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How to successfully lead a team of engineers

Martha Moniz, Engineering Team Lead at Paddle, sets out to define what her role looks like, and address the common challenges that come with it.

Do you want to know the biggest secret about being a Team Lead in Engineering?

There is no clear definition of what a Team Lead is, or does.

If you wade through the many ‘Engineering Team Lead’ jobs online, you will find hundreds of roles, each with varying degrees and types of responsibilities. Some will be fully hands-on with little to no departmental alignment; others will be 90% or even 100% focused on the leadership side, with little contact with the code.

The expectations of an Engineering Team Lead

The differing expectations of the role show how malleable it is to the needs of both the business and individual. The common thread is that team leads must understand: a) what is happening within the organisation; and b) how to change it for the better.   

Knowledge — providing it and absorbing it — is a critical element of the role. You are a centre of information: at any given time, you need to have a high-level view of the platform’s health, infrastructure and architecture; of what your team is up to, where the product is going (especially from a technical perspective), releases, rotas, and estimations.

As a manager, you are there to ensure your team has everything they need to do their work. It’s your mission to push the technology forwards, advocate for the happiness of your team members, give them space to grow and progress in their careers, and hire the best people to join your department.

However, this management responsibility does not mean that you must abandon your developer roots. An Engineering Team Lead can be hands-on — picking up tickets that add value to the product or the platform, while not being blockers for the rest of the team.

Challenge 1: Managing the workload

A team lead’s workload is weighty and challenging to manage. I’ve learnt to step back, look at the bigger picture, and set my own boundaries. It can feel, at times, that the work never ends. There is always more to do: catching up with what is happening, learning more about the domain, keeping up with upcoming requirements, working closely with the product manager to refine the pipeline, coaching, and line management – and this without even counting the unexpected ‘fire fighting’ that could require immediate action.

There are days when it’s hard to mentally check out when you leave, and days when everything happens at once. It can be draining to deal with every task, not unlike a chef endlessly delivering dishes in a restaurant.

Work can often go unnoticed, as you are not actually ‘doing anything’ other than enabling others to do their work. If you’re good at what you do, everything will run smoothly, and your team will continue to function well when you are not present.

Challenge 2: Trusting your team

As the lead, you must trust in your team to do their best work and avoid micromanagement. This way people feel valued. Trusting everyone in the company is key — not only does it help morale, but when there are problems, you can work together to figure out the solution, rather than point fingers.

Trust is built from openness and transparency. Within your team, this means arranging regular group discussions, and meeting individually with your direct reports. This will help you understand what they’re going through, and what needs improving. But transparency also means breaking down the silos across the business, and trying to make department-wide decisions, and changes, as soon as possible.

Challenge 3: Not wasting time

Waste is one of the biggest problems in software engineering: features that nobody uses, fixing bugs that only affect few customers, over-engineering solutions, or having teams block each other.

Keeping the customer in mind helps to avoid waste, and product managers can be an Engineering Team Lead’s ultimate partner in that battle. Asking yourself during planning “how does this delight the customer?” is a great way to remove anything that does not bring value.

Ultimately, your way of thinking shifts when moving into a position of leadership. Often you will find yourself be split in two: half of the time you will need to think as a manager – someone who is in a position to fix or improve a situation – and the other half will be focused on you as an employee – ensuring your career is headed in the right direction and your personal needs are met. It’s a delicate balancing act for any manager, new and established, but finding ways to meeting the major challenges raised in the article will make that tightrope walk a little easier to manage.