Technical leadership: What it is + traits of successful leaders
Technical leadership takes managerial and dev experience. Learn how to become a technical leader and review the skills the position requires.
Nov 09, 2023 • 8 Minute Read
- Engineering Leadership
- Professional Development
Devs and engineers designing complex products need leaders with technical know-how. Engineering managers can shape a strategy but don’t always have the experience to implement it. Thankfully, you can balance management with technical expertise through technical leadership.
Put simply, technical leadership refers to a body of knowledge and skills combining management with technical expertise. Similarly, a tech lead, also known as a technical leader, is a specific role that applies this knowledge. Whether you want to become a tech lead or learn to spot a good one, we’ll explain the ins and outs of technical leadership.
What is technical leadership?
Technical leadership is the ability to manage and support a team of developers and engineers. Specifically, it requires a leader who understands the constraints and potential of the technology they’re building or working with. Great technical leadership rests on your ability to make crucial decisions and trust your team to handle the technical execution of your project.
Tech leads are a common role for engineers looking to build their technical and managerial skill sets. Once product owners and stakeholders shape project goals, tech leads work with their teams to meet these objectives. Along the way, tech leads may focus on a specific aspect of production they're familiar with.
Technical leads see projects through from start to finish—they coordinate their team, propose technical solutions, and liaise between departments. The bottom line: Technical leaders ensure a project's human and technical aspects come together.
Technical vs. adaptive leadership
Technical and adaptive leadership face different challenges that take unique solutions. Adaptive leadership responds to less conventional problems with experimentation and innovation. Technical leadership tends to leverage more conventional wisdom in combination with adaptive pivots. As a result, technical leadership can feel like a blend of development and soft skills.
Technical leadership: What it is + traits of successful leaders
While tech leads offer technical expertise and guidance to specific teams and projects, managers oversee multiple teams and delegate responsibilities. Both roles offer teams crucial support and direction. However, tech leads directly solve problems or advocate for engineers as managers cover high-level responsibilities.
What does a tech lead do?
Technical leaders juggle managerial and technical tasks. In addition to overseeing team members, they offer direct support on workflow processes. A technical leader’s responsibilities include:
Leading a team: Tech leads guide and facilitate teams similarly to managers. Tech leads encourage teams, run daily standups, foster collaboration, and share resources.
Driving project success: Great technical leaders set achievable goals and exceed expectations when possible. By tracking KPIs, analyzing user needs, and drawing from experience, they find efficient solutions to problems.
Delegating responsibilities: Technical leaders know their team members’ strengths and weaknesses. When tackling a project, they assign roles accordingly.
Providing system knowledge: Tech leads supervise system modifications and ensure every piece of software is updated. They may also audit the security of these systems to prevent security risks.
Implementing solutions: Technical leaders assist their teams in building solutions, so they can fill gaps or contribute to product development. They also guide their teams through technical issues and challenges.
- Training team members: Teams learn new skills and how to use their tech stack under a technical leader. Tech leads should help each member of their team learn and grow. They can also assist with hiring decisions.
- Guiding leadership: Technical leaders report to other managers and higher-ups in an organization. They can report on a project’s success or failure and guide high-level strategy.
Technical leadership skills
Technical leadership draws on experience, technical expertise, and soft skills. As Heather MacDonald, former VP of strategy, change, and communications for Zions Bancorporation, explains:
You have to be willing to own the work you do and problem-solve to get things done. You have to want to build, coach, and grow alongside the people working with you.
To help you learn the hard and soft skills you need in each category, we’ll explain the core skills of technical leadership.
Managerial experience is crucial for technical leadership. Specifically, you have to know how to handle:
Problem-solving: identifying and resolving issues facing teams
Crisis response: responding to a communication breakdown, project hurdle, or issue calmly and effectively
Team management: resolving conflicts and encouraging cooperation with inclusive leadership
- Giving and receiving feedback: giving empathetic feedback on teams’ work and accepting criticism in return
- Facilitating communication: taking stakeholder and team input into account to foster dialogue
Technical skills separate other forms of management from technical leadership. It requires:
- Performance optimization: Staying on top of industry trends, domain knowledge, and your infrastructure to improve team performance
- System maintenance: using and maintaining version control, security, database, and cloud systems
- Resource management: ensuring teams are able to stay on time and in budget
- Reviews: reviewing teams’ work when necessary to ensure it meets technical standards for your org or when a technical problem to solve is either particularly complex or falls within your domain expertise
- Development: playing a role in coding, engineering, and development
- Continuous improvement and delivery: familiarity with CI/CD tools and practices to automate building, testing, and deploying apps
- Prototyping and tooling: ability to rapidly prototype ideas or solutions and experience with tools that streamline this process
Not all great technical leadership skills come from hands-on experience. The attitudes and traits you bring to the table can define your success. Technical leadership benefits from soft skills and traits like:
- Resilience: the ability to lead teams through challenging dev cycles
- Innovative thinking: finding out-of-the-box solutions to problems
- Open-mindedness: a willingness to consider other points of view
- Empathy: the ability to consider team members’ feelings and perspectives
- Open communication: proactive, frequent communication with teams
- Organization: prioritization when managing multiple tasks at once
- Action/solution-oriented: proactively looking for solutions when challenges arise
6 steps to become a technical leader
While becoming a tech lead may sound daunting, you can prepare yourself for the role. While there’s more than one path to technical leadership, we’ll outline the road most traveled. So, if you feel like adding, subtracting, or moving any of these steps, you can still become a great tech lead.
1. Study a technical field
Before thinking about management, aspiring tech leads first need to study their field, typically through college or work experience. Computer science and engineering degrees can impart the skills and knowledge needed for the role. Degree programs also allow you to compare different fields before making a decision.
On the other hand, great technical leaders can learn through hands-on experience. Web development and programming positions can all be a great first step. This hands-on approach also gives you an inside perspective on the field.
Whichever path you choose, the goal is to gain the skills and experience you need for technical leadership. With this technical knowledge, look for opportunities to flex your leadership muscle. You can mentor younger colleagues, take the lead on small projects, and build technical skills as you branch into leadership.
2. Earn management experience
After proving your skill in a field, Look for chances to build managerial skills. Bear in mind that you don’t need a manager title to gain this experience. By taking on side projects, mentoring junior developers, and tracking performance, you gain management experience. This process will also expose you to new technical skills and give you leadership models to consider.
3. Understand the responsibilities of a technical leader
At this point in the process, you should look at your options. Based on your technical experience, you could forgo leadership to work as a senior team member. On the other hand, you could branch into a management role. Before becoming a technical leader, ensure this path suits you better than any alternatives.
To understand the responsibilities of a technical leader, learn:
IT standards for companies working in your field
Policies affecting the work you would coordinate
The quality assurance standards you have to meet
How to use software required for the role
The different testing and review processes you carry out
4. Go through technical leadership training
Combining your management and technical skills requires time and training, so you should be continuously taking training courses to learn about the procedures and tasks ahead of you. Colleges and private companies offer in-person and online training in project management and technical skills. While you may already have some of the required skills, it never hurts to cover all your bases.
5. Find a position
Once you have the right experience, you can apply for tech lead jobs. In some cases, internships and training programs fast-track you into the role. Other times, you need to find the role yourself.
When searching for tech lead openings, keep these tips in mind:
Include all managerial and engineering experience on your resume
Use your cover letter to highlight your area of expertise
Prepare for interviews by asking your trainers and other tech leads about their hiring process
Share samples of your code and past work when possible
6. Grow your team
Once you’ve landed a technical leadership opportunity, you need a team. Whether it’s for a one-off project or several, pick a team of trusted experts you work well with. You’ll meet some of these team members while rising through the ranks. Remember to prioritize the overall team chemistry over picking engineers you personally like.
You may also get the chance to hire new employees for your team. When you bring in outside hires, you'll mentor these employees and train them in your processes with principal learning engineers. The more experience you can share and the more your team learns, the more successful you’ll be.
Measure your progress as a technical leader with Flow
Technical leadership draws on the skills to lead and work with a team. Whether you're looking to improve your technical leadership capabilities or land a role as a tech lead, you can help your teams innovate, deliver outstanding products, and grow by applying these principles
Technical leaders tracking their teams’ performance need a platform like Flow. Flow organizes performance data on an easy-to-read dashboard. It also offers the strategic insights needed to reduce wasted effort and team friction. Schedule a demo today and learn how to help your teams thrive.