On Leading Yourself

Forgive me, for it has been two months since my last post.

Sometimes life just ends up getting in the way of the things you have desires to do. Your passions and goals get moved to the back burner, as you deal with the daily chaos that is life.  It takes a concerted effort to be able to maintain balance where one is able to dedicate consistent time to their hobbies, interests, and self growth.

In the past couple months, I’ve had a bit of what one could call a career “do-si-do”. It was good and gave some great insight, and different perspectives on careers, life, and balance. It also allowed me to solidify some of the things I had questions about, or the unknowns I wasn’t sure about. I was able to meet a tonne of new people, and gain a whole bunch of different insights into other people’s point of view. When reflecting on everything that transpired in the last 6 months, I couldn’t help but look back on my career. Now, I haven’t had the longest career, I’ve only been a software professional for about 8 years. However, I think my journey has been quite fruitful, and has allowed me to learn a lot about the industry, and learn a lot about myself. Interestingly enough, in my 8 years, I’ve spent more than five, as a “lead”. For me — this felt normal. Isn’t this how every software developers career progresses?

Spoiler alert — it’s not. To me though, it never seemed like I did anything out of ordinary to move myself towards being a technical lead, or even into a team lead position. In fact, when I graduated and started my career, my goal was just to be the best developer. Management? Eff that. I wanted to be the best developer, ever. Not the best developer I could be, not to be the best developer at the company. I wanted to be the best developer — EVER. Lofty goal right? SMART Goal? Wrong, I’ll be the first to say it was a stupid goal. Though it was rooted in good intention, for the most part, I won’t lie and say I wasn’t enticed by the money, women and fame I would get. The reason I wanted it so badly, was that I had never really been the best at anything. Growing up I was exactly average, if you placed me on a bell curve I would be right smack dab in the center of the bell. This being average my whole life lead me to want one thing. I want to be the best at something. I didn’t know what, but I wanted it, bad.

When I got to university, I selected my primary study as business. What 17 year old high-school male doesn’t want to graduate with a business degree, become an investment banker, and then be Batman? I have parents so that tells you something about me becoming Batman. I found out that a degree in business required a lot of reading, something that I wanted no part of. Faced with a daunting path ahead, which consisted of a plethora of reading and likely writing. I did what any 18 year old, pre-business student who hates reading and writing would do. I looked for the easiest out possible. The obvious choice here, was a computing science degree. I had taken Computing Science 101, and received an A (woo not average). So I selected the obvious easiest path forward. Computers were always a thing I was good at, I just hated the thought of being a nerd. Here I was faced with the choice to be a nerd, or suffer having to read books. shudder Flash forward a few years, what was not as easy a path as initially thought, and I graduated. You guessed it, I had an average GPA. To my surprise though, I graduated with a job.

It wasn’t long into my career when I realized that in order to be good at something, I mean above average good, you have to put a substantial amount of effort in. Those people, who are the best at something, anything. Pick something running, swimming, math, music, or writing, you name it. I can tell you one thing about that person, they worked their ass off to get to where they are. It was a cold realization that day, if I wanted to be the best at something, I had to work harder than everyone around me. All the years I spent trying new hobbies, searching for that one thing I would be the best at. I finally realized I would never find it. Because it was right there in front of me. It was a matter of picking something and dedicating myself to it. That meant, to achieve my goal of being the best developer ever. I would need to practice, a lot.

You’re probably thinking at this point, that I’m just telling you my life story. That I’m not actually giving any relevant information on how to actually become a technical lead. Maybe you’re right. Let’s just consider though, if you’re young and you’re looking to be a lead developer, or a team lead, you’re probably not looking to ride the conveyor of time. Sure, that’s one approach to becoming a lead, you wait it out. Eventually, you’ll add enough years of seniority, and enough people in front of you will age out that you’ll get promoted. That is if they don’t hire someone external ahead of you. If you’re fine with that, you can stop reading. If you’re looking to get off the conveyor, you have to be the best, or at least better than the guy in front of you. And that takes work, significant work. You might say “people who are technically strong don’t make the best people leaders”, and you would be right, sometimes. To be a technical lead though, you have to be technically strong. To get strong, you have to train.

So, let’s address that elephant of strong technical leaders not being good people leaders. If we look at why often people who are strong technically, struggle with the interpersonal side. Ask the question, what does it take to be strong technically? Well, with computers especially, you have to be really good at telling them what to do. You have to be very explicit in your instructions. If you’re not, the computer, doing exactly what you told it, will behave different from your expectation. The response is easy. Inspect the source, tell it what you really meant, and have it try again. Machines aren’t like people. After you re-tell what to do, it will execute your instructions with the utmost care and accuracy as before. To be technically strong, you only have to know in depth how and why the computer behaves the way it does. In short, you have to think like a computer. Unfortunately, humans don’t act like computers. So in order to lead people, you have to think, you guessed it — like a human. Which is a hard dichotomy to master. Hence the difficulty between being a technical leader and a people leader.

When I became a Team Lead, I will fully admit, that I wasn’t ready. The guys who had to work with me, would say the same thing. So what did I do that made me stand out? I can’t say for sure, but I think it had something to do with the way I lead myself. Recently I was listing to a Jocko Podcast 170, about 25 minutes in he gives advice to a person who interviewed for a team lead position and didn’t get it, because they didn’t have experience. His quotes is something along the lines of “You’re in charge of something.” He uses examples like machinery or a process. Something. If you can’t think of anything you’re in charge of, think of this. You’re in charge of yourself. The reality is, that if a company can’t see that you’ve got it figured out enough to be in charge of yourself. How can you expect them to feel comfortable letting you be in charge of others? In my case, I didn’t know how to listen to people. I thought being a Team Lead meant barking orders, and expecting perfect results. I didn’t know what I was doing. The silver lining, was I knew how to realistically evaluate the situation, and learn from it. This let me move forward. Moving forward is key. No one is perfect, and no one is the perfect team lead, especially in the technical industry. There’s too much variability, and when people are involved nothing can be perfect. What I have, is a burning desire to do better. I never want to end a day, and be worse at something than I was the day before. There may be setbacks, there may be plateaus, but overall I want an upward direction. So maybe I wasn’t the best at listening, my thought was how can I get better at listening? Maybe I’m not good at communicating. How can I get better at communication? It’s always been about the next step. Taking the next step, and the next step, is how you break away from the pack and lead. This also keeps you humble, because you can realistically see your faults. You have to see them to get better. If you can see your own faults, it will help you lead. A realization that everyone has faults, lets you pick not only yourself up, but others around you as well.

Realistically, if you want to be any sort of lead, in any sort of industry. You have to start by leading yourself. Making the decisions that will ensure that you don’t stagnate. Just because you work 8 hours per day, doesn’t mean you’re getting better. It takes a focused effort, it takes practice, and it takes willpower. You also need the realization that nothing in life is a guarantee. Leading yourself, means taking these steps, not with a short sighted goal, but a long term goal of being better. It means putting in the effort day in, and day out to ensure, you’re better for it. Naturally people will see this, and want to follow it. Eventually, you will be able to switch your focus from supporting and teaching yourself, to supporting and teaching others. That right there, is a whole different story.

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing.” Albert Schweitzer

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