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Not all developers want to be leaders — but here’s how to help the ones that do

Offer support to developers who want to grow.

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Phil Alves
Story by
Phil Alves

Founder & CEO, DevSquadPhil began his entrepreneurial journey when he was 17, starting and exiting his own SaaS business. From there he worked in senior positions in the e-commerce industry before founding DevSquad, a softw… (show all) Phil began his entrepreneurial journey when he was 17, starting and exiting his own SaaS business. From there he worked in senior positions in the e-commerce industry before founding DevSquad, a software development firm that helps entrepreneurs launch new SaaS products and growing companies plug in a ready-to-go dev team. In 12 years, he has led the build of more than 75 SaaS products.

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For some developers, building software is only a small part of their bigger professional purpose. By nature, developers grow things — they make a product come to life, work with multiple moving parts, and constantly nurture projects to their maximum potential.

They also have to regularly help teammates and negotiate deadlines with stakeholders. It’s not surprising then, that some developers discover that they prefer working with humans as well as computers.

Still, it can be difficult to know how to support developers that have expressed an interest in leading people. As research shows, 92% of people think having access to professional development is important or very important, so developers need pathways that enable them to explore, learn, and transition into leadership.

Of course, not every developer aspires to go into leadership, but for those that do, here are a few tips I’ve found work great to help them take the leap:

Provide the right opportunities

Start by giving any developers that have expressed an interest in leadership more responsibilities.

Encourage them to give detailed feedback to peers in pull requests, present project updates to the team, or undertake a mentorship role. What you’re trying to do is put them in a scenario where they can get a taste of leadership and sample what their unique style would be.

A big part of leadership is also knowing when to delegate, so developers require circumstances where they can practice. Set up task force groups for upcoming projects and be conscious to rotate the lead position among developers that want to merge into leadership.

Let them be responsible for assigning work to others and dealing with the workflows — this exercise will also be an insight into how they prioritize tasks and how that aligns with your company’s priorities. 

Another route is to internally brand certain developers as experts in a particular niche and make an effort to send team members to them for guidance on issues around that topic.

Likewise, invite developers to join meetings where business logistics and goals are discussed (meetings they normally wouldn’t be included in), so that they can better comprehend the ‘why’ behind projects.

A leader not only has to be confident in explaining concepts to others, but also grasping the purpose of processes and knowing how they fit into the larger picture.

By exposing developers to higher-level communication, they can see the strategic side of the company and integrate that as part of their journey towards leadership.

Openly communicate and collaborate

One of the biggest roadblocks for anyone hoping to move into another role is feeling like they don’t have visibility. A simple way to overcome that is to keep an open, ongoing dialogue with developers.

Have regular check-ins to ask them how they envision leadership, to let them showcase moments that week where they’ve led someone, or to share opinions about the current management style.

These instances to provide feedback will help developers realize their potential, as well as determine what it is that they like about — or want from — a leadership role.

With that in mind, communication has to take place beyond two people. A technical lead needs the necessary technical expertise, but they also have to share that knowledge.

An important component in transitioning to leadership is subsequently preparing to be redundant at times. Great leaders should be able to curate a self-sufficient team; one that isn’t bottlenecked if they’re out of office.

For this reason, developers that are hoping to be leaders need to easily cross-collaborate with others and explain complex tasks in a straightforward manner.

Try hosting weekly sessions where developers take turns to present and teach one another their daily duties; you could also host quizzes and surveys at the end to see who has shared their wisdom most effectively. 

Offer soft skills training

Developers are highly-qualified when it comes to hard skills, but leadership tends to rely heavily on soft skills like time management, emotional intelligence, and conflict resolution. In fact, 75% of long-term job success is dependent on mastering such soft skills.

For developers interested in leadership, there should be clear goals and measurements that involve assessing the development and application of soft skills; this can be done via an in-house scale with metrics tailored to the skills that need the most concentration, or you can utilize more standardized 360-degree feedback tools.

Without a doubt, soft skills need a lot of time to fully mature but with the right training, they can surface faster and more completely. Training sessions like workshops, external speakers, and virtual events can help developers acquire new soft skills, while one-on-ones, peer reviews, and standup meetings can be a chance for them to put those skills into practice.

As developers pick up these skills, you’ll likely see them self-reflect more, be able to work with a bigger variety of individuals, and more efficiently give feedback to other team members. 

Maintain the growth trajectory

Technical lead has been ranked as one of the most satisfying careers, so there’s a good possibility that more developers will pivot towards similar leadership roles in the future.

Successfully doing so will require personal effort from them but also the support of those already in the role. As part of the existing leadership team, you are responsible for paving the way for others, and supplying the education and tools to let developers advance. 

That said, development management is competitive and can certainly be demanding, so developers need to be prepared for the road ahead. While it’s essential to motivate your engineers in their career development, they also need test environments to check that they are appropriate for the change, and that their expectations match with the vision of leadership in your company.

It’s a delicate balance between welcoming people’s unique talents and confirming that they are adaptable enough to lead well.

Tech leads aren’t created overnight, but with the right opportunities, communication and collaboration, and a focus on soft skills, you’ll have the optimal conditions for more leaders to grow healthily and happily.

Published January 25, 2021 — 09:30 UTC