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Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Growing New Leaders: A Modest Proposal

I've often thought that the startup industry has a leadership problem. It has a leadership problem thanks to its virtues: small companies, agile processes, minimum viable products. The dirty, tiring work of people leadership is often at odds with the hustle of startup life. And yet we as an industry need to make space for that work, because we're starving for leaders and hurting our companies due to this lack of leadership.

Part of the problem is the myth of the natural leader. We'll promote from within, just take the smartest engineer that is able to communicate adequately and make them team lead. But there is very little that is natural about team management. Management is more than just being articulate in meetings and giving a good presentation now and again. It's learning how to communicate with stakeholders in their language. It's figuring out how to resolve conflicts between personalities on your team, even when one of the personalities is your own. It's the detail work of project planning for two people over the next month and twenty people over the next year. Heck, people go to business school and spend a good chunk of time studying these issues. We often disparage the MBA, but we do very little to replicate that skill channel in our own industry.

How does one end up with these abilities? Well, some read books and try to muddle their way through, with varying degrees of success. An ambitious person might reach out to external parties for help, people they know have been there and can provide advice. But both of these channels pale in comparison to learning leadership in an apprenticeship model. I know because I myself have tried books and advisers, but in the end I've learned most of my leadership skills thanks to hours of one-on-one time with current and former bosses, walking through presentations and plans, discussing personnel issues, perfecting pitches. I'm still learning and growing these skills, having moved from mentoring one or two people, to managing a small team, to working as a director of engineering and technical architect for a growing company. And now it is time for me to grow my own leaders. I've written before about the importance of training your replacement, I wish that as an industry we would all take this step seriously.

Here's my proposal. Let's stop promoting people to the role of senior engineer who have never had the experience of hands-on direction of people and projects. If someone has five to ten years of experience writing software in teams, and they have never had the responsibility of mentoring junior developers in a meaningful way, they are lacking something in their skill set. Let's give them the tools they need to be successful as leaders, taking time from the hustle to teach planning, managing, communicating across teams. This experience might just be a short stopover from individual contributor position to more senior individual contributor position, but it's a necessary part of that career path. If we could get a standard across our industry that everyone that was called senior developer had this experience in mentoring and management, we would have something to work on. It would be very unlikely for a company of 20 people to have no one with prior leadership experience. We could successfully grow our leaders from within knowing that we have a small core of people that has already learned the fundamentals of management.

This training isn't free. It will cost us time that we might think should be spent towards the hustle of delivering. But we know that software is humans, and we know that the payoff for delivering is bigger teams, bigger companies, and more responsibilities to manage. If the title of senior engineer recognizes that you can deliver, it should also recognize that you can handle what happens when you do.


  1. I once led a small team of 4-5 people and was looking for my successor. There were two candidates in that team - both technically very good. The one, who eventually took over my role spectacularly, had little prior leadership experience; the other, who had actually led larger teams, never stepped up. Life is mysterious.

  2. AGREE with you 110% and I don't really know what to do with that. I really think there need to be more resources for current, aspiring, and soon-to-be-promoted-even-though-they-probably-shouldn't be engineers out there. I keep leaning on people I know to help me put together a solid one-sheet or wiki or something with this sort of info. So far, no dice.


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