Stuff About Leadership

In my last post, I wrote a bit about what it takes to build a great team, and how it takes a great team to build great software (which also covers about half of what I spoke about at STAR West in October). In this post, I’ll see if I can cover the other main points from that presentation.

Leadership and Management

Many people still get leadership and management confused. One does not have to be a manager to be a leader (and most certainly, not all managers are good leaders). As someone who has spent the majority of their career as a peer to test managers (yet in a non-manager) role, I frequently see the manager role as one that runs the testing business, while my role is to improve the testing business (in fact, I would say that many of my non-management Principal band peers provide as much, or more leadership to the team than the people-managers on the team).

Many people (and company cultures) assume that career growth for a software engineer always involves a “promotion” into management. Too often, this policy results in turning great software leaders into mediocre managers – or worse, enables mediocre engineers to prolong their career by becoming completely inadequate people-managers.

The formula to fix this isn’t difficult.

  1. Let the people on your team with demonstrated skills in people management manage the team (and there are dozens of ways to discover who has, and does not have these skills before making someone a manager)
  2. Encourage strong engineers to take on team leadership (but not necessarily management roles).

In my last post, I said there’s a direct relationship between team health and product quality. One surefire way to negatively impact team health (and subsequently product quality) is to put people in roles they’re not ready for – or roles where they cannot succeed.

Learning Leadership

Not many things irk me more than self-proclaimed leaders. Being a great leader involves study and hard work. Just as great engineers know patterns and heuristics that enable them to build great software, great leaders know patterns and heuristics that enable them to lead.

Too many leaders (or those who call themselves leaders) rely on only a few leadership tools – often thinking that if they merely tell people what to do, that they’ll do it. Leadership is influence, and influence requires credibility, compassion, humility, strategy and many other factors. You can’t lead with only a handful of leadership ideas – you need dozens or more.

It’s just as important for a great leader to have a toolbox full of leadership ideas as it is for a software engineer to have a toolbox full of design ideas. Not enough people understand this point.

If you think you’re a leader – or if you want to be one, experience alone is not enough to get you there. Work at it, practice, and learn. And then work at it, practice, and learn some more.


  1. Nice, Alan. Reminds me of the saying “Regardless of title, if no one is following you, you’re not a leader … you’re just some guy taking a walk …”

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