Caught between two worlds; a changed perspective (Letter No. 13)

Hey Tech Leads,

I was reading Cameron’s story in Talking with Tech Leads yesterday on an early morning flight to Dallas.  Cameron said, “Working on and with teams as an ‘insider,’ I would often be quite critical of people and the decisions made [outside the team]; it affected how I felt about our success as a team.”  His perspective changed once he became the tech lead.

talking-with-tech-leadsI don’t know about you, but in my earliest days as a tech lead this change in perspective created a difficult dynamic for me.  Let me explain, and please let me know if you share a similar experience.

When you’re tucked in a small team of software engineers, it’s not uncommon to develop an “us versus them” culture: the software engineers (or systems engineers or whatever) against everyone else in the organization.  A conversation like this is taking place somewhere in the world right now:

DEVELOPER 1: It’s so lame; the product manager just came in and changed my story mid sprint just as I was about to close it out.

DEVELOPER 2: Seriously? She did that to me last sprint too.

DEVELOPER 1: It’s crazy. Now how am I going to get the rest of my committed stories done? I’m going to have to work the weekend just to keep up.

DEVELOPER 2: I don’t know why they can’t get their act together.  They keep changing their minds.  I need to work on my resume this weekend.

I’ve been both Developer 1 and 2 lots of time. But when I found myself in the tech lead role and later management role, I had a lot more context as to why the business or product management often did things that previously seemed incomprehensible.

Patrick Kua, author of Talking with Tech Leads, explains that novices often struggle with the shift in gears from individual contributor to one who has less time for coding, attends more meetings, and needs to articulate business priorities to the tech team.  That is, one who isn’t quite like the others on the team anymore.

For me, I was ok with the change in tasks.  What was hard was facing the fact that I was now both the explainer for the business as well as defender of the team.  I struggled being balancing the two worlds — the tech team and the business.  I didn’t know how to rise above the negativity of the tech team and still avoid feeling like the new target of the negativity.  Saying, “don’t blame me, I’m only the messenger” just made me feel weak.  Worse, I didn’t have enough experience or confidence to defend my team from an impatient business, the same group of people funding our paychecks.

Some tech leads deal with this the wrong way, which is understandable considering it’s an uncomfortable position to be in — so they tighten up, become rigid, rely on “authority” to simply, and generally disconnect from the team. Others double down on the “us versus them” mentality and, by trying to be protective, end up damaging their relationship with the business.  Others become ineffectual by “rolling over” for every whim and fancy of the business.  I’ve done them all.

So young tech lead, all I can tell you is this is a hard balance to strike.  On the one hand, you have to float a little above your team’s current negativity without ceasing to be a team member.  On the other hand, you need to find the strength to push back on the business without losing their confidence.

A reasonable place to start is to learn to be comfortable in the space between — with the fact that neither side will love you but if you do it well both sides will see you as invaluable.  You’ll get there!

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