The Paradox of Being a Technical Lead

October 9, 2012

I have, on many occasions, been a terrible technical lead. For years, I had no idea why people continued to promote me into these positions, even across different jobs. It’s not like I wanted to be a technical lead, they would just walk up and tell me that would be my new job. I was a terrible technical lead, because I could never work out what the job entailed. To become a technical lead, you had to be the most skilled of any of the other engineers — at least that’s the idea. However, to stay skilled you need to code constantly — that’s the “technical” part. The “lead” part, however, never seemed to fit, because to lead, you have to do more than sit at your desk and code all day with your headphones on. How can you stay technical and still lead?

I wish I had a clever anecdote that neatly sums up how you can be (and stay) technical but also lead, but I don’t have one. In my experience, you either go all-in on technical, or go all-in on lead, or you do a disservice to your team. If you’re a technical lead, and go all-in on being technical, the code will stay well factored with little technical debt, you’ll personally solve the most intractable problems, and bail the project out when it’s behind and some hero coding is called for. If you go all-in leading, scope will stay under control, deadlines with be reasonable, estimates will be done well, and the general level of chaos will be reduced to a minimum.

I tried really hard to be both technical as well as lead, but I failed. Miserably. Repeatedly. After my last failure, I decided instead of trying to be both, I would go all-in on one of them. Since going all-in on leading drives your career to middle management, I decided to go all-in technical. I couldn’t be happier. Sure, scope is out of control, estimates are sh*t, deadlines are unreasonable, and the general level of chaos is off the charts, but at least the team gets someone who at least does one thing well — being technical. As an added bonus, there’s a lot less stress in tackling technical problems than arguing requirements, scope, and deadlines. Will I ever try my hand again at the “lead” part? Only time will tell, but for right now, I’m enjoying the sweet life.

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