I’ve been a technical leader for nearly all of my career, including mentoring others to grow into this role. My growth as a leader required a lot of hard work; gaining technical knowledge, understanding project mechanics, communication skills, organizational skills, and leading by example and influence. I’m going to show you what’s worked for me, and illustrate this using a generic company’s employment requisition for a technical leader. I’ll present this from the standpoint of a very senior position (the actual position title could be Technical Lead, Chief Engineer, Team Lead, etc.), but everything below, to include technical/people skills and gaining experiential credentials, applies for almost every level of IT position. You’ll also see that telling engaging stories is pervasive throughout both an interview and while serving as a leader.
Organizations Need Leaders
A very senior job requisition usually reads something like this:
Will serve in a technical leadership role driving the technical solution for [blank] based on [blank] methodology (or technology). Must have deep technical knowledge in <blank> with a successful track record of having implemented <blank> in a leadership role for multiple and simultaneous projects. Requires current technical knowledge in <blank> and <blank>. Must have a proven track record in planning and managing the execution of projects against plans at a detailed level, to include identifying and managing technical execution risks. Requires strong interpersonal skills as well as strong organizational and oral/written communications skills. Must also have demonstrated experience in customer and team engagement, to include briefing and influencing both senior customer and company leadership. Additional knowledge in the areas of <blank> and <blank> is a plus.
Becoming a Leader is Hard Work
Let’s look at what you need to do and have done to meet this job description, focusing on the phrases I highlighted above within it, and note which are [Technical Skills] and which are [People Skills]:
- …leadership role driving the technical solution… You’ll want to go into an interview with some recognized and referenceable leadership history that tells a story. Building a credible story requires hard work, and taking on roles of ever-increasing responsibility. Seek out the hard projects. Volunteer! You will find after a while that others will start requesting you by name for their projects. [People Skills]
- …deep technical knowledge… Become an expert, and not just through project work. Seek out opportunities to dive deep into a particular topic area. Be hands-on! Attend seminars and webinars—they’re often free. Subscribe to email lists. Read books and web sites. Take classes. Attend conferences (e.g., VMworld, ServiceNow Knowledge 2020). Convincing management to fund training and conference attendance is a fine art. Master it! This applies not only for technologies but also for process/ methodologies (e.g., ITIL, Agile). Consider certifying in technology, product and process areas. [Technical Skills]
- …successful track record… You ideally have served in multiple successful projects, with increasing levels of peer or team leadership. Interviews and presentations are a great opportunity to tell your stories! Use stories to engage your audience and to highlight your technical/people skills. Why were the projects successful, and what were your contributions to their success? How did you turn around a troubled or failing project? Always end stories with achieved customer benefits/outcomes or value (the “so what?” test). A good interviewer will how you handled project failures. Be honest, and acknowledge why the project failed and, most importantly, what you learned from failure. [People Skills]
- …current technical knowledge… Learning should never end! You need to keep technically evolving. Keep doing everything to expand your deep technical knowledge. Additionally, and this is where some of my peers have fallen down, keep your hands on the keyboard! Build a home IT lab, or set one up in the cloud. You need to “do” to learn. You also need to validate that what vendors tell you is the truth! [Technical Skills]
- … planning and managing the execution of projects against plans … Yes, having managed a few projects helps you become a technical leader. Learn how to plan and manage projects. The CompTIA Project+ books (example here) are a great place to start, as is shoulder-surfing and mentoring by your senior colleagues. Learn how to use Microsoft Project. Take the Project+ certification exam. [Technical Skills]
- …identifying and managing technical execution risks… Your experience plays a big part in understanding where future pitfalls might lie. You get there by observing where the problems arose and how your past leaders planned in advance how to address them (or where they didn’t). There’s a lot of “street smarts” (and stories) here that you can acquire and provide! Take note as to what works and what doesn’t. [Technical Skills]
- … strong interpersonal skills as well as strong organizational… Be a a polite team-player. . Be sensitive to the feelings/hopes/dreams of your team mates. Celebrate the wins of others. Soften their fall when there are failures (but extract as a team the lessons learned). Be aware that many on a team may know more than you on a given topic. Be aware of both your company’s and your customer’s politics. Recognize that not everyone will agree with your viewpoint or recommendations. There are many leadership styles—I find that a coaching style works best. This coaching style reflects where our evolving working environments continue to head—working more and more in self-managed teams, the Agile paradigm, and the concept of the “servant leader” for the team. As you advance into greater levels of responsibility this also includes mentoring teammates junior to you, to include giving them degrees of leadership responsibility. [People Skills]
- …strong oral/written communications skills…customer and team engagement… Get comfortable with leading meetings and standing up in front of others and delivering presentations to them. Tell stories where you can. Captivate your audience. If you’re shy then practice! Groups such as Toastmasters can help significantly here. Seek out opportunities for technical writing and mentoring from others who do it well. Learn Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel, Outlook, Visio, and how to use SharePoint. Practice! Practice! Practice! [People/Technical Skills]
- …briefing and influencing both senior customer and company leadership… Here’s another place to tell stories. Practice a lot! Learn your audience’s hot buttons and speak to them–every audience will be different. [People Skills]
- Additional knowledge… Broaden your experience– every project won’t use the same knowledge. This takes time, and you’ll go deeper in some topics than others. It gets easier over time. [People/Technical Skills]
Good Practices to Adopt
I’ll add a few more points that aren’t extracted from the job description:
- Know your (and your team members’) strengths and weaknesses. Seek to emphasize the strengths and minimizes the weaknesses. This is an important part of team building.
- Build networks of friends! Relationships count in IT, and being able to “phone a friend” adds to your credibility as a technical leader. Remember though, it’s a two-way street (forgive those who don’t get that).
- Admit when you don’t have an answer, but tell them you’ll immediately research it and get back with the answer (and do it). Nobody has all of the answers. But you should be able to tell a customer what you’ll do to get the answers. This is a “no B.S.” zone.
- Stories are important–not only your personal narrative but also the stories you can tell of past successes (and failures), past learning, things that worked well, etc. Recognize those who helped you get to where you are now and where you want to be, and pay it forward to your peers and those following in your footsteps. If you want to learn more about creating and telling stories then I suggest you visit my friend Tassey Russo’s web sites here and here.
My recommendations might seem overwhelming. Don’t worry, you’ll get there! If you have a few years of experience behind you then you are probably already on the path to leadership, and I hope these recommendations help you become a technical leader. Good luck!
(Article Copyright 2020 Hydra Technologies, Inc. All Rights Reserved.)
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