What separates effective tech leads from everyone else?

For the past few months, in preparation for a new course for tech leads, my co-founder Jean and I have been doing extensive market research to understand the ins-and-outs of the tech lead role.

The tech lead role has a high amount of leverage, and so when navigated effectively, a big impact. Tech leads have a wide range of implicit and explicit responsibilities, including any of: delivering technical outcomes, bringing engineers together to get things done, leveling up the engineering team, coordinating with product and design, project management, and more.

The role is also not very well understood.

We’ve been interviewing tech leads from companies in Silicon Valley and around the world; listening to their dreams, fears, pain points, and obstacles; highlighting and distilling resonant phrases from interview transcripts; and systematically organizing them into the key themes that appeared over and over again.

Over the next few weeks, we'll continue to share more about our findings — including anonymized quotes from interviews, common patterns we found across tech lead roles of all shapes and sizes, what keeps tech leads up late at night, and more.

In this article, we'll share five key investments where new and experienced tech leads will find high amounts of leverage for their time spent.

Investment #1: Define what success means in your tech lead role.

What people are saying:

“Am I being successful in this role? I don't know.”
“It feels like a very ambiguous role. I've been given a lot of autonomy to figure out what it means for me.”
“I'm judged on my contributions, but I am also judged on the failure and success of this team.”

The ambiguity of what success looks like is a very common sentiment shared by many tech leads.

There’s a good quote by Yogi Berra, “If you don't know where you are going, you'll end up someplace else.” If you don't know what success looks like, it's going to be hard to get there.

What makes the tech lead role complex is that there are a lot of factors at play here: whether you’re a tech lead of infrastructure or a user-facing domain in the product, whether you have a small or large team, whether there’s a dedicated product / project / engineering manager for your team, and even what you’re good at or enjoy doing.

The definition of success can vary based on all those factors. It might be bringing people together to summit a technical challenge. It might be empowering your team to take a concept from beginning to end with a quality piece of software. It might be broadly defined as accomplishing the goals that the company is looking for. It might be moving the needle on some set of business metrics.

There’s no single right definition of success as a tech lead — that’s why it’s important to have a conversation with your manager to explicitly define what success looks like. The key thing is to come to agreement and alignment about the North Star you’re aiming for.

You also don’t have to find all the answers yourself — a great start is just to say at your next 1:1 with your manager, “I’d like to have a conversation to figure out together what success in my role looks like.”

Investment #2: Design the right balance of where to spend your time and energy.

What people are saying:

“There's always an extra hour in the day if you don't sleep, but if you do that too many days in a row, everything starts to go downhill on your health, work, and personal life.”
“I worked a lot more to try to make up for not completely knowing how to do things.”
“I'm actually trying to figure out what the right balance of organization and project management to actual coding is.”

As a tech lead, you’re potentially juggling everything from making individual contributions, advising the team on technical decisions, owning the overall architectural design, coaching your teammates on their careers, managing the project timeline, being the sh*t umbrella, communicating with business stakeholders, and more.

But you only have so many hours in the day and so much energy to expend on your work. If you’re not careful, you might even find your work creeping into your personal life and affecting your health in negative ways.

In my book The Effective Engineer, I shared the mindset of focusing on high-leverage activities — spending your energy on what produces the highest impact per unit of time spent. The concept of leverage still applies — you just have a much larger scope of activities and trade-offs to prioritize, and you have the strike the right balance of doing things on your own and learning to delegate effectively.

A good starting point when figuring out where to spend your time is to ask yourself, “What contributions can you uniquely make that will have a large impact on the team or the project?” Another helpful question comes from the book The One Thing: “What's the ONE thing you can do, such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?”

When you direct your time and energy toward your answers to those questions, you’re orienting yourself toward more leverage and more impact.

Investment #3: Develop your interpersonal and communication skills.

What people are saying:

“What's really holding me back from being more successful is how to communicate with people, how to create alignment with people, how to be patient enough for that process, and how to resolve working with someone with different incentives.”
“What's holding me back is my own ability of dealing with people.”
“There’s an unwillingness that I have to have difficult conversations, like conflict avoidance.”

For many people, the tech lead role is the first time that they have some responsibility for other people’s output.

Working with code can be very logical, and oftentimes we become tech leads because we have developed effective ways to design our code and systematically debug issues when things go wrong. Unfortunately, we often don’t apply the same levels of energy to learn effective ways to design our relationships and to systematically debug them when things go wrong.

The good news is that human beings are systems too — you just need a different set of abstractions to understand how inputs lead to outputs. When we don’t invest that time and energy into learning effective abstractions for communication and relationships, people end up seeming like black boxes — it’s great when things work, but we’re stuck and powerless when things don’t.

Books like Radical Candor, Nonviolent Communication, and Crucial Conversations all provide useful communication frameworks. Another way to get started is to follow this guide for explicitly designing your relationships as alliances, which lets you build alignment in your relationships around what’s most important.

Investment #4: Build the foundation for a happy and productive team.

What people are saying:

“What's actually the difference between a team and a group of people?”
“I guess a great team also is one where the people feel a sense of belonging to the team. They should enjoy being part of this team.”
“It's your job to make sure that they cohesively work together to achieve the broader goals.”

As anyone who’s been in a tech lead role for any amount of time will know, it’s not sufficient to just delegate tasks to people and expect them to get things done.

Human beings are not robots. Different people are motivated by different things. When they’re bored, output suffers. When you can successfully align work with a person’s dreams and motivations, they engage with more energy, and you can produce significantly higher quality output, much faster.

It’s easy sometimes to just offload responsibility for team happiness to a manager and decide to let a manager handle any people-related issues. “I’ll just focus on the technical issues,” many people think. They end up doing themselves a disservice because they lose a powerful lever for amplifying a team’s happiness and productivity.

You don’t have to be friends with your co-workers if you don’t want to, but knowing someone’s long-term dreams and aspirations, knowing when they struggle to ask for help or fail to offer help, knowing how to give well-intentioned feedback and how they best receive feedback — all of these feed into a foundation of trust that can make a lot of hard things feel easy.

Many tech leads don’t take the time to schedule 1:1s with their teammates. But even a short conversation can have a huge impact on your relationship. Ask your teammates, “What do you want to be doing long-term? What’s important to you about working together on this team and this project? What can I do to help you be more effective at your work? When I have feedback for you, how would you like to best receive it?”

Investment #5: Set an explicit intention for what you want out of your tech lead role.

What people are saying:

“It's largely a transitional role.”
“For me this is the last stop on being a CTO, hopefully, of a startup or small company.”
“This is a chance to try and get your feet wet before jumping all the way into a management role.”

People become tech leads for many different reasons.

Some people want to scale their impact beyond your own technical contributions. Some fall into the role unintentionally just because they’re the de facto domain expert. Some see it as a stepping stone to other roles, whether it be a management role, an architect role, a CTO, or even a founder of a company.

What you want to get out of the role is up to you and depends on what your dreams and aspirations might be. By being clearer on your medium-term or long-term goals, you can maximize what you personally get out of the role and align the job you have with what you want.

If you want to eventually become an engineering manager, you can spend more time developing your coaching skills and managing projects and timelines.

If you want to grow into an architect or CTO, you can spend more time honing your design skills and the effectiveness of how you review your teammates’ designs and give them feedback.

If you want to found your own startup some day, you can spend more time understanding the business and revenue implications of your technical and product decisions.

So take the time to ask yourself, “What are some dreams I have for what I might to do in the future? What can I learn during my time as a tech lead to best set me up for that future?”

By investing in these five key areas, you'll address some of biggest themes surfaced in our research that are facing tech leads today and set yourself up for future success.

If you want to learn more actionable tools and frameworks specifically for tech leads, check out our Foundations of Effective Tech Leadership course. It’s a 2-day immersive experience for new and experienced tech leads where we use live demos, hands-on practice, case studies, deep-dive discussions to give you the core foundations to set you up for success.