As a tech lead, communication is a key part of your role.
You need to be able to clearly present and talk about complex ideas, designs, visions, and architecture with people of varying technical ability. You need to share knowledge and summarize trade-offs with the right level of detail to improve transparency and influence decision-making. And you need to be able to mentor and coach others with grace and humility.
Luckily, these are all skills you can grow over time. Here’s everything you need to know to become a great communicator in your role.
Why does technical communication matter for tech leads?
First of all, it’s important to note that technical communication isn't just limited to verbal discussions and the usual async communication (e.g. emails) we’re all used to. The following types of communication are also important and relevant in different scenarios:
- Documentation through design documents, explainers, and RFCs
- Code-review comments
- Group discussion threads (e.g. Slack, Google Groups, GitHub Discussions)
- Prototypes, proofs of concept (POC), and demos
- Presentations and video explainers
Becoming an effective communicator means getting better at all the above forms of information-sharing. We can also categorize communication based on the audience, as follows:
In-team communication refers to communication within your team and includes code reviews, whiteboarding sessions, and other meetings. Since you’re collaborating with fellow engineers and developers, there’s no need to oversimplify or ‘dumb things down.’ too much. Your team will often, but not always, have a little more context about topics being discussed.
Out-group communication refers to communication with parties outside your team. It can include members of your broader organization, all the way to the sales team, advertising, and even company stakeholders. Carrying out a joint project with other teams, explaining a feature to the sales and marketing team, or pitching an idea to stakeholders, are just some of the responsibilities a tech lead is expected to fulfill. The level of technicality and context of the groups you're communicating with will significantly vary with out-group communication. Aim to be understanding and mindful of sharing just enough context to be useful for these groups.
Why do other communication skills matter for tech leads?
It’s not just technical communication skills that you need as a tech lead, but general ones too. You wear multiple hats, such as coaching team members or advocating to developers outside your organization, and you’re often the face of your team for the outside world. A mix of different communication skills is required based on what role you’re playing at a given time. The following are some tech lead responsibilities where communication is critical:
1. Representing and advocating
You are your team's representative at company meetings and conferences and you should be prepared to stand and speak up for them. This could involve sharing a status update, a quarterly review, making a request for staffing, or pitching new ideas for the future. You'll have to accomplish this while ensuring you give credit where due and improve your team's visibility. Always find opportunities to acknowledge and lift others up when you can (I’m a big fan of newsletters for this!).
2. Knowledge sharing
Knowledge sharing requires carefully explaining plans and ideas as coherently as possible. Sometimes this can mean interpreting updates coming from elsewhere in the company (e.g. on strategy) for your team; they will look to you to forward relevant discussions from sister teams or just share how you’re thinking about current plans, bottlenecks, or opportunities.
I love coaching as it gives folks an environment where they feel psychologically safe to discuss difficult topics that are on their minds, with a view to growing. Coaching others could include chatting through their challenges and delivering feedback, constructive criticism, or encouragement primarily through one-to-one sessions. At Google, we try to structure coaching conversations so there’s a clear set of next steps for the person by the end of a conversation. Here are some examples:
- What would you like to talk about? What would be most helpful to brainstorm?
- What seems to be the main obstacle? What is stopping you?
- What approach/actions have you seen used, or used yourself, in similar circumstances?
- Who might be able to help? Would you like another suggestion from me?
- From everything we’ve brainstormed, what one action would most move you forward?
- What are your next steps? By what date will you complete these steps?
4. Delegating tasks
Delegating tasks implies assigning specific responsibilities in a project to different team members. You can delegate tasks in team meetings, over email, or in person, but it needs to be done in such a way that the team does not feel micromanaged. (For more on delegating effectively, check out Neha Batra’s article, ‘Delegation 101’.)
5. Creating how-to guides
There may be new technologies, processes, and initiatives that you want your team to adopt. The best way to communicate these details would be through documents, SOPs, or how-to guides. This would require excellent written communication so that the team can understand why something is important and how they can start applying it.
Five tips for communicating effectively as a tech lead
Now we’ve established that specific tech lead roles and tasks require quality communication skills, let’s talk about how you can improve the particular communication skills required.
- Try simplifying technical terms and concepts using metaphors or analogies where appropriate. Remember, it’s possible that acronyms may not be well-socialized even within a team.
- Optimize for your audience. This may mean avoiding using team-specific jargon or making assumptions about context. Aim to bring all of your audience along even if they aren’t fully familiar with the same terms.
2. Be concise and on point
- Avoid discussing caveats and edge-case exceptions if they are irrelevant to that audience.
- Shorter messages are more likely to be absorbed in their entirety.
- Don’t stray from the core point of the message.
- Mentally check if it's the right audience, forum, and time of the day before bringing up something different.
- Avoid filler words: 'basically', 'you know', 'like', 'kind of', 'huh', '...and stuff', '..and things like that'.
2. Be proactive
- Initiate open communication with your team members.
- Have regular 1:1s and drop them an email or a Slack message (being mindful about disrupting their focus/flow).
- Promote healthy intra-team communication. Create an atmosphere of asking and answering questions politely.
- Regularly check that your team members aren’t blocked on delegated tasks and can handle them properly.
- Reach out only when you're sure that your presence won't be a distraction. If your team member has a ‘do-not-disturb’ sign, then respect that.
- Listen attentively! Understand, reflect, and then respond to what’s being said.
- Observe verbal and non-verbal messages and signals before responding. Listen to what people are really saying and adjust your tone and response accordingly.
- Be attentive and open to feedback in 1:1 discussions and team meetings.
- When conversing with senior colleagues or stakeholders, hear what they are saying, if only to confirm that they’ve absorbed whatever you shared.
- When team members share their ideas, listen and ask questions to encourage them. Replace a straight 'No' with a 'Yes, but' if possible.
- When it comes to written communication, reading is equivalent to listening. Read very carefully and re-read until you've fully grasped what was communicated.
4. Be thorough
- Be diligent and pay attention to the little things.
- In coaching, mentoring, and advocating scenarios, understand the needs of your mentees or audience, and document those needs as action items.
- When mentoring, try to understand what works for your mentee.
- Ensure everyone you're communicating with is on the same page.
- Don't be in a hurry to leave a meeting or end a 1:1 if you feel that someone is lagging.
- Encourage repetition and question-answer sessions to ensure that everyone has understood.
- Take notes – just for yourself or for others. Notes can help you remember tidbits of information you wish to convey but may forget.
- If your writing aims to help others learn, then document as legibly and concisely as possible.
- Include the date you created the document to help future readers estimate its relevance.
My inbox is usually filled with a broad mix of messages and docs requiring my attention: status updates, design docs, analysis, strategy docs, project planning, budget docs, and partner and support emails. Effective communication helps to reduce information overload.
The main point of communication is for both parties to understand what is being passed across. By taking your time to acquire good communication skills, you reduce the number of iterations and amount of time required to get the message across.
Finally, in a way, improved communication makes you a better person. Explaining technical details to non-technical people requires you to understand the nuances of other perspectives, and therefore promotes empathy. Relating with people outside your workspace becomes easier, and you earn the respect of your colleagues, juniors, and seniors.
With thanks to Leena Sohoni-Kasture and Toby Gray for their editing contributions.