Staying an expert or becoming a leader?

Talented engineers often face a crossroads in their careers: should they continue honing their technical skills as individual contributors, or should they step into leadership roles and guide teams? This decision isn’t simply a matter of personal preference, but rather requires a deep evaluation of one’s strengths and career aspirations.

Powerful questions to ask here include:

  • Can you effectively lead through others? Leading through others requires a unique set of skills, including the ability to inspire, motivate, and develop talent within a team. It requires creating a vision that others buy into and crafting an environment in which collaboration thrives.
  • Are you better suited as a brilliant engineer? Some engineers excel as individual contributors due to their technical prowess and deep expertise. Their contributions often involve developing sophisticated algorithms, creating robust systems, or solving complex problems that require intense focus and specialization.
  • Do you prefer managing people or focusing on your technical expertise? Managing people entails dealing with interpersonal dynamics, administrative tasks, and the responsibility of team outcomes. In contrast, focusing on technical expertise requires individuals stay abreast of the latest advancements in tech, continuously improving one’s skills, and contributing to projects at a high level of detail.

These questions highlight the fundamental trade-offs between staying on the technical path versus moving into management. Both paths offer unique rewards and challenges, and the right choice depends on individual strengths, career goals, and personal satisfaction.

Defining success metrics for engineers and leaders

Quantifying effectiveness varies greatly between individual contributors and leaders. Each role has distinct metrics that reflect their contributions and success.

How do individual contributors shine?

For individual contributors, effectiveness is often measured through concrete, technical achievements:

  • Algorithmic efficiency: Engineers might be evaluated based on the efficiency and performance of the algorithms they develop. This includes factors like speed, accuracy, and resource usage.
  • Robustness of systems and platforms: Another key measure is the reliability and scalability of the systems and platforms they build – including making sure that systems can handle high loads, are secure from vulnerabilities, and maintain uptime.

These metrics provide clear, objective measures of an engineer’s technical contributions, that should be reviewed regularly and fine-tuned to the specifics of the projects on which they’re working.

Success metrics for leaders

For leaders, effectiveness is measured in more subjective terms, often revolving around their ability to inspire and retain their teams:

  • Followership as a measure: One useful metric is followership, which can be defined by the number of people who would choose to follow a leader if they switched teams, organizations, or companies. This captures the leader’s influence, trustworthiness, and the loyalty they inspire within their team.
  • Subjective measures: Leadership effectiveness also involves evaluating a leader’s ability to foster a positive work environment, promote team cohesion, and drive the team towards achieving strategic goals. These factors, while more subjective, are powerful measures in determining a leader’s overall impact on the people and projects with which they interact.

Focusing on followership and other qualitative aspects helps organizations to build a more comprehensive view of a leader’s competency and effectiveness, beyond traditional performance metrics.

Great leadership is more than managing tasks; it’s about inspiring people and fostering a culture of trust and loyalty.

Rethinking what effective leadership looks like

Why followership defines leadership

“Nine Lies About Work,” a thought-provoking book, challenges conventional wisdom by suggesting that universally definable and measurable leadership is a myth.

Instead, the authors propose followership as the true measure of leadership effectiveness. This concept focuses on how many team members would choose to follow their leader if they moved to a different team, organization, or company.

This idea shifts the focus from traditional metrics like performance reviews and goal attainment to a more relational and loyalty-based measure of leadership success.

Leadership, according to the book, is not a singular trait or capability but a composite of various skills and attributes that resonate differently with different people. Emphasizing followership, the book highlights the importance of trust, inspiration, and the ability to create a compelling vision that others want to be a part of.

This resonates with the real-world complexity of leadership, where influence and the ability to galvanize a team can often outweigh technical skills or managerial efficiency.

Traits of top engineering managers – Lessons from Microsoft

What makes a great engineering manager?

The study by Microsoft shares insights into the key attributes of effective engineering managers, highlighting a shift in how leadership is perceived in the technical world.

The study identifies fostering a positive work environment, enabling autonomy, and nurturing talent as key factors. Effective managers, according to the study, focus less on their technical expertise and more on creating a cohesive, supportive, and psychologically safe team environment.

  • Fostering a positive work environment: Effective engineering managers prioritize creating an atmosphere where team members feel valued, respected, and motivated. Achievements must be recognized, open communication be encouraged, and a culture of collaboration be crafted at all levels within the organization.
  • Enabling autonomy: Empowering team members to take ownership of their work is key. Managers who enable autonomy trust their team to make decisions and solve problems independently, which boosts morale and drives innovation.
  • Nurturing talent: Effective managers invest in the growth and development of their team members. Savvy managers provide opportunities for skill development, offer constructive feedback, and genuinely support career progression.

The study suggests de-emphasizing technical expertise, focusing instead on qualities that promote team cohesion, psychological safety, and personal growth. This aligns with the growing recognition that soft skills are as important – if not more so – than technical skills in leadership roles.

Challenging technical leadership norms and expectations

What Microsoft missed: The real role of technical skills

Despite the valuable insights from Microsoft’s study, some reservations linger about de-emphasizing technical leadership.

Effective leadership in technical domains often correlates with technical acumen.

While fostering a positive environment and nurturing talent are essential, having a deep understanding of the technical aspects remains a priority for credibility and informed decision-making.

Redefining ‘technical’ prowess to include the capacity to engage in multiple “languages of abstraction” gives us a more nuanced view:

  • Engaging in multiple “Languages of Abstraction”: Exceptional leaders communicate across various intellectual levels, including scientific, mathematical, and logical domains. They’re able to connect with team members on multiple fronts, building up a deeper appreciation for their technical capabilities.
  • Scientific engagement with data and empirical evidence: Leaders with a strong grasp of scientific principles can critically analyze data and evidence, driving more informed and accurate decisions.
  • Mathematical precision in arguments: Mathematical skills help leaders make precise, well-founded arguments, bolstering their credibility and real world effectiveness.
  • Logical construction of arguments: Logical reasoning empowers leaders to construct cogent arguments and solutions, reinforcing their ability to lead complex technical projects and maintain clarity under growing pressure and complexity.

Combining technical fluency with vision, empathy, and adaptability gives leaders the ‘tools’ they need to create an environment where team members feel both inspired and understood. Technical expertise should not be sidelined. Instead, it should be deeply integrated with broader leadership skills, fostering both innovation and cohesion within teams.

4 keys to blending tech fluency and vision for massive success

Effective leadership in tech requires a unique blend of skills that go beyond traditional management. Leaders in these fields must possess technical fluency, vision, empathy, and adaptability.

Synthesis of these abilities forms a space in which team members feel inspired and supported, even with more technical issues (which would otherwise cause a divide between management and their teams.

1. Technical fluency

Technical leaders need a deep understanding of the technology they oversee. They’re able to make informed decisions, provide valuable insights, and build and maintain credibility with their teams.

Whether discussing system architecture, debugging complex issues, or evaluating new technologies, technical fluency is the foundation on which long-term success is built.

2. Vision

Leaders must articulate a clear, compelling vision for the future. A strong and clear vision guides strategic decisions, aligns team efforts, and motivates employees to strive towards common goals.

Visionary leaders can foresee industry trends, adapt to changes, and steer their teams in the right direction.

3. Empathy

Understanding and addressing the emotional and professional needs of team members is a priority. Empathetic leaders build strong relationships, craft a supportive work environment, and increase employee satisfaction and retention.

Empathy helps leaders to recognize individual strengths and weaknesses, facilitating more effective team management.

4. Adaptability

The rapidly changing tech world requires leaders to be flexible and responsive. Adaptable leaders can pivot strategies, embrace new methodologies, and navigate unforeseen challenges with expertise, clarity, and consistency. Adaptability makes sure that the team are consistently resilient and fiercely competitive.

Creating an environment where people are eager to follow requires connecting with teams on multiple intellectual levels.

Tim Boesen

June 20, 2024

7 Min