Four traits every lead developer must have

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Posted September 23rd, 2015 by adminguy


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Many developers aspire to be team leads. Some because they see it as a promotion, some because they see it as a way to move away from coding and yet others who see it as a way to command rather than be commanded. However, the ones who really succeed, take on this role because they genuinely care about leading and inspiring people to produce great work.


Before I discuss the traits that all team leads need to develop, let me begin with a healthy warning: being a team lead is not as glamorous as it sounds. It is often a stressful and thankless job that requires you to constantly walk on a tightrope between your team and upper management. When things go wrong it's your failure and when things go well it is everyone's success. However, as I said earlier, if you really want to inspire people and get great products out the door, then being a team lead can be very satisfying.


Since being a team lead needs a very different skill set than being a developer, I'll discuss four traits that every team lead should possess to lead her team to success. Each of these skills may need some natural ability to start with, but with a base of that little something , they can be cultivated with personal effort.


Ability to take responsibility
As a developer you are responsible for your own code, but as a team lead you will be responsible for a whole lot more. A team lead is responsible for understanding the business requirements and translating them into technical requirements for the team. A team lead also has to communicate technical issues in non technical terms to upper management. She is responsible for managing conflicts in the team, for helping team members even when her own plate is full with tasks, as well as conveying bad news from management to the team and news of slippages from the team to management.


As you can see a team lead has to manage interests of multiple stake-holders. It's extremely important to be able to remain cool while doing your best to keep everyone's interest's in mind (your own perhaps the least). Because if you lose your cool the entire team will get de-motivated and work will suffer. Ideally you should have at least some natural flair to take responsibility and leadership. You will have to judge for yourself where you stand in this regard. Do you have what it takes to play this role? If not then you might want to do a little self analysis and also seek feedback from your friends to understand the gaps.


Understanding your strengths and weakness will play an important role in ensuring that you can fill in the gaps and cultivate the leadership skills required to be a successful team lead. It will also help you avoid nasty surprises and the risk of burning out before you get a chance to deliver results.


Technical skills
If you are hoping to be a team lead to move away from technical responsibilities, let this be a word of caution: you will not be relieved from technical responsibilities. In fact a team lead is expected to understand technology at all levels. At the level of code, at the level of the big picture design, as well as pros and cons of choosing different libraries or third party products. So in a way your technical responsibility will be magnified, not reduced.


However it is true that you will spend less time coding yourself. Probably less than half of what you do as a developer. But as a team lead your code will have to be impeccable, because that is the only way you can lead by example. You will have to follow the coding standards you want to get everyone to use, your code will have to be clean, well commented, and effective with proper unit tests if you want your team members to write similar code. When your team has technical difficulties, they will expect you to help them out, and you'll need your technical chops in place for that.


Communication skills
As a team lead you will be doing a lot of communication. You will be the liaison between the customer, upper management, and your team. Business requirements will need to be communicated in technical terms to the team and technical issues will have to be communicated in non technical terms to the customer and upper management. This requires an ability to truly understand the customer's business and their concerns, along with the objectives of your company, the ability of your team, and finally the ability to communicate with all the stakeholders, to eventually deliver a successful product.


You will also have frequent meetings with team members: one on one, as well as group meetings. Sometimes you will communicate to motivate someone, and sometimes you may have to - however difficult it may be - a little hard on someone who is slacking without any apparent reason. Sometimes you'll be helping team members when they come to you seeking advice for professional or personal issues and sometimes you will need to communicate problems faced by your team to upper management. But communication is not just talking, it's also listening. You'll need to understand what people really mean when they say something.


You might also need to make presentations to upper management about the performance of your team, as well as represent your team to your peers: other team leads and managers.


All this demands a wide spectrum of communication skills. You are in good shape if you already possess them, but you needn't despair if you don't. These skills can be developed. A lot can be learned by observing good communicators and seeking help from your own superiors.


Business skills
Finally, an effective team lead needs good business skills. As a team lead you not only have to understand the business and objectives of your own company, but also those of your customers. You need to understand why a customer needs certain features, and which features are most important. It may also be important to understand the industry within which your customers operate if your product is industry specific. Along with all these things you will also have to keep up with what your competition is doing.


Business skills is a rather large umbrella term. It also includes  accounting, planning and estimation.


As a developer you don't have to worry about budgeting, but once you become team lead you may have to take all sorts of financial decisions, ranging from which machines to get for the team; spending money on training sessions; using paid third party products and libraries. Good financial judgment will go a long way in taking effective decisions.


As a developer you are responsible only for your own estimates and deliverables, but a team lead is responsible for the entire team. This means dealing with people's sick leaves, slippages due to personal problems, slippages due to technical problems, team members who leave of jump ship, as well as unseen problems which plague almost every software project. An ability to take a high level overview and understand all the moving parts will be very helpful in being an effective planner.


In conclusion
As you can see being a team lead is a quantum leap from being a developer. But as I said earlier, the good news is that all these skills can be cultivated.


As they say - being forewarned is being forearmed. If you feel you need to cultivate any of these skills, I strongly suggest some sort of personal skill inventory which will point out strengths and weaknesses. With a clear understanding of weaknesses you can start filling in the gaps and prepare yourself to become an effective team lead.


Finally, remember that you can start practicing a leadership role far before the title is officially granted, by helping, inspiring, and motivating others. Taking a larger view to software development by understanding your business and customers will also help a lot.


Finally don't forget the real reason to become a team lead: to lead and inspire your team members to produce great work and help your company thrive.