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Leadership isn’t confined to managers; it’s also crucial on the technical track.

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Management isn’t a promotion up the ladder; it’s a separate, specific role that relates to individual contributors. That’s why managers need leaders on the technical track to be the deep experts their job doesn’t allow them to be.

In this article, we will explain why technical leadership and management are two different things, highlighting that management is not a step up into leadership but a step sideways, and that therefore leadership is essential on both tracks.

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What is technical leadership?

Leadership is a set of practices and responsibilities around vision and growth that can (and should) exist on the technical side of the fence. Technical leadership is the ability to leverage your technical expertise to facilitate your team moving toward a vision. We like using Julie Zhou’s breakdown of responsibilities into People, Product, and Process, from her book, The Making of a Manager:

  • From a People perspective, a leader mentors their team members, communicates cross-functionally across the organization, and encourages a culture of curiosity within their team. 
  • In the Product aspect, a leader architects solutions to technical problems and helps set the vision and direction for and with the team. 
  • On the Process front, a leader recommends best practices for the team, incorporating existing processes where possible and implementing new ones where needed with the goal of increasing efficiency and productivity.

What is management?

Alternatively, management is where the focus shifts to the individuals in your organization. You might have heard a number of successful managerial leaders say, ‘It’s all about the people’. And they’re right!

Let’s take a look at this using the same three categories we used above: People, Product, and Process.

  • One of the main responsibilities of a manager from the People aspect is to enable the career growth of your team members and build a safe culture for your team in which they can thrive. From nurturing cultures of intellectual safety and curiosity, to encouraging reports to pursue growth and development opportunities, the people part focuses directly on the individual contributors you support. (And yes, management is a kind of support role!)
  • On the Product side, it’s important for a manager to understand the bigger picture and to see the vision of the future for their product alongside communicating it to their organization. Managers need to be able to relate this vision to their teams in ways that tie it to both meaningful work and concrete deliverables. They provide the link between the larger vision of the company and the day-to-day work. 
  • Processes are a great tool that a manager can leverage to help them scale their teams, drive innovation, and build culture. Processes should always exist to help managers and teams, and the best managers are empowered to implement, change, and eliminate processes as needed in service of the vision and the team bringing it together. By mindfully eliminating burdensome processes, or changing processes with team evolution, process remains the third pillar of a successful framework.

Where technical leadership involves bringing vision and direction through technical knowledge and solutions, managers bring vision and direction through a broader view and coordination of individuals and their efforts.

But shouldn’t managers be technical?

Of course, managers should be technical. It would be impossible, in our opinion, to manage a team effectively in a technical space without that expertise. Managers are still responsible for helping to triage problems and break down work, for evaluating the strengths and deficiencies of proposed solutions, for helping their reports grow, and for being able to explain and represent the work of the team. This requires technical knowledge and comprehension.

The difference is that the sort of technical expertise required from a manager is a broader, more generalist skill. Where a subject matter expert, technical lead, or feature owner can field questions about the deep hows of their specialization, a manager needs to understand the broad technical landscape of the entire team. Rather than a single technology, language, or feature, a manager’s technical strengths are most required in understanding how the technologies in use connect to each other and why the team is using them.

Like we said, management isn’t a promotion

When we separate the idea of technical leadership from the management track, it becomes clear that management isn’t a promotion because it’s a role that exists in relation to individual contributors, with a different set of responsibilities. More senior individual contributors may wish to grow into leadership roles, which should exist on the technical track as well. As some folks begin to grow in their roles and face challenges, they will gravitate towards the managerial track. Others will express the desire to be a principal or an architect someday. And some folks will want to bounce back and forth across the line as they figure out what problems they currently want to tackle.

By maintaining leadership as a set of skills and practices that are not strictly tied to management roles, we have the space to support each of these categories of people in their growth while working better together as teams.

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