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?”