Seven Tips to Be a Successful Tech Lead


What’s the difference between a tech lead and a team lead? Or a software engineering manager? What can help you be a successful tech lead? Every organization varies in size, structure, and how they define their job descriptions. In very small organizations, it’s possible for a single person to be the tech lead, team lead, engineering manager, and project manager. Many hats. Obviously, these roles and positions tend to be more distinct in larger organizations. Here, we are focused on tips for tech lead (or tech leaders).

Tech Lead vs Team Lead and Management Roles

Let’s simplify the major difference. Tech leads code, even if that’s not all they do. Team leads and software engineering managers should spend little if any time coding. Tech leads are mainly focused on the technical aspects of software development. Team leads and managers mainly focus on the people side of the equation. Again though, there can be a lot of overlap due to organization size and structure.

Tech leads require technical expertise and strong people skills. As with team leads and managers, the number one thing to guide your efforts is to help each member of your team be the best they can be. Of course, you want to improve your own skills, too – but the two can go hand in hand. Success in this goes a long way toward making your project and company mission a success, too.

Tech Lead Functions

Each organization will have its own tech lead job descriptions. Some of the tech lead’s duties may overlap with those of other roles but will tend to focus on more technical issues. A tech lead can assist their team members better in specific aspects of coding and technical configurations than non-technical managers can. This still warrants looking at many of the same performance metrics.

Common tech lead responsibilities include:

  • Selecting programming languages, frameworks, and technologies to meet project specifications.
  • Continuously track, analyze, and improve team performance.
  • Motivate team members and help them be the best coders they can be.
  • Coaching and mentoring other developers to improve their coding skills.
  • Define work schedules and delegate tasks to team members.
  • Identify delivery risks and create contingency plans. 
  • Set performance goals and guide teams through technical challenges.
  • Oversee software updates, modifications, and security audits.
  • Actively engage and provide progress reports to stakeholders.
  • Keep up with industry trends.
  • Can also be involved in the hiring or screening of new developers.

Just as coders should try to always leave code in a better state than they found it, so should team leads strive to do the same with their team and team members’ technical expertise. 

What follows are seven tips to help tech leads accomplish this overarching objective and pave the way to being a successful tech lead.

1. Understand the Value of Performance Metrics

Starting off with performance metrics may sound strange, but analytics provide you the ability to make data-driven decisions. The longer your team tracks its performance, the more valuable metrics are, though they can also provide actionable insights quite rapidly. Objective data is a lot more reliable than hunches and guesswork. 

The performance of your team and individual team members should improve over time. There will be fluctuations for a variety of reasons (like varying task complexity, adding or replacing team members, etc.), but performance metrics will average out over time to provide reasonable benchmarks to compare against. Average velocity (in LOC) can help in allocating time for code reviews (i.e. at 400-500 LOC per hour), while story points factor into Sprint Planning. 

A wide range of metrics can provide insight into what needs to be done to optimize performance. You can see who is under or over-utilized, burning out or looking for a new job, writing too much custom code, and gain insights into scores of other efficiency, productivity, quality, and teamwork issues. 

With a Digital Assistant, like we’re working on at Gitential, you’ll have access to “Insights On-Demand” – bypassing hours of research. In effect, you can ask questions and get immediate answers with graphical charts or graphs, definitions of the data, and a summary of the situation. Topping this off, you’ll receive Next Best Actions on how you can improve just about any given performance metric.

2. Optimize Mentoring and Code Pairing

As a tech lead, knowing everyone’s skill levels on a per-language basis can be instrumental in pairing developers with mentors and coordinating peer code reviews. This often means pairing senior or mid-level developers with junior developers. But, seniority doesn’t always correlate to language expertise.  

Many if not most software development companies actively develop with multiple programming languages and probably trying to skill up in additional ones. Similarly, a developer may start with one language but pick up two or more other languages over time. Their expertise in each language will vary. This extends to each member of your team.

An ideal arrangement is to pair developers by language expertise, and by their performance metrics. In the first case, it’s logical to pair a developer strong in C++ who wants to skill up in Python with a strong Python developer who wants to skill up in C++. Or any other combination. In the second case, it’s also sensible to pair a developer with a high defect rate with another with a low defect rate. This could extend to code complexity, meaningful test coverage, velocity, code churn, etc.

3. Optimize Team Selection and Tasks

When preparing for a new project, it’s logical to select developers with the right mix of expertise and experience. This is another area where performance analytics can play an important role in successful delivery – software that meets specifications, is delivered on time, and on budget. The larger the company, the more complex this can be, and the greater potential to realize a high ROI. 

Team leads and their engineering managers can hand-select which developers should be on the new team based on their skills, performance, aptitude for teamwork, and with Jira integration – their costs (wages). This extends equally to assigning tasks, to matching tasks (and complexity) to developers based on their skills in the relevant programming language. Developers still ramping up on a specific programming language can still be assigned smaller or lower complexity tasks.

One of our customers who specializes in mobile app development told a story before they signed up with us. One of their leading iOS developers was tasked to work on an Android app. Unfortunately, the developer was not fresh on JavaScript and thought he could pick it up on the fly. This resulted in several delays ultimately leading to the developer reluctantly admitting he wasn’t well-suited for the tasks assigned to him. 

Performance metrics for developers on a per-language basis can pre-empt issues like this. The cost here includes the delays on the Android project AND his iOS expertise not being put to optimal use.

4. Cultivate Cross-Functionality in Your Team

Cross-functional teams are a central theme in Agile, DevOps, and even DataOps. AI can radically accelerate the process of cultivating cross-functional teams, too. The goal here is to facilitate task-based training and role-based exposure to cultivate Team Intelligence (TI). One aspect of TI is that “Each team member must cultivate an understanding of each other’s roles, how what they do influences the efforts of others, upstream and downstream.”

Some examples include having developers sit with the Scrum Master when setting up tasks, leading standups or retrospectives, researching and evaluating new software, preparing reports, sitting in on meetings with other stakeholders or teams, and the list goes on. 

Not only can this help improve team member efficiency, but it provides experience they can use if promoted or need to help fill in when someone else is out. It’s also worth having someone who can be designated as an interim team lead in the event you are away. Being able to go on vacation knowing that someone’s able to cover a large portion of your tasks can be a huge relief, while you’re away and when you get back.

5. You Don’t Always Need to Be the Expert

Keep the door open to asking others to step in as the “tech lead” in their areas of expertise. Involve them in mapping out the requirements to match project specifications or solutions to challenges your team is facing. Share the parameters you have to work with – team member skill sets, schedule, and budget, too. 

It’s often necessary to “make everything fit.”  While a particular language or technology might be best for a specific application, the team may not have everything or as many developers with the right needed to deliver it on schedule. When that’s the case, you can mutually evaluate whether to evaluate alternatives or if it would be feasible to train, hire, or outsource for those requirements. 

Vet their ideas, don’t hesitate to ask questions, and involve them in meetings with other stakeholders to explain the choices you’ve settled on. No one is expected to know every programming language, application, or technology.

6. One-on-One Meetings

We’ve talked about One-on-One Meetings at considerable length. The basic goals of these meetings are to 1) build trust, 2) provide a feedback loop, 3) simplify obstacles, 4) align everyone on core objectives, and 5) provide a mechanism for accountability. Performance analytics help you to prepare for meetings, providing you with the ability to objectively praise developers for the areas in which they have been performing well, how they are trending over time, and areas where they could improve.

“Hey Boba Fett, you’re code quality is exemplary, your test coverage is excellent and for the past two weeks, we’ve only found one minor defect that you also rapidly fixed. Your expertise is really important for the team, though you’ve only done a few PR code reviews. Do you think it’d be possible for you to regularly pick up a few more? Your insights could really help our less experienced developers and ease the burden on Fennec Shand who is showing signs of burning out. What do you think?”

Just as importantly, these meetings provide an opportunity to inspire everyone on your team to be the best they can be. Going with that, their feedback on what and how you are doing is instrumental and valuable in helping you be the best tech lead that you can be, too. It takes some guts for someone to tell their supervisor something they may not want to hear. Appreciate it when they do and take it as an opportunity to up your game. When you listen and act upon your team’s concerns, they’ll see it and appreciate it, too. 

Another factor here is that by knowing the specific coding challenges a developer is facing, you can work with their mentors to better inform their efforts.

7. Benchmarking and Goal Setting

There’s always room for improvement. Benchmarking plays an important role in letting you see and compare developer, team, project, company-wide, and even industry-wide performance, on a per metric basis. This information is useful in showing where you are vs. where you could be, helping to set realistic goals, and finding interesting insights to improve developer and team performance.

Why does Team A have far fewer defects than Team B? Inquisitive team leads want to know – and will take the initiative to dig deeper into the analytics and confer with their counterparts. This is a lot less about knowing the answers than being able to ask the right questions to find the causal relationships. There could be many reasons from Team A having more experienced developers, working with less complex programming languages, having smaller teams, being better at writing meaningful tests, better automated debugging tools, more effective code reviews, etc.

Concluding Notes for Tech Leads

Performance analytics provide invaluable information for tech leads in optimizing team performance and saving time on administrative tasks so you can spend more time coding. It’s good practice to encourage developers to leave code in a better shape than the way they found it. Similarly, the goal of a tech lead is to help their developers become more technically proficient and efficient. Performance analytics is a tool that tech leads can rely upon to rapidly accelerate team development.

Post updated: February 08, 2022

November 2022 Release Notes

Here’s what’s new in our November 2022 Release Notes:

* Improved data exports for our custom solutions;
* Stabilized backend environment for smoother workspace data refreshes;
* Flexible pagination;

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