Curated by: Sergio A. Martínez

Seems obvious to say that a good Team Lead is a core element of any software engineering project. Managing the team, ensuring deadlines are met, and making sure all tasks are completed to a high-quality standard is the bare minimum to get a positive outcome, and any Lead that tries with less is not going to achieve many positive results. They need to act as mediators between their team, management, and stakeholders and are responsible for monitoring progress, motivating the team, issuing instructions on a daily basis, and generally being the most knowledgeable people around when it comes to the technical aspects of the project.

What Does It Take To Develop The Craft Of Leadership In Software Development?

As you can imagine, these reasons demand an immense amount of skill and craftsmanship from their leads. Not only do team leaders need to have a deep understanding of the technology they are working with, but they must also know how to properly manage people to work together efficiently, which often means leading by example, setting realistic goals with achievable deadlines, and mastering some excellent communication skills to ensure everyone is up to date on their responsibilities and progressing towards a common goal. 

But how does a leader come to be? Usually, possessing several essential qualities like exceptional problem-solving capabilities and expertise with the required techniques is the first thing that comes to mind. Some natural affinity to effectively communicate project goals and set expectations for each team member, drawing out key strengths from individual members to leverage in completing tasks efficiently and on time, is also part of a leader’s toolkit. And perhaps more importantly, an effective team leader possesses strong organizational skills, able to schedule with clarity, stay on track, and delegate work accordingly. As such, these qualities are paramount for becoming an effective leader in software development teams, but they have to come from somewhere. They have to be mastered.

Building a good leader from the ground up

What Does It Take To Develop The Craft Of Leadership In Software Development?

Moving from a senior developer role to a Team Lead can be challenging for even the most experienced professionals. It typically involves moving from primarily executing tasks to leading and motivating other individuals and learning to develop and execute strategies. Additionally, being responsible for other people’s learning progress gives those in this position added pressure to ensure the right guidance is given, and tough decisions may have to be made if results don’t meet expectations. There are great potential rewards with this type of career advancement, of course, but it can be daunting at first, and take an important toll on the developer. 

To be honest, I never considered myself an innate leader”, says Martín Ruiz Pérez, Team Lead and Senior Application Developer at Scio. “For me, an innate leader is someone who naturally gravitates towards leading roles, and seems to have a knack to organize others and bring a team together. It’s not something that I saw myself doing when I started designing software, so I had to learn as I went. However, looking up to the leaders I had at Scio helped me to understand and develop a good approach to leadership. At the very beginning, I tried to use a more practical leadership style, but some important things in terms of organization and management kept slipping from my grasp, so learning the appropriate soft skills was my biggest challenge, which might give me less trouble if I had a more natural disposition towards leadership. 

After all, leaders come in all shapes and sizes and should possess a variety of unique skills. And while some have a knack for motivation, communication, and organizing projects, it has long been debated as to whether such leadership traits are intrinsic or can be learned. On one hand, raw natural ability is something many leaders possess and likely accounts for some of their success, but on the other hand, continuous learning efforts by any individual can pay considerable dividends in building up leadership skills, especially when it comes to fields like software, where trends, tools, and framework seem to change daily. The most successful leaders likely combine both powerful innate abilities with relentlessly targeted learning, just like Martín’s case, but without the proper environment to grow into this role, the results will never get any better. So, if an organization wants to help an experienced software developer to grow into the role of a leader, they need to cultivate an environment that promotes self-reflection and encouragement. Developing effective leadership skills requires practice and feedback, and providing resources within their organization for professional development is beneficial for both their employees and the company as a whole. By providing this guidance, support, and tools needed to transition from individual contributor to leader, the company can empower them on their journey to success.

In my case, one of the most challenging aspects of this journey into a more leading position was mastering the ability to become the ‘director of the orchestra’, so to speak, and bring everyone on the same page”, continues Martín. “Someone whose job is to direct people needs the technical expertise to, let’s say, understand what the client wants and translate that into a viable product, document it, and communicate that goal to the team, knowing who is best suited for the task. And learning to do that took some conscious effort on my part and support from others to avoid micromanaging the team, or letting deadlines slip. Nowadays, I try to bring everyone together and listen to ideas, and support my teammates in everything I can, but in the end, you need to come to terms with the responsibility of a good outcome.

The challenges of leadership nobody tells you about

What Does It Take To Develop The Craft Of Leadership In Software Development?

It is often said that being a leader comes with certain inherent challenges, but some lesser-known issues lurk beneath the surface. One problem, for example, that can arise from taking on a leadership role in software development is the difficulty of staying up to date with the latest trends. As technology advances rapidly, it can be hard for a leader to make sure their team’s skillset is aligned with the current industry expectations, and they must balance taking initiative to encourage change and innovation while still staying within the framework of guidelines provided by clients, business partners, or stakeholders. As we said, being a successful leader requires more than just technical skills; it also calls for managerial aptitude and negotiation savvy.

And these circumstances sometimes result in interesting situations for a development team whose levels of experience with different frameworks or technologies may vary a lot. As you might imagine, working as a leader with people who have more experience and knowledge than you in certain areas can be a challenging situation to navigate, particularly when most up-to-date trends and best practices are always evolving. A great leader must recognize this challenge, but also put their trust in the other team members and allow them to lead ideas and initiatives even when it may be difficult to do so at first; doing so gives an excellent opportunity for growth both for the leader as well as for the team itself, creating stronger bonds between all parties involved. In short, this situation requires humility, commitment, and directness from all those involved to work through difficulties that may arise during collaboration.

I’ve been part of teams where certain developers have more experience in a specific area or more years in the industry than the leads, but what that could mean for the project is highly variable”, explains Martín. “Having someone with lots of expertise always benefits a team, and as a leader, you should know how to best approach these situations to ensure the best outcome for the product being developed. In fact, on one occasion, I’ve even thought about stepping down from the lead position in favor of someone else or even becoming co-leaders, because I consider that their vision and knowledge might lead the project down a better path. Recognizing those kinds of situations is important, and with the kind of flat organization that Scio has, this can be done rather easily than in most places.

Doing what is best for your team and project could mean making difficult decisions such as these, after all. A leader should always lead with integrity and put the needs of their group before their own; when they do this, the project can only benefit. Stepping down in these situations is never shameful, and one often demonstrates true strength by putting others before oneself. It may be hard, but making a tough decision like that can result in a better product outcome. 

Of course, this is not the only difficult situation that a Team Lead has to deal with. As we have discussed before, promoting someone to a leadership position can be a decision with plenty of implications, mostly because you are taking someone very competent at what they do, and assigning them a job that they may or may not be prepared for. However, becoming an effective leader in software development does not mean leaving your passion behind. The fact of the matter is, by studying and taking time to reflect on what it means to be a leader in the field, you can find ways to combine your individual passions with the leadership skills necessary to become successful in software development. Whether that involves delegating tasks more effectively or learning new coding languages to lead projects yourself, leaders should strive to understand the needs of their teams and how they can best bring out their collective strengths. Truly great leaders recognize that by investing their energy and enthusiasm into the work they do, they will inspire those around them to propel projects forward and reach success both collectively and individually.

Of course, I still enjoy the technical aspect of my job, and I would never wish to leave that behind completely”, explains Martín. “I’m reluctant to see myself as a mere Team Lead or Project Manager, I still have so much to learn about the technical side of development, and I’d like to become a System Architect in the future. However, I’ve seen the importance of having good management abilities for my team, and helping my teammates is something I really like to do, especially in more technical aspects of the project. There are many ways to work, after all. But it is a challenge to balance my responsibilities as a leader with my passion for the nitty-gritty of coding and engineering. Paying enough focus to both is a must.

In other words, allowing software development team leads to stay connected with the technical aspect of a project ensures they don’t suffer burnout. Working solely in a management capacity can be draining and monotonous while keeping abreast of the rapidly changing technical landscape keeps things interesting. It also gives them an outlet to engage their technical skills, which are almost certainly valuable assets on any software development project. Plus, letting the lead developer spend some time writing code enables them to stay current with their craft—they can actively learn new techniques and stay aware of the ever-changing trends in the tech industry. Giving team leads the chance to sometimes participate directly in the work they oversee is beneficial for the productivity and morale of everyone involved.

As a software development lead, it’s often about hitting the complicated balance between authority, responsibility, experience, and technical know-how. Combining authoritative direction with a genuine appreciation for their peers’ tasks and experience is an arduous task that can be difficult to master. Communication skills, technical know-how, and the ability to draw from past experiences are all necessary qualifiers that define a great software team lead, and this balance must be actively maintained while also setting deadlines, managing expectations, and nudging the team in the right direction. Such a challenging balancing act can write the difference between a successful agile team and one stuck in disarray. 

That is why the support of a good organization and the willingness to grow at every opportunity set the leaders at Scio apart. Not for nothing the best software developers in Latin America are part of our teams: the human part of creating great software always remains at the core of our craft.

The Key Takeaways

  • A good Team Lead is a key element of any software engineering project, responsible for team management, meeting deadlines, and ensuring tasks are completed to high quality.
  • For those transitioning into this role, certain challenges exist such as staying up to date with the latest trends in technology and managing teams whose levels of experience vary greatly.
  • By fostering a supportive environment which encourages self-reflection and professional development, companies can empower team leads on their journey to success.
  • Combining natural leadership qualities with carefully targeted learning efforts is key for successful leadership while allowing leads to engage in the technical aspects of development keeps them productive and motivated.