The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Coaching (Page 2 of 11)

Tech Lead – Circles of Responsibility

One of my projects this year is a training program for developing Tech Leads. In preparation for the course, I developed this diagram below to explain what areas we focus on and found the model resonated very well with people who interact with Tech Leads, but probably don’t really know what Tech Leads do. I also found it has been a useful model discussing it with new or current Tech Leads about areas of potential growth. This model explains the Tech Lead role as intersection of three other roles – A Developer, a Leader and an Architect.


A Tech Lead is developer who is a Leader

A Tech Lead wouldn’t be the same without being technical and there are a whole bunch of development skills I would expect any capable Tech Lead of having. In today’s age of agile development practices, there are a whole set of engineering practices, I would expect Tech Leads capable of doing such as refactoring and Behaviour/Test-Driven Development.

What makes a Tech Lead different from developers is their breadth and depth using leadership skills to help the team move towards a goal. Unlike developers who can avoid giving feedback to their peers, a leader must be able to give and receive feedback to help people develop and be more effective. This means not only focusing on the technical aspects, but also the team and people aspects such as relationship building, motivating, delegating, and influencing.

Tech Leads must work to resolve conflict. Conflict itself is a sign of a healthy team, but only when the Tech Lead creates an environment where conflict is resolved.

Developing skills in the Leader role

Developers have little opportunity to practise leadership skills. Tech Leads are fortunate to have many resources that address the leadership circle. Leadership skills are important to all leaders regardless of industry or position and you can find a plethora of books, training courses and websites.

A Tech Lead is hands-on Architect

I have written in the past that I expect effective Tech Leads and Architects to have some level of coding ability. I have even gone so far to suggest they should ideally spend a minimum of 30% of their time in the code.

Developers spend much of their time in the code, but unless they start thinking of the bigger picture, it is difficult for them to start thinking beyond that. Tech Leads must help the team to:

Build systems, not software

This mindset shift helps developers think about a lot more than just the software – to start thinking of the quality attributes of software systems (or the Cross-Functional/Non-Functional Requirements) as well as the whole interaction with the deployment environment in which the software lives.

When someone plays the Architect role, they are naturally taking a broader view of the software – how long it’s going to last for and how it is going to evolve over time.

Developing skills in the Architect role

The Software Architect role is much newer compared to general leadership and although there are some resources available, I cannot recommend many of them because they either focus on the tooling, or they teach little that help people bridge the gap.

Although people are writing books, articles and training courses that address this circle of skills, more still needs to be done.

What I’m doing about it

Most training courses that exist focus on a single tool, a single approach but rarely focus on a broad view that also gives developers a better understanding of the Tech Lead, particularly the Architect side to the role. I have run a hands-on course for Tech Leads that helps people build more awareness and gives people and opportunity to practice some of the skills outlined in the model above.

Although we touch about some of the skills in the “Leader” role, I focus the contents more on the “Architect” role because there are fewer resources available. If you’re interested in this course, please get in touch and I plan on writing another blog entry detailing what we cover.

If you liked this article, you will be interested in “Talking with Tech Leads,” a book that shares real life experiences from over 35 Tech Leads around the world. Now available on Leanpub.

Booklist from the Retrospective Facilitators Gathering 2014

The Retrospective Facilitators’ Gathering is the only conference I planend on attending in 2014. Like many conferences, I end up with many books to read, and thought it’d be worth sharing the list I accumulated here:

Book Review: The Coaching Bible

I’ve had this book sitting around for a while, but I thought I should get around to reading it. The snow in London and the cold weather gives me a perfect reason to get through a little bit more reading. The Coaching Bible: The essential handbook focuses on some of the skills an effective coach requires, and introduces a few tools that a coach can use.

The Coaching Bible

The book is largely domain agnostic, although the coaching examples they use tend to be focused on a business context (i.e. not life coaching, sports coaching or agile coaching). I think that makes it quite accessible to any person interested in developing coaching skills, but aren’t necessarily looking to be a full-time coach themselves.

They introduce this “Multi-modal” coaching model made up of four different perspectives a coach can focus on:

  • Logical levels – Beliefs (why), Environment (where, when), Behaviours (what), Capability (how), Identity (who). A good point is that an effective coach considers which logical level to focus on and where their efforts might have the most impact. Doing so at the wrong logical level leads to frustration and an ineffective coaching relationship
  • Remedial versus Generative Continuum – Coaching falls along a spectrum, of whether or not it needs to be targeted at a specific instance (remedial) or outcome, or help with exploring options (generative). Once again, consider what is most appropriate for the situation.
  • Systemic Context – With a strong nod to one of my favourite books on systems thinking, The Fifth Discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization: Second edition, the idea here is that coaches are working with people who are working in a larger environment that drives their behaviour. It’s useful to step back and view this larger context, and explore it as part of the coaching conversations
  • Interpersonal-intra psychic continuum – Lastly, and the one I understood the least, is the idea of trying to not simply focus on external relationships/observations but also to think about exploring the inner beliefs and internal drivers of the coachee.

I agree with quite a number of the other chapters in the book and I think they offer quite a number of practical examples and advice on items a coach focuses on, such as “Building the Alliance” with a client (agree on how/when to meet, develop an agenda, establish goals and how to measure progress) and the importance of identifying the “Mind-Body-State” necessary for both you as a coach, and the coachee to have a healthy conversation.

One of the most useful resources for a new coach is also found in the appendix, referring to core competencies outlined by the International Coach Federation.

Reflections on Agile 2012

Another year, another agile conference. It’s time for reflecting on the conference and uncovering lessons learned. Dallas, Texas hosted this year’s Agile Conference. More accurately, the Gaylord Texan Resort in Grapevine hosted this year’s Agile Conference. Loved by many at the conference (notably less so by Europeans) the resort reminds me of the Eden Project and a weird biosphere (see picture below) that is self-contained and fully air-conditioned. Although maybe this wasn’t such a bad thing with a West Nile virus outbreak in Dallas.

Needless to say that I stepped out quite a bit to try to get some fresh, if not, refreshingly humid air.

Onto the conference. It was very well organised, very well run and even rapidly responded to feedback (such as moving rooms when demand proved too much for some of the anticipated sessions. Food came out very promptly in the different breaks. We didn’t have to queue too long and the variety was pretty good. The only breakdown was probably the Tuesday lunchtime where it wasn’t clear we had to get our own food and with a limited number of on-site restaurants in our self-enclosed bubble world, proved to be a bit of a tight squeeze in schedule.

The people at the conference seemed to be a bit of a mix. Mainly lots of consultants like myself sharing their experiences, but as one person noted, an extraordinary number of agile coaches all apparently looking for work. On the other extreme there seemed to be lots of companies adopting agile and lots of people selling tools and training to help them.

Lots of parallel tracks meant lots of choice for many people but I often found it hard to find things that worked for me. I’m less interested in “enterprise agile adoption”, and more interested in the practices pushing the boundaries, or the deep insight offered by people. The few technical sessions I went seemed to be aimed at a bit more of an introductory audience. I particularly avoided any of the “do this with scrum” or “do this with kanban” as these appeared by be pushing.

In terms of keynotes, I thought they did a great job of assembling some diverse and interesting sessions. Although Bob Sutton (No A**hole Rule author) felt like he didn’t do much preparation for his keynote from the text heavy slides that jumped at different paces, he had some good anecdotes and stories to share. My biggest takeaway from that session was thinking about taking away practices just as much as adding practices, something that I think I do implicitly but should try to do more explicitly. The other keynotes were pretty inspiring as well, with Dr. Sunita Maheshwari behind Telerad talking about her accidental experiment moving into doing remote radiology to support the night-shift need of hospitals in the US and the interesting growth of their business. The other really inspirational keynote was by Joe Justice, the guy behind the amazing Wikispeed project taking sets of agile practices and principles back into the car-making industry. I felt he really knew his stuff, and it’s amazing how you can tell someone who really understands the values and trying to live them in different ways and then translating them into a different world. Very cool stuff that you should check out.

In terms of other workshop sessions, I left half way through many of them as the ideas were either too slow, or not at all interesting (such as one on Agile Enterprise Architecture that spent 30 minutes trying to go back to the age-old debate of defining Enterprise Architecture.)

Two of my most favourite sessions was one by Linda Rising who gave a very heart-felt and personal Q&A session that left many people in tears. Her stories are always very personal, and I really admire her ability to look beyond someone’s words and really uncover the true question they are asking with a usually insightful answer as well! The other session was listening to the great work that Luke Hohmann of Innovation Games has been doing with the San Jose government to change the way they make decisions about where the money goes through the use of games and play. Very awesome stuff.

I had my session in the last possible slot on the Thursday and had a large number of well known people in competing slots such as Jeff Sutherland, Esther Derby and Diana Larsen. I’m very happy with the turn out as we had a lot of fun playing games from the Systems Thinking Playbook including a number of insightful conversations about systems thinking concepts and how they apply to our working life. One of my most favourite exercises (Harvest) that demonstrates the Tragedy of the Commons archectype played its course and we finished in just three years (iterations) only due to a constraint I added early into the game. I love this exercise for its potential for variation and the insightful conversations about how this applies to agile teams, organisations and functions.

You often can’t come away from conferences without new references, so here’s the list of books and web resources I noted down (but obviously my summary is without actually reading into it, so YMMV):

Thoughts from Øredev 2011

Keynote 1: Alexis Ohanian

The first keynote titled, “Only your mom wants to use your website” came from Alexis Ohanian, a geek who helped create Reddit, Hipmunk and a few other sites. He’s passionate about users and you can really see how that manifests itself and very appropriate for a conference with a theme of Userverse. He told the audience, “As geeks, we’re at an advantage. There are so many bad websites out there so if you focus on creating an awesome experience, it’s very easy to compete.” It just came back to treating your customers and really delighting your customers.

He uses some really great examples about how he engaged users with a couple of his websites. For example, with Reddit, there’s the mascot in the top hand corner of the page and talks about doing a 30-day animation series that really connected with dedicated reddit users who were so concerned when, during one the days, the mascot went missing and they emailed in constantly to find out where he went.

With hipmunk, he recounts the story of personally stuffing envelopes with handmand hipmunk travel stuff to send off to some of his users. For no good reason other than to surprise them. In return, people sent photos of the hipmunk in all sorts of places and travelling around. It’s the little things that really delight.

Keynote 2: Neal Ford

Neal’s a really awesome speaker and would highly recommend any technical person to watch his very strong presentations. Fortunately it looks like JFokus just published the same speech Neal gave at Øredev so you can see. The focus of his topic was really about Abstraction Distractions and is a really important key message for us technical folks. It also really relates well to this XKCD comic.

The whole premise about his talk is that users don’t really want to hear the techncial reasons why something does or doesn’t work. You have to make them undersatnd the impact of what it has. He seeds the presentations with lots of pro-tips including things like, “Don’t confuse the abstraction with the real thing” giving the example of wanting to store a recipe and concerned about how to store a recipe that will last many technologies, that even its representation isn’t quite the same thing as the recipe itself.

The ImageThink graphic facilitators had trouble keeping up with the pace that Neal speaks at. He’s definitely the sort of high energy, many idea kind of guys.

Keynote 3: Dan North

Dan is a great an entertaining speaker than everyone really enjoys. He spoke on “Embracing Uncertainty – the Hardest Pattern of All.” I guess a lot of his entertaining anecdotes and stories were really focused around our human bias for closure.

Keynote 4: Jeff Atwood

I’m glad to hear Jeff present this keynote, “Social Software for the Anti-Social Part II: Electric Boogaloo” as he handed over one of his speaking slots to an employee of his in a talk on a previous day that turned out to be a bit of a disappointment for many people. His keynote carried on from a previous talk, carrying on with lots of lessons learned, particularly about how they built Stackoverflow with game mechanics in mind.

It’ll probably be online soon, but it’s one definitely worth watching as it’s an interesting balance between democracy, openness yet some directing behaviour thrown in.

About the conference

I’m constantly impressed by the organisation and the the quality of the conference. I’m really surprised it doesn’t attract more people from Europe and what I call, a little bit of a hidden gem. It has some really wonderful speakers, great topics and the venue itself is pretty good (although there’s poor noise isolation between the different rooms). There’s plenty of interesting events in the evenings and a great place to chat to people both during and after the conference, although I think the “unofficial” Øredev pub needs to grow a bit to accomodate so many geeks.

Other talks of significance

I went to quite a number of talks but will write up some of the more interesting ones (for me).

  • Copenhagen Suborbitals – This was a bit of a surprise talk. It was very late in the day, ending almost at about 9pm or 10pm and was a guy based in Copenhagen who’s attempting to build his own spaceship to launch him into suborbital. It’s a really amazing tale and one I can appreciate for a guy who’s serious about following his passion. The talk started off quite entertainingly about how building a spaceship was a bit ambitious, so he started off by building a submarine! He’s a really engaging speaker and I don’t want to ruin too many of his good stories. I suggest going over to his blog (he’s still building his spaceship) and seeing where he is. He relies on donations to keep this project running and I love the fact it’s such an open-source project as well with people offering their advice and expertise in many different areas. He’s got lots of great lessons to share that are completely relevant to everyone.
  • Aaron Parecki on his startup story for Geoloqi – I listened to this guy talk about his startup, and similarly along the same lines at the Orbitals, he told the tale of what started off as a hobby eventually turned into a real startup opportunity and shared a lot of his lessons along the way. It’s an interesting start up that you can read more about on gizmodo here
  • Jeff Patton – Jeff had a great session introducing people to the UX stage and trying to set the stage for lots of the other speakers. Jeff has a wealth of wisdom and experience to share and what was really powerful was him sharing images and stories about the different roles and techniques people use to build useful software and integrating it into agile processes. Really powerful stuff that I think every developer should really go through.

Reflections on my talk
Titled, “Collaboration by better understanding yourself”, I presented on the idea that we have lots of in built reactions as developers that really hold us back from collaborating more effectively. My goal was for people to go away, thinking more about the things that effect them and why they don’t collaborate as much as they should. I got some great feedback and was particularly nervous because not only did I have a good number of people but I had many other presenters I really respected in attendance including Portia Tung, Doc List, Johanna Rothman, Jean Tabaka, Jim Benson and more.

Although I’d practiced, there’s a few more tweaks I would make to this, but was very happy with some of the people who came up to me throughout the conference who felt that they really connected to the topic and felt really enthused to do something about it. Exactly what I wanted. 🙂

Coaching Tool: Me We Us

Short Description: A facilitation technique (e.g. for retrospectives) or also for planning that helps the quieter people to also come up with ideas.

Original source: Facilitation training by Grape People.

Example Use:
Questions are prepared by facilitators. Three different rounds

  1. Me – Everyone writes down answers for him/herself using sticky notes
  2. We – Discussing with your neighbour and answers refined
  3. Us – Combine all issues into one big chart

Contributed from the participants of my XP2011 workshop

Coaching Tool: Circle of Questions

See Doc List’s original post.

Gets everyone involved. People understand better by explaining. It’s really about learning by teaching. Generative thinking. Works well if you go around twice. Widely applicable. Can be used for almost anything. Makes a non-talkative group more talkative.

Enforce the circle. One person at a time and use a talking stick/token. Egg timers work well for Italian and Spanish groups. The more challenge the team has to stay on time, the more rituals need to be introduced/enforced.

Contributed from the participants of my XP2011 workshop

Coaching Tool: The High Performance Tree

Short Description: A way to create a metaphor that reminds the team of the holistic view of the team

Original Source: Looks like it’s here.

Example Use:
Labelling the expected fruits, very useful when a team has the fundamentals but could be better. Used as a roadmap to move towards higher performances. Shows that many practices are rooted in values.

Doesn’t always work. Some people don’t connect to the metaphor. In that case, the technique should be dropped. Can be used in open spaces to show the value streams, etc.

Potential Variants:
Garden or orchard -> organic seems to work better than mechanic. Allows you to talk about the weeds

Contributed from the participants of my XP2011 workshop

Coaching Tool: 7 x 7 x 7

Short Description: What I’m doing in the next seven hours, next seven days, seven weeks put onto a board

Example use
Introduction of yourself as a coach, and used to articulate what the coach does in flip chart using visual information. Set up a board with three columns with the title “7 Hours”, “7 Days”, “7 Weeks” and add activities to demonstrate what you’re doing.

Contributed from the participants of my XP2011 workshop

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