Becoming an engineering leader

It's common for first-time engineering managers to assume "player/coach" roles. They're doing all the activities of individual contributors, including writing code. But they're being evaluated as leaders.

This transition is a tough one. Despite continuing to do all the things that individual contributors do, player/coaches need to master a new set of activities. And they have to adjust to being evaluated on their team's performance and not just their own. It's tough to know when you're ready for the transition and it's tough to know when you're succeeding.

An indicator of success is whether people are choosing to follow you. Leaders are people with followers (credit to Joseph Ansanelli for expressing that simple definition to everyone at Vontu).

Getting followers requires putting your team above yourself. You need to ask yourself, "Why should somebody follow me?" Do you have a vision of success? Can you articulate it in a way that inspires others? Do teammates believe that you elicit their best thinking and best work? Do you help them get better at what they do? Do you help them feel proud about what they accomplish?

I think that some people are intuitively good at getting people to follow them. I'm not. I've found that I need to invest a ton of time and to think very carefully through those questions. That effort is entirely invisible to others and so it's sometimes hard to realize that it ever happened.

Followers are different from admirers. As a high performing individual contributor, you can rack up admirers for working quickly or for making good decisions. That's certainly evidence of high ability and good judgment, but it's not sufficient to attract followers.

When you commit to putting the team before yourself, you'll find that you acquire followers. And when you focus on your team's impact before your own, you'll get great results.