Find certainty in the process, not the outcome (Letter No. 2)

Dear Tech Lead,

This week, the Fourth of July week here in the States, we’re focusing on certainty. Without some sense of certainty, say that the sun will rise tomorrow or that you’ll have enough money to feed ourselves and our family, it’s hard for us to do much beyond scrambling for survival.

Think back to your earliest days in the business. You were fresh out of school or just changed careers. You quickly found out that there’s a lot more to software engineering than knowing how to write a good algorithm or nailing the nuances of your language’s syntax. You probably worried a lot about finding some certainty in your new career.

Fortunately, today you’re confident in your abilities as an individual contributor. You have the certainty of a backlog you’ve helped groom to some precision. You have confidence of well-crafted unit tests smiling at you with their green light. You have lots of things you know, with certainty, you can accomplish when you’re an individual software engineer.

Taking on the tech lead role, however, probably makes you feel like you’re back at square one. If your experience is like mine, it becomes instantly obvious as a new tech lead that success requires a whole new set of skills and demands a new set of expectations. We can talk about those skills and expectations more in the weeks to come.

For now, I want to draw your attention to where you’re currently seeking certainty in this new role. Are you looking for it by driving your team to deliver a specific number of story points? Are you seeking the certainty of driving your team to hit a date? Put differently, are you seeking certainty in the same places as you used to, except now you’re looking for those results through your realm?

If so, can I ask further if you’re finding that drive for results-based certainty to be, well, also frustrating, discouraging, and/or lonely? I sure did! But I needed something I could have confidence in when I was getting started.

If I can offer this suggestion, which I hope we can talk about someday, maybe you could seek certainty in the process of software engineering instead of the outcome? Focus on the capabilities of your team, of the quality of the interactions in your code reviews, how well you’re defining a vision, how much time you spend 1:1 with the team, and in how well you’re coaching each of them. Be certain that, if you get those things right, the outcomes you’re seeking will follow.

Be certain, be confident, and keep your edge.


“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

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