn to leverage written communication and ensure that each face-to-face meeting you have is productive.
Like any new endeavor, your first days as a leader will likely be rocky — and that’s OK. Do your best to consistently apply the three tips above, while striving to continuously improve yourself. If you do eventually adjust to the role and succeed in it, good for you! If not, you’ve learned priceless lessons that will help you grow as a person and benefit you in future roles.
Either way, leading a team of developers is an invaluable experience that will change your perspective on a lot of things and permanently broaden your scope in our ever-dynamic industry. Enjoy the journey!
Senior software developer. Lifelong explorer.