How to become a tech leader: 7 secrets to develop your leadership skills
01 July 2021 • 7 min read
The pace of change in the technology industry is talked about a lot. But all too often we assume that this change is a natural, normal thing that just happens. It doesn’t of course - change has to be driven by people. But, more importantly, it only happens when people are open and proactive about sharing their ideas and experiences.
The people who do this are tech leaders. And while talent, experience and knowledge are vital parts of being a great tech leader, they’re only a small part of the picture. To become a tech leader you need to think beyond your milieu and engage people you might not ordinarily expect to.
In this post I’ll explore the concept of a ‘tech leader’ in a bit more depth and share what I think are 7 secrets that define tech leadership. Whether you’re ambitious and new to the industry, or someone experienced trying to think about how they can make an even bigger impact in their field, this post will help you to focus on the things that matter so you can leave a meaningful mark on a dynamic and competitive industry.
What does being a good ‘tech leader’ actually mean?
As with many topics in the IT industry, tech leadership defies an absolute definition. Although we often can’t pin down quality, we’ll definitely feel the absence of it.
The great writer, optimist, and thinker Simon Sinek hypothesised that there are two types of games out there: finite and infinite.
The finite game is a bit like chess. Yes, it's a complex game, but it nevertheless still has set rules, set players, set environment, and a fixed end.
But the tech industry - and, indeed, real life - aren’t like that. Instead, they’re what Sinek calls an infinite game. This is an endless playing field where players can dip in and out, and, most importantly, where the rules can and do change at any moment. As much as we sometimes like to think there are, there are no winning conditions; success is ultimately subjective.
Good tech leadership recognises this fact, and good tech leaders are able and willing to change, improve, and evolve - after all, the
nature of the infinite game is that it is continuously moving.
This isn’t to say that a tech leader is someone willing to trample on others to get their voice heard and to achieve their own (likely vain) form of success. Sometimes, the very best tech leaders aren’t those that push themselves forward at the expense of others, but instead work in and with the communities to push innovation, growth and sustainability forward.
As you’ll see in my list of secrets, at the core of tech leadership lies openness and curiosity. Ultimately developing these skills aren’t only good for you and your career, they’re also what the industry needs to thrive and evolve in the years to come.
7 secrets to becoming a tech leader
1. Tech leaders open-source their thoughts
It’s always tempting to think our knowledge and experience are hard won - and maybe they are! But you shouldn’t hoard them like a dragon sitting on a pile of gold.
The sad truth is you aren’t that special. The tech community is massive, with around 26 million developers in the world (and counting). Rather than being precious, it’s vital, as a tech leader, to be an active part of this community. Indeed, not only does open-sourcing your thoughts support and help others, it can also invite input and advice that will allow you to grow and develop your own skills.
If that all sounds a little intangible, just think about the events, workshops, and round tables taking place in every tiny corner of the industry. To get the most out of these interactions, be confident in your contributions but remain humble and open.
2. Big up your buddies
For many modern digital organisations, no tech delivery means no business. Yet, bizarrely, some organisations merely tolerate techies. Of course it’s an absurd view, but a good tech leader takes responsibility for this state of affairs: it’s vital that you help your organisation understand the value of its tech talent as a first-class citizen. If you don’t, who else will?
To achieve this, you should frame technology as a driver of real value - to both the business and its customers. It can then be viewed as an area to genuinely invest in, both from a people and innovation point of view.
3. Be an information channel
Hierarchies - vertical structures - are outdated and often judgmental. But flat structures have their own challenges too, and can, for example, struggle to scale. As a tech leader it’s your job to reckon with this challenge. One of the ways you can do this is by helping the flow of information around your organisation.
This effectively turns a flat structure (which is often ‘flat’ in multiple senses of the word...) into one that’s horizontally dynamic. In this type of organization information flows like an irrigation system between departments and on a peer-to-peer basis, with no concept of hierarchy. This ultimately helps organizations to evolve and grow, with the information flow acting as the foundation for intelligent decision making and change.
Aside from the benefits to a given business, it’s also a much nicer way of working. A horizontal interaction might be "thank you for that work; it’s been really valuable for me." Notice how the language refrains from passing judgement on its specific quality and instead underlines how the recipient has benefitted from it.
Of course, this means giving up your notion of being somebody’s “boss”, but I’m sure your ego will recover eventually.
4. Diversity and inclusion matter
Tech has a long-standing diversity issue, which is improving, but far too slowly. As a tech leader, you should be championing this matter in your teams, in your hiring and in your community engagement
All kinds of minds give you a better chance of finding novel solutions to difficult problems. This also places you in a better position to design the best possible products and services for customers and users.
Many companies are replacing the notion of ‘culture fit’ with ‘culture add’ to promote diversity. Such an approach values difference and the productive possibilities it can bring, rather than the apparent efficiency of sameness.
This is how we think at AND - and we firmly believe other companies should do the same.
5. Be the blame sponge
If you want to lead well, you sometimes need to protect and serve your team and act as a ‘blame sponge’, so that blame doesn’t “roll downhill”. This isn’t easy, but it will help you build morale and trust in your team.This also means avoiding claiming the credit for work on behalf of others, no matter how good it might feel. Once that trust is broken, it may never be repaired.
Promoting a psychologically safe environment will encourage your team to take risks and innovate in the long term, knowing that you’re there protecting them. A psychologically safe team will enthusiastically engage in tech experiments, knowing that failure is an opportunity to learn.
6. Keep your tech skills fresh
From courses to events, there are plenty of ways to stay ahead of the game. Accelerators, for example, are one way to find out about the latest industry trends and showcase your own ideas. Modern e-learning platforms also allow you to upskill in bite-sized pieces.
Aside from more focused learning, reading, listening to podcasts, and watching videos can help you stay on top of what’s important. It also gives you a sense of perspective so when you do want to dive deeper into a topic you can be more intentional about it.
One thing to consider is ensuring you get your hands dirty with delivery from time to time. Knocking the ring-rust off is easier for many people when you’re actually “doing” for a while. It doesn’t mean you have to stay in a delivery mindset for an extended period, but it’s good to remind yourself of what it’s like in the trenches.
7. Combine focus with self-reflection
Work out where you want to go in your career, based on your personal values and “just cause”. Once you have a clear vision based on those values, it’s easier to retain the energy required to push things forward. Similarly, it’s clear to others when you’re driven by an honest reflection of what matters to you. That can inspire and drive others, and is ultimately critical in helping to foster a positive and forward-thinking culture. (If that isn’t precisely the job of a tech leader, then what is?)
This combination is something we’ve built into AND’s organisational structure. Our club model, in which regional hubs support local clients, ensures that we can provide exceptional support to clients, while also having the ambition and diversity of a large consultancy. This is great for clients, but it’s also great for anyone that wants to develop their tech leadership skills; it ensures that great ideas are always rooted in the needs of people and communities close to us.
Looking for your next move in tech? We have great roles available for promising talent. Find out more here.