When I first started talking about a need for developing and maturing technical leadership in 2006, I realized that there is no common understanding of the term “technical leader” and hence “technical leadership”. I have written about 4 different connotations of this term in an earlier post: What is technical leadership? In this article, I am presenting my current view of what the defining characteristics of a technical leader are. I don’t claim that this is the ultimate view. However, with my experience of talking to more than 300+ aspiring technical leaders, it seems to be a robust and yet practical model.
In my opinion, a technical leader should exhibit 3Is:
Technical independence: This competence is about making and communicating sound technical decisions independently. This does not mean that the decision has to be taken by an individual. However, it expects technical leader to take responsibility for the decision which may have been arrived at after a brainstorming or discussion. This also expects that technical leader takes responsibility of communicating the decision in appropriate language. We know that engineers, project managers and business leaders speak 3 different languages. I call this the foundational-I. This means that if you don’t enjoy decision making and/or communication, technical leadership is not for you.
Technology influence: This competence is about demonstrating your influence on technology creation and delivery. This is also known as personal technology brand. Sometimes you are a “Linux expert” or a “device driver expert” or a “J2EE expert” other times you are “product architecture expert” or “testing expert”. Whatever be your brand, your name pops up in meetings when a critical issue related to area of expertise comes up. I call this the Essential-I. This is because if you can’t build your brand, it will be very difficult to get anything done as you don’t have a large team reporting to you. And organization expects you to influence a large body of technologists or engineers. As you grow your influence grows beyond your organization, perhaps to open forums, standardization bodies etc.
Technology initiative: This is about proposing, getting sponsorship and executing technology initiatives start to end. An initiative may be about getting the build set-up right or it may be about starting a center of excellence. I call this the defining-I. You may be taking sound decisions and you may have a brand. However, unless you convert these to drive initiatives, it does not help much.
When a project manager introduces himself, he usually says, “I manage a 20/50/100 people” and size of the team is a default parameter to judge the complexity of a manager’s work. If I were to ask a similar question to a technical leader, I will ask, “What initiatives did you drive lately?”
Some metaphors just stick to you. One such metaphor which I got hooked on to is what Prof. Rumelt describes in an interview with The McKinsey Quarterly as “Predatory leap” through the window of opportunity. According to Prof. Rumelt, strategy is about taking positions in a world that is confusing and uncertain. And how does a company take a good position?
Prof. Rumelt talks about his talk with Steve Jobs in 1998 after he’d come back & turned Apple around. Prof. Rumelt mentioned his observation to Steve that in the personal computer business Apple will always have a small niche position. It is tough to break “wintel” duopoly. “What’s your long term strategy?” Apparently Steve Jobs neither agreed nor disagreed with Prof. Rumelt. He just smiled and said, “I am going to wait for the next big thing.”
Prof. Rumelt further says, “Jobs didn’t give a doorknob polishing answer. He didn’t say, we are cutting costs and we are making alliances. He was waiting until the right moment for that predatory leap which for him was Pixar & then, in an even bigger way, the iPod.”
Prof. Rumelt says, “That very predatory approach of leaping through the window of opportunity and staying focused on those big wins – not on maintenance activities – is what distinguishes a real entrepreneurial strategy”.
Research In Motion (RIM), the maker of Blackberry smartphone saw its profit more than double last quarter (see news in Economic Times). And you know what is believed to be the reason for this success? iPhone.
“What?” one may ask. iPhone, after all, is the competitor of Blackberry. How can it boost Blackberry sale? Apparently, popularity of iPhone has brought attention to “smartphones” and more people are starting to use them. And then people started asking, “Why should I buy a non-smartphone like Razr when I can buy a Blackberry or an iPhone?” This has boosted the smartphone market. Of course, it has benefited Apple. But then it has benefited RIM too.
This very phenomenon is explained beautifully by Barry Nalebuff and Adam Brandenburger in their book “Co-opetition” published in 1996. Barry and Adam talk about the dual roles companies play: competitors and complementors. A complementor is the player who contributes in increasing the size of the pie (i.e. your target market) and a competitor is the player with whom you have to share the pie. Your share is typically referred to as “market share”. Many times, a single player plays dual-role i.e. the player is your competitor and complementor at the same time and you don’t know which role is making a bigger impact to your business. As in the case of Blackberry, Apple played much bigger role as a complementor than as a competitor last few quarters. As an analyst has said, “iPhone was the single biggest blessing RIM ever had.”
Barry and Adam give numerous such examples in their book. One such example which they talk about 12 years ago more as a prediction and which I believe is a reality today is that of electronic bookseller like Amazon.com. When e-booksellers came in 90s, traditional bookstores saw them as competitors. But then the e-booksellers contributed in increasing the size of the pie significantly. And traditional bookstores benefited from it too. I, myself, purchase books from Amazon.com. But then, I also read reviews on Amazon and then go and buy the book from Gangarams or Landmark bookstore. Thus Amazon ends up contributing to increasing overall book-readership and traditional bookstore like Gangarams benefits from it too. The way bookstores have mushroomed in Indian metros is a testimony of this phenomenon.
Won’t Tata Nano impact the sale of Maruti Alto? Of course, it will. But don’t be so sure, which way the impact will be. Don’t be surprised when you see a headline, “Nano was the single biggest blessing Alto ever had.”
The term ecosystem was coined in 1930 by Roy Clapham, to denote the physical and biological components of an environment considered in relation to each other as a unit. British ecologist Arthur Tansley later refined the term, describing it as the interactive system established between biocoenosis (a group of living creatures) and their biotope (the environment in which they live).
What I like about ecosystem is that it lays emphasis on “relationship” between its elements rather than the elements themselves. For example, see a picture of an ecosystem.
Here is my attempt to present “technical leadership ecosystem” view.
It presents technical leadership in an rnD organization in the context of its environment (In “rnD environment” r for research is smaller than D for development). Technical leadership consists of roles such as product/solution/system architect, principal engineer, member technical staff, distinguished engineer, fellow etc. I define technical leadership as those people who influence, own and drive technology decisions and their implementation.
There are 4 dimensions: partnerships for today’s business, partnerships for tomorrow’s business, innovation and systems-processes. I feel that sustainability of technical leadership ecosystem depends upon how these linkages work. Each dimension is briefly described below:
In the subsequent articles, we will look at challenges Indian IT organizations are facing in making the technical leadership ecosystem sustainable.