What Does a Typical Day Look Like in Software Leadership?
A break down of a day in the life as a Technology Leader.
Recently, we held a class for aspiring technologists, where we held an AUA (Ask Us Anything) session. We heard a lot of questions you might hear in a typical interview.
What’s your technology stack? What’s your favorite thing you like about working in technology?
It was the question below that triggered this article.
“What’s a typical day look like in technology?”
We will focus on this article's title in just a second, but here’s the short version of how we answered this question during this session.
Let’s define a dev-team before we move on.
We must provide context here because not all dev-teams are created equally. For the remainder of this article, we will use this definition of a dev-team.
- A dev-team consists of 6–8 team members or a “two-pizza” team.
- The team is cross-functional. Software Engineers, Product Owners, and other roles needed to succeed are all on the team.
- A dev-team is responsible for owning and driving forward a critical portion of the product and technology. They maintain a refined backlog that they pull work from iteratively.
What’s a typical day look like in technology?
As a Software Engineer or someone on a dev-team, most days start with standup. The team comes together to talk about what they have done, what they are going to do, and are blocked.
We discuss pull requests and other things the team needs to move the product, technology, and platform forward.
Get to coding
After standup, most people on the team get rocking and rolling. The day might have a meeting here or there related to upcoming work, team-culture meetings, or other huddles where we may need to come together to dive deeper into something.
Coding can be an individual activity, or it can be a pair working together. With people working remotely, we see more virtual code-pairing, which has helped a lot.
Most engineering teams have a code-review process. Engineers might submit a pull request and get together to go over the solution before the code moves forward.
Chat rooms and Gifs
There’s a lot of chatter on team channels—tons of Gifs. Links to music, interesting things happening in the industry, and other team-building conversations happen throughout the day.
These are meetings most dev-teams have every two weeks. These ceremonies are focused on planning for the next couple of weeks, finding opportunities to improve, and getting feedback on the product from stakeholders.
Then we start the party all over again. Repeat forever.
What’s a typical day like for a Technology Leader?
Okay, now we are getting to this article's point, what’s it like being a team leader in technology?
What’s a typical day look like for a Technology Leader?
I will start with a high-level review, but then I will dive into a time breakdown.
Let’s define what a Team Leader of a dev-team means being.
We will use the definition of a dev-team that we used above. It’s a 6–8 person, cross-functional team. The Team Leader is responsible for the team, their work, the quality the team produces, the team's culture, and their impact on the part of the product they represent.
First, I check all forms of communication.
When I wake up, I check all the things to see if there is anything urgent I need to focus on. This also helps me gauge where I need to start my day. Email. Chat. Text messages. Twitter.
Reddit. Client feedback. Error logs. And more! Did something break? Is someone in need of something? Are our clients experiencing anything that will cause them angst?
If it’s urgent, I will start to reach out to people to get things going, or better, the team is already on it, and it’s a matter of getting an update as to where things are and how I can help.
Stand-ups & Scrum of Scrums
Leaders attend the same ceremonies dev-teams do. Sometimes we facilitate the conversation. Sometimes we have work in the sprint that we are helping to execute on too. Sometimes we are just a fly on the wall unless there is a block that we need to help resolve.
Scrum of Scrums is where multiple teams and leaders come together who are working cross-project or cross-product. This ceremony isn’t always necessary, but when it is, it’s to help us stay aligned across multiple things happening at once.
In Stand Up or Scrum of Scrums, I am often listening to the tone and words used to see if there is any conflict or negative energy within the team. If I sense it, I will reach out afterward and see if I can help.
Similar to Stand Up or Scrum of Scrums, leaders attend the other ceremonies we discussed above that dev-teams spend time in. Retro, our ceremony for finding opportunities, is a ceremony I see our team getting a lot of value from.
As a leader, I help this conversation be constructive and action-oriented. When a team spends energy on feedback, it’s a fine line to walk from becoming a complaining-fest. As a leader, I help encourage a healthy conversation instead of an unhealthy one.
One on Ones
A one on one is where I spend time with someone on the team or across the company, and we focus on a multitude of things. Life. Work. Career. Family. Fun. You name it; it’s been discussed in a one on one at some point.
This time is important because it serves two goals. First, we build a relationship.
Having a strong relationship is important to help with the second goal, helping that person be a better version of themselves by being more fulfilled, more skilled, and more than they were the day before. I spend A LOT of time in one on ones. More detail down below.
Many things are happening at once, and a leader is like a hub that helps it all flow together as healthy as possible. The team communicates in chat systems like Slack or Microsoft Teams, and as a leader, I often engage in those conversations.
I also engage on the side with individual conversations throughout the day to help people; wherever I can. When I have spare time, I will check-in on people to see how they are doing. When we were in-person, at the office, I would do this by getting away from my desk, and I would spend time talking with people on the team.
I would see what they are doing, ask questions, or see how I can help. I try to do the same, but just virtually.
This word, meetings, is a word that carries a lot of weight. I interviewed ex-leaders and asked them why they left leadership, and meetings were among the top reasons. Yes, I spend a lot of time in meetings, but they are usually valuable meetings.
Meetings are important for people to communicate and align. When a meeting has a clear agenda, outcome, and the right people in attendance, the meeting is a value-add. When the meeting lacks one of those key ingredients, meetings start to become a waste of time.
If you find yourself in a meeting you think is useless, look to see if one of those ingredients is off. Then ask, could you do something about it? You’re a leader, aren’t you?
As a leader, what type of meetings am I in? I’m in meetings about current work and decisions we need to make related to the products we are building. I’m in meetings about upcoming work to determine strategic direction. I’m in business meetings about next quarter or next year.
Meetings about issues, like outages, bugs, or client feedback. And, of course, people meetings focused on team member situations, personal or professional.
What’s a time breakdown look like for a Technology Leader?
I went through the past three weeks and averaged my time spent on the categories below. I merged a few things compared to the list I shared above, such as Ceremonies. I’ve merged Standup with the other team ceremonies. Take this chart with a grain of salt. I will break it down for us in a second.
Here’s a list of questions I imagine you are thinking to yourself right now.
- Do you really work 10 hours a day as a leader? Sometimes, yes. This is not normal, though, or I try to make sure it isn’t. Read this chart as activities that might happen in parallel, not linearly. I will spend time chatting with the team while I am also in a meeting where I have a moment, and it isn’t relevant to me at the time.
- Do you really only have 1 hour of open time to do actual work? Sometimes, yes. Things might build up over time, and when there is an opening, I try to focus and knock stuff out. I also try to delegate so that I do not become a bottleneck or deprive others on my team looking for opportunities. As you grow in your leadership journey, this time only compresses, so you need to develop fantastic decision-making skills, delegation skills, and get-er-done skills so that you can maximize that small window.
- Why do you spend so much time talking to people? One on ones, meetings, chatting, ceremonies. All of these are related to communication. Communicating work. Communicating direction. Communicating career and personal growth. Communicating decisions. This is the job. As leaders, we play a communication, coaching, and support role. To help our team and business grow, we need to focus on communication ourselves, and we need to help our team communicate more effectively. In technology, that communication happens to center around, you guessed it, tech.
- Where’s the “tech-stuff” on your list? Don’t you program? Good catch. When I started as a leader, I spent a lot more time coding and still executing with the team. I paired with engineers. I taught programming principles. I held code-reviews. I’ve since needed to teach others how to do these things to help the team thrive. These are things I have delegated and the up and coming leaders on the team now own. The team drives the technology, not me. If I drove the technology, bad things would happen, I promise. It’s common for newer leaders to stay close to the code, and some continue to stay close. As for me, I’ve shifted my energy to focus on the people, culture, and environment. Neither path is right. Both are needed. The good news is, you get to choose what type of technology leader you become.
- Do you like it? Most of the time, yes. I’ve learned that I like to help people grow. I’ve learned that I like to create thriving teams. I’ve learned that I like to influence a team or system's culture to help achieve a better tomorrow that enables people on the team. I also still really like technology, it’s a blast, and the people in technology are awesome. If I said it was all sunshine and rainbows, I’d be lying. Some days are really hard, but overall, I love being a technology leader.
You own your calendar, not the other way around!
I will leave you with this important lesson I learned many years ago that I think too many new leaders don’t understand. You own your calendar, not the other way around. Too often, I see new leaders, or experienced ones even, fall victim to their calendars. They go where their calendar takes them.
If you see a meeting that you think is not valuable or think you can’t help, don’t go. Decline it. Say no. I mean, don’t be a jerk about it. Handle it the right way and reach out to the meeting owner to make sure they have what they need, but do something about it. We are not victims of our calendars.
If you see a meeting that needs a better agenda, objective, or the right attendees, do something about it. Hold the group accountable for better meetings. Lead by example to make sure your meetings are valuable.
As leaders, it’s too easy for us to fall into this trap. Leadership can feel heavy at times, but it doesn’t have to be. We can lighten the load through tactics like this and knowing that we are empowered to own our time.
Technologist, leader, writer, and I created BuildBetterTeams.org to help new tech leaders be better leaders and build awesome dev teams! #LeadershipLife