3 Keys to Moving Into a Technical Leadership Role

Imagine for a moment that you’ve been promoted.

You spent years working late nights, troubleshooting for customers, and getting all the training and certifications you need, and it all paid off. Your boss has recognized your efforts and wants to promote you to a technical leadership position.

Great! You never again have to ask the question, “Did you turn it off and turn it back on again?”

But what exactly does being in a leadership position require? Does it mean more late nights? Will you have to deal with people every day? Will you ever get the chance to code again?

And if you’re not there yet, how do you get there?

While moving into a new role can be exciting for many developers, it also comes with a price. Here’s what you need to know to make the transition from “just another employee” to a bona fide technical leader…

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Understanding New Concepts

While being a leader or manager of a department may seem cool at first, remember that the grunt work is no longer your first priority. You won’t just be focused on code, but also on the issues driving your industry.

In Your Department

Think of your new role like the zoom feature of Google maps: At a 200 foot distance, you can clearly see your street name and even the colors of the roofs. From 2,000 feet, however, street names disappear and you’re left with a blurry view of the details. But you start to see the bigger picture. You notice that there are neighborhoods, and cities, and the more you zoom out, the more you see.

Your job is not only to be able to see the details – the “how” – but also the big picture – the “why” of a project. Allison Gross, vice president of staffing and consulting firm Comforce, notes, “The higher up in an organization you are, the broader your vision has to be.”

If you still struggle with JavaScript or putting together a cohesive line of CSS, you can probably rest easy knowing that it’s not really your job to do it. However, you’ll need to be able to help out other team members who are struggling, or explain those concepts to clients or other departments.

You will also need to understand how each individual piece fits into the larger project.

In Other Departments

There’s a difference between “doing” and “teaching”. When you transition into a leadership position, you can’t just do the work yourself. You also have to be able to explain it to others, especially those outside of your department.

According to Bruno Zerbib, director of product management at InfoVista, techies sometimes have a narrow worldview, but to move into management you need to “acknowledge the value and skills outside of your organization.”

Both before, during, and after transitioning into a leadership position, it’s important to translate your passion for problem solving into management context. You will be learning to guide others to solve problems instead of simply solving them yourself.

That’s why it becomes so important to learn how to work as a part of a team.

Flat design modern vector illustration concept of teamwork analyzing project on business meeting. Top view of desk background with laptop, mobile and digital devices, office objects and staff, papers and documents.

Working with a Team

Many times technical experts are promoted because of their individual skills, but they often don’t succeed because they fail to learn to work cooperatively. Their knowledge gets them promoted, but their lack of teamwork gets them fired.

Prepare for Relationship Shifts

When you’re working with other developers, it’s easy to fall into certain patterns of behavior. Techies tend to create their own special language for communication.

But after a promotion, you may find yourself struggling to relate to your peers the way you once did. Suddenly, habits you once found endearing become hindrances to your “big picture” perspective.

You notice your team members being late. You notice sloppy code. You notice snide remarks. While there may be a grief process in letting go of the old roles, it’s important to remember that this new relationship is a good thing.

Lisa Quast over at Forbes has some tips for helping you navigate the transition from co-worker to boss.

Focus on Motivating and Inspiring

While your job may not always be glamorous, there are positive aspects to being in a leadership role. Of those, motivation and inspiration will become your best friends.

It’s now your job to rally the troops. Here are a few ways to do that, according to Peter Economy over at Inc:

Offer opportunities for self-development – It’s important to provide opportunities for your team to be able to advance their careers. Just as you were once recognized for your skill and acumen, remember that your teammates want the same thing.

Foster collaboration within the team – Just because you were promoted doesn’t mean it’s all about you. Your role will involve collaboration, which requires listening and asking great questions.

Set clear goals – As a leader, it’s your job to communicate the big picture to the team and make sure that everyone stays on track. If you’re not super organized, you can always use tools like Slack or Trello to help you.

Peter also says don’t punish failure, and above all, don’t micromanage. The last thing your company needs is for your power to go to your head.


Improving Other Skills

Now, you may be asking yourself, “How in the world do I do all of that?”

Just like any other skill, leadership can be learned. It’s not always easy to learn how to manage a team, keep them motivated and happy, and keep projects on task… but the moral of the story is that it’s possible. It just takes some dedication to learning more skills than just coding.

Here are a few of the things you might want to spend time learning to do:

Delegation – You must now know how to pass off tasks to your team effectively. This will keep you from spending time doing things that should no longer be your responsibility.

Briefing – You need to keep your team up to date on their progress, what you expect from them, and what will happen in the future. Learning how to give good feedback is especially important.

Communication – In your previous role, good communication might have been helpful, but not critical to completing your goals. Now, however, communication is essential to your success.

Discipline – At some point, you’ll probably have to discipline someone on your team. Whether a team member is breaking rules, under-performing, or upsetting others, it’s up to you to restore peace. Knowing how to discipline effectively without punishing your team is key to earning their trust and respect.

Recruitment – If your team is changing or expanding, then you’ll have to hire new people. Learning to find new talent can be tricky, but thankfully, you’ve already done the job once, so you know the skills and temperament to look for.

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Final Thoughts

Whether you’re looking to transition or you’ve already made the jump, taking on a new role can be scary.

Thankfully, the transition doesn’t have to throw you for a loop as long as you remember that your new role comes with new responsibilities.

You don’t have to worry about the grunt work of coding, but you do have to make sure your team stays happy and productive. Don’t be afraid of confrontation.

Use tools to help you communicate and stay organized, and focus on your “bigger vision” to keep everything moving forward.

And don’t worry… you’ll do great.

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