The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Tech Leadership (Page 3 of 5)

Book Review: Difficult Conversations

Conflict, negotiation and difficult conversations are hard, but there are plenty of good books help. I often recommend Crucial Confrontations, Getting to Yes and Getting Past No. Someone recommended Difficult Conversations, a book that I recently finished reading.

Difficult Conversations

Difficult Conversations

Where the other books I read tended to take a more mechanistic view of steering the conversation, I really appreciated the slightly different take with this book, which I felt more humanistic because it acknowledged the emotional side to difficult conversations. The authors suggest that when we have a difficult conversation, we experience three simultaneous conversations:

  1. The “What Happened” Conversation
  2. The Feelings Conversation
  3. The Identity Conversation

The “What Happened” Conversation

We often assume we know what happened, because we know what we know (Our Story). The authors (rightly) point out, that our story may be completely different from the other person (Their Story). A good practical tip is to focus on building the Third Story as a way of building a shared awareness and appreciation of other data that may make a difference to the conversation

The Feelings Conversation

As much as we like to think we are logical, we are highly emotional and biased people. It’s what makes us human. We manifest this by saying things based on how we are feeling. Sometimes we don’t even know this is happening. The book helps us understand and gives us strategies for uncovering the feelings that we may be experiencing during the conversation. They also suggest building empathy with the other person by walking through the Feelings Conversation the other person will be having as well.

The Identity Conversation

I think this was the first time that I had thought about when we struggle to communicate, or agree on something, we may be doing so because have difficulty accepting something we may not like, or something that threatens our identity. This is what the authors call out as the Identity Conversation and is a natural part of successfully navigating a difficult conversation.

Conclusion

I found Difficult Conversations a really enjoyable read that added a few new perspectives to my toolkit. I appreciate their practical advice such as stepping through each of the three conversations from both your and the other person’s perspective and avoiding speaking in different modes. I like the fact that they address the emotional side to difficult conversations and give concrete ways of understanding and coping with them, instead of ignoring them or pushing them aside.

Talking with Tech Leads now available in print

Late last year, I announced the release of “Talking with Tech Leads,” which was then available in a variety of e-book formats including PDF, mobi and epub. Although e-books have their place, I know how important it is for some people, to have a real physical book. After all, it’s very difficult to physically gift something to people, when it’s on a tablet, or computer.

Stack of books from Talking with Tech Leads

After some more work on the physical aspects of the book and many draft copies back and forth from the, you can now order your very physical copy of Talking with Tech Leads. You can order copies depending on region including:

What people are saying about the book:

Your book has really helped me find my feet – James

This book is a well-curated collection of interviews with developers who have found themselves in the role of a tech lead, both first-timers and veterans – Dennis

The book is well-organised around a number of themes and I found it very easy to read and to ‘dip into’ for some inspiration / ideas. – Gary

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.

TechLeadCircles

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.

Book Review: Software Architecture for Developers

Simon Brown’s book, Software Architecture for Developers has been on my reading list for some time. I am aware of Brown’s talks that he gives at conferences, and his very good workshop on describing how to draw more effective diagrams as a communication mechanism for developers to other groups, but I wasn’t quite sure what his book was going to cover.

Software Architecture for Developers

This weekend, whilst travelling, I had a bit of airport time to do some reading to plough through his book.

What I enjoyed about the book
Architecture is a touchy subject, and Brown doesn’t have any problems raising this as a contentious topic, particularly in the agile community where it doesn’t have an explicit practice. Some XP books explain the role, but mantras like “Big Design Up Front” and “Last Responsible Moment” are often (wrongly) interpreted as “do no architecture.” What I liked about Brown’s approach is his recognition of the Goldilocks approach – not too little and not too much where he provides both points of view and some concrete practices.

Brown covers important topics like quality attributes (Cross Functional Requirements), what the role of an Architect is (and that it is just a role, not necessarily a person). I am biased in the opinion but I enjoyed Brown’s perspective about whether or not architects should code, and it aligns well with my own point of view that for a Tech Lead (or Architect) to make effective decisions, they need to have empathy and understand (live, breath and sometime burn for) the decisions they make.

I appreciated the way that Brown puts “Constraints” and “Principles” as key factors that aren’t necessarily represented in the codebase and are unlikely to be easily discoverable for new people. Both are things that I have done when leading software teams and are things I would repeat because I find it helps people navigate and contribute to the codebase.

What I found slightly strange about the book

I believe the book is really strong but there were a few sections that seemed slightly out of place, or not yet completely finished. One was around the “Sharepoint projects needs architecture too”, which I don’t necessarily disagree with but could easily be extended to “Any software product extended to build an application needs architecture too” (cue s/Sharepoint/CMS/g or other examples).

Conclusion

Software Architecture for Developers is a very accessible, relevant and useful book that I do not have any problems recommending for people looking at how to effectively implement Software Architecture in today’s environment.

Thoughts on OOP2015

I spent the first half of last week in Munich, where I was speaking at OOP Conference 2015. I missed last year when Martin Fowler was a keynote but had presented both in 2013 and 2012.

The conference still seems to attract more seasoned people like architects and decision makers and I am still constantly surprised at the number of suits I see for a technical conference – I do not know if that is more of a German culture difference as well. I felt like there were significantly more German-speaking sessions than English ones, and I sat in a number of them when I expanded my vocabulary.

I was only there for three of the five days of the conference, and was lucky enough to be invited and attend a special dinner on Monday evening where Dr Reinhold Ewald (a former German astronaut) gave a presentation about what it was like being an astronaut, what they do in space and some of the interesting challenges.

I saw a number of the keynotes and talks which I’ll briefly summarise here:

  • Challenges and Opportunities for the Internet of Things (IoT) by Dr Annabel Nickels – A relatively introductory session on what the Internet of Things actually means. The talk explained the IoT well, why it’s not possible and what people are experimenting with. It was clear that security and privacy aspects had not advanced and that there was still a lot of work to go, as there were lots of questions from the audience, but no clear answers in this space – more “it’s something we’re looking into”-sort of answers
  • Coding Culture by Sven Peters – Sven is an entertaining, engaging and obviously well-practiced presenter who knows how to engage with the audience with pictures and stories. His talk focused on coding culture – but more particularly the coding culture of Atlassian, the company Sven works for. An entertaining talk about how they work inside the company, but was not particularly surprising for me since I know already a lot about that company.
  • Aktives Warten für Architekten by Stefan Toth (Actively Waiting for Architecture) – A nice introduction to the Last Responsible Moment or what is more popular in the Agile community these days, Real Options.
  • Ökonomie und Architektur als effektives Duo by Gernot Starke, Michael Mahlberg (Economics and Architecture as an effective pair) – From my understanding, the talk focused on bringing the idea of calculating ROI on an architectural front. The pair spent a lot of ideas introducing financial terms and then a number of spreadsheets with a lot of numbers. Although well-intentioned, I wasn’t sure about the “calculations” they made since a lot of it was based on estimates of “man-days” needed and “man-days” spent/saved – it all looks very good when calculated out, but they didn’t really spent much time eliciting how they get estimates. They spent a lot of time introducing Aim42 which I wasn’t familiar but will now look into.

I ran two talks that had both good attendance and great feedback (like the one below):

OOP2015 - Best Talk

The fist was “The Geek’s Guide to Leading Teams” where I focused on exploring the responsibilities and remits of what a Tech Lead does and how it’s quite different from being a developer.

The second was “Architecting for Continuous Delivery” which focused on the principles and considerations for when people build systems with Continuous Delivery in mind.

I had a great time visiting the conference and had an interesting time expanding my German vocabulary as I tried to explain what I and what my company do in German – something I didn’t really do a lot of when I was living in Berlin.

A Tech Lead Paradox: Technical Needs vs Business Needs

Agile Manifesto signatory Jim Highsmith talks about riding paradoxes in his approach to Adaptive Leadership.

A leader will find themselves choosing between two solutions or two situations that compete against each other. A leader successfully “rides the paradox” when they adopt an “AND” mindset, instead of an “OR” mindset. Instead of choosing one solution over another, they find a way to satisfy both situations, even though they contradict one another.

A common Tech Lead paradox is the case of Technical Needs versus Business Needs.

The case for Technical Needs

Before cloud services were available on the Internet, most companies would invest in hardware to run their services. The work to setup and configure machines was easier for non-technical stakeholders to see because of its physical aspect. Today software requires even more software and non-physical services that need configuring, testing and releasing. Much more of it is virtual.

Practices such as Continuous Delivery do not come without some overhead, although it provides an invaluable business capability. All of these “internally-facing” technical requirements demand time from the software delivery team.

The case for Business Needs

A lot of software is written for businesses, whose overall goal is to make money. A business that does not evolve their business offerings will lose out to competitors or to the ever-changing consumer marketplace. This means a business wants to always experiment with their existing services, or provide new services to keep their existing customer base, or to attract new customers.

This pressure to modify, or introduce new services demand either software support, or new software to be developed.

The conflict

A business will always put pressure on a development team to produce as much software as possible. At the same time, effective delivery of software is not possible without addressing some level of technical needs – such as technical debt, deployment pipelines, or automated test suites.

Time spent on technical needs is expected to improve developer effectiveness, but this is often hard to measure and prove to outside stakeholders. An endless amount of time can always be spent tweaking, optimising and improving technical infrastructure and tools. What starts off as “just an afternoon” turns into a week, or a month and business features are put on hold as a result. If this happens too long, the business might miss agreed external deadlines for certain features and thus lose customers, or money.

What does a Tech Lead do?

Champion time for Technical Needs

A Tech Lead champions for time to spend on Technical Needs by being part of the prioritisation process. They ensure that enough work is delivered, or finds solutions to business problems that minimise the amount of software that needs writing. They ensure the team is not over-loaded with delivering new features and changes and finds small slices to work on technical needs that will provide a good benefit.

Explain the business benefit of each Technical Need

A team can spend an endless amount of time investigating, configuring and supporting their technical infrastructure. A Tech Lead will have support from non-technical stakeholders if they understand what benefits they bring. The successful Tech Lead can explain not just what the team is working on, but also why and who else benefits.

Some typical business benefits include: reducing the amount of repetitive work, improving the quality (by minimising the chance of human error), or to prove out a business opportunity.

The Tech Lead builds trust with non-technical people by highlighting benefits on Technical Needs and also demonstrating if they reach those benefits.

Work on high impact items first

A list of Technical Needs will often be endless, so a Tech Lead will work to prioritise the list, culling items that no longer make sense, or pulling work items forward that may have an immediate and significant effect.

Keep a balance

The Tech Lead is mindful that the team cannot work on Technical Needs alone, and watches to ensure a good balance is met.

Maximise the use of “quiet” periods

Sometimes a development team will outpace the ability for a business to prioritise, “What’s next?” You might recognise these periods when a Product Owner has met all their objectives, or they are working on clarifying the next set. The Tech Lead uses these “quiet periods” as an opportunity for their development team to work on infrastructure, or tasks that have always been deprioritised.

These are often good periods for a team to run a “Hack Day” or for the team to work on small ideas they have had themselves that provide a good benefit.

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.

Why you want to give up coding

A background story

A friend of mine worked as a Tech Lead, let’s call them Jo (not their real name) for most of their career. A few years ago, Jo moved into a management role that involved very little coding. They were no longer working full-time as a developer and they stopped playing a Tech Lead role. Jo now leads an organisation with six or seven large development groups.

In the definition of a Tech Lead, I suggested a Tech Lead should write code a minimum of 30% of their time. Jo managed to find some time writing code, but it was inconsistent – about an hour a week. In a 40-hour week, that is less than 3%. Jo missed writing code. Jo was no longer a developer and Jo was no Tech Lead.

What do you control? What do you influence?

Every role comes with a set of responsibilities, and the authority to fulfil those responsibilities. This authority gives you a certain amount of control.

For example, a developer has control over the code and tests that they design and write. Others may have influence over the code. Examples of influencing factors include architectural or product and/or platform constraints, team code standards and code reviews. Ultimately the developer has control over their own code.

Every company has a certain organisational design. Developers (and other employees) work within this structure. The organisational design impacts on how effective software delivery is. Rigidly hierarchical structures with completely different departments (e.g. developers and testers) have difficulty collaborating. An ineffective organisational design is a sore point for many developers because it makes delivering software much harder.

A developer has zero control over organisational design. They might be able to influence it, but it is ultimately controlled by managers. Some developers may try to change this, but most complain. I have heard this from developers in the past:

Who’s brilliant idea was to setup a development [team] like this?

Who's great idea was this?
Another example.

I can’t get anything done because I rely on those people to get something done and they sit on another floor.

Developers can complain, which is an ineffective style of influencing, although there are many more effective ways. In the book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the author, Robert Cialdini outlines six key influencing strategies: Reciprocity, Commitment (and Consistency), Social Proof, Liking (a variant of the Halo Effect), Authority, and Scarcity.

Developers only influence their working environment. They do not control it. Note: An exception is, of course, when a company is small enough that the developer also takes on general organisational management responsibilities (e.g. in a startup)

Trading control for influence

Influence for control

Jo, who moved from being a developer to a Tech Lead, and again from a Tech Lead to a general manager shared an interesting insight with me.

You know those things I used to complain about as a developer? Well, now I have the ability to change them.

Programmers see the “non-technical” path as a path with nothing to offer. When programmers step into a leadership role, they inherit both responsibilities and the authority to control more of their work environment. A developer works within these constraints. A Tech Lead has more authority to change those constraints, and a manager even more authority to control and change those constraints.

How does this impact developers who become Tech Leads?

When developers give up their control in trade of influence, their sphere of influence grows. Instead of developing a single feature, they can guide the entire technical solution. The Tech Lead’s influence also grows between the technical and the business side. A Tech Lead has much more influence over how technology can be used to solve business problems, while developers are engaged too late.

I would suggest to Tech Leads never to give up all coding. Instead, it is trading more of the time you would spend crafting code, in exchange for a wider sphere of influence. The wider sphere of influence helps not just you, but also your team write better code in a better work environment.

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. The featured image from this post is taken from Flickr under the Creative Commons licence

A Tech Lead Paradox: Delivering vs Learning

Agile Manifesto signatory Jim Highsmith talks about riding paradoxes in his approach to Adaptive Leadership.

A leader will find themselves choosing between two solutions or two situations that compete against each other. A leader successfully “rides the paradox” when they adopt an “AND” mindset, instead of an “OR” mindset. Instead of choosing one solution over another, they find a way to satisfy both situations, even though they contradict one another.

A common Tech Lead paradox is the case of Delivering versus Learning.

The case for delivering

In the commercial of software development, there will always be pressure to deliver software that satisfy user needs. Without paying customers, companies cannot pay their employees. The more software meets user needs, the more a company earns, and the more the company can invest in itself.

Business people will always be asking for more software changes as there is no way of knowing if certain features really do meet user needs. Business people do not understand (and cannot be expected to fully understand) what technical infrastructure is needed to deliver features faster or more effectively. As such, they will always put pressure on to deliver software faster.

From a purely money-making point of view, it is easy to interpret delivering software as the way of generating more earnings.

The case for learning

Software is inherently complex. Technology constantly changes. The problem domain shifts as competitors release new offerings and customer needs change in response and evolve through constant usage. People, who have certain skills, leave a company and new people, who have different skills, join. Finding the right balance of skills to match the current set of problems is a constant challenge.

From a technologist’s point of view, learning about different technologies can help solve problems better. Learning about completely different technologies opens up new opportunities that may lead to new product offerings. But learning takes time.

The conflict

For developers to do their job most effectively, they need time to learn new technologies, and to improve their own skills. At the same time, if they spend too much time learning, they cannot deliver enough to help a company to reach their goals, and the company may not earn enough money to compensate their employees and in turn, developers.

Encouraging learning at the cost of delivering also potentially leads to technology for technology’s sake – where developers use technology to deliver something. But what they deliver may not solve user needs, and the whole company suffers as a result.

What does a Tech Lead do?

A Tech Lead needs to keep a constant balance between finding time to learn, and delivering the right thing effectively. It will often be easier for a Tech Lead to succumb to the pressure of delivering over learning. Below is advice for how you can keep a better balance between the two.

Champion for some time to learn

Google made famous their 20% time for developers. Although not consistently implemented across the entire organisation, the idea has been adopted by several other companies to give developers some creative freedom. 20% is not the only way. Hack days, like Atlassian’s ShipIt days (renamed from FedEx days) also set aside some explicit, focused time to allow developers to learn and play.

Champion learning that addresses user needs

Internally run Hack Days encourage developers to unleash their own ideas on user needs, where they get to apply their own creativity, and often learn something in the process. They often get to play with technologies and tools they do not use during their normal week, but the outcome is often focused on a “user need” basis, with more business investment (i.e. time) going towards a solution that makes business sense – and not just technology for the sake of technology.

Capture lessons learned

In large development teams, the same lesson could be learned by different people at different times. This often means duplicated effort that could have been spent learning different or new things. A Tech Lead can encourage team members to share what they have learned with other team members to spread the lessons.

Some possibilities I have experienced include:

  • Running regular learning “show-and-tell” sessions – Where team members run a series of lightning talks or code walkthroughs around problems recently encountered and how they went about solving it.
  • Update a FAQ page on a wiki – Allows team members to share “how to do common tasks” that are applicable in their own environment.
  • Share bookmark lists – Teams create a list of links that interesting reads based on problems they have encountered.

Encourage co-teaching and co-learning

A Tech Lead can demonstrate their support for a learning environment but encouraging everyone to be a student and a teacher at the same time. Most team members will have different interests and strengths, and a Tech Lead can encourage members to share what they have. Encouraging team members to run brown bag sessions on topics that enthuse them encourage an atmosphere of sharing.

Weekly reading list

I know of a few Tech Leads who send a weekly email with interesting reading links to a wide variety of technology-related topics. Although they do not expect everyone to read every link, each one is hopeful that one of those links will be read by someone on their team.

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.

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