Corporate Realpolitik Explained: The Tech Lead

I think I’m going to start a new series of posts, with this as the first.  Leading up to and in my book, I talked a lot about organizational politics.  But I haven’t done that as much since.  I’d like to start in on that a little again, and I’ll start with the tech lead role.

Why tech lead?  Dunno, why not?

So what will I talk about?  What’s the aim here?  Well, in this post and in any future ones in the series, I want to dive into the organizational underpinnings of roles in the tech world.  This isn’t the superficial stuff you’ll see on a job description, but rather the realpolitik take.

  • Why does this role (really) exist?
  • Should you even want it?
  • How does it set you up to succeed?  To fail?

That type of thing.

A (metaphorical) tech lead, steering the SS Boaty McBoatFace

Tech Lead: The Surface Story

First things first.  Let’s cover the superficial briefly so that we can get beyond it.  If you go out and google “tech lead role” you’ll find stuff like this.

  • The tech lead has the ultimate say on technical matters for the team.
  • Part of the role involves delegating tasks to other team members as well as mentoring them.
  • You’ll obviously need strong technical skills, but also good people skills because it’s not necessarily the strongest tech people that make the best tech leads.
  • You also need to be able to communicate effectively with the business.

Got it yet?  I’ll assume you’ve never heard me speak.  If that’s the case, and you put a voice to what you just read, does that voice sound like the soothing, dulcet tones of someone from HR?  It should.

Of course, maybe you want to go the slightly more controversial and philosophical route.  Should the tech lead role even exist?  Especially on agile teams, don’t we learn that teams are self organizing?  Doesn’t Scrum call for only three roles, none of which is tech lead?

Surely we should furrow our brows and discuss this meaningfully.  On the one hand, having a communication point-person and decision maker is important.  But on the other hand, we’re knowledge workers that respond well to a more democratized approach.  So you and your organization should have an earnest and sober conversation weighing all of the pros and cons.

Of course, nobody in a decision making position will listen to this earnest conversation, because there are undercurrents in play well beyond settling arcane technical disputes out in open office plan land.

Read More