One of the struggles a developer faces when moving up the ladder is how to keep their technical skills.
If they are used to being a high-performing, individual contributor, and a technical go-to resource, this is especially challenging.
Because the job is different, now.
It’s no longer about how awesome your developer skills are. Now it’s about bringing out the best from the people you manage, and hopefully *lead.* Your job is now about creating a high-performing team. It’s about growing more leaders. It’s about being the oil and the glue. The oil so that the team can work effectively, as friction-free as possible, and the glue, so that all the work connects together.
There’s a good book called What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, by Marshall Goldsmith. The book title sort of says it all, but the big idea is that if you take on a new management role, but continue to perform like an individual contributor, or at a lower level, don’t expect to be successful.
The irony is that most people will quickly default to doing what they do best, which is what got them to where they are. But now the rules have changed, and they don’t adapt. And as the saying goes, adapt or die. It’s how a lot of careers end.
But not you.
While you will want to keep up your skills that got you to where you are, the real challenge is about adding new ones. And, at first blush, they might just seem like “soft skills”, while you are used to learning “technical skills.” Well, treat these at your new technical skills to learn.
Your new technical skills are:
- Building EQ (Emotional Intelligence) in teams
- Building High-Performance Teams
- Putting vision/mission/values in place
- Putting the execution model in place
- Directing and inspiring as appropriate – situational leadership – per employee
- Creating and leverage leadership opportunities and teachable moments
- Creating the right decision frameworks and flows and empowerment models
- Building a better business
- And doing thought-work in the space for the industry
I’ll leave this list at 9, so that it doesn’t become a 10 Top Skills to Learn to Advance Your Career post.
Emotional Intelligence as a Technical Skill
If you wonder how Emotional Intelligence can be a technical skill, I wish I could show you all the Mind Maps, the taxonomies, the techniques, the hard-core debates over the underlying principles, patterns, and practices, that I have seen many developers dive into over the years.
The good news is that Emotional Intelligence is a skill you can build. I’ve seen many developers become first time managers and then work on their Emotional Intelligence skills and everything changes. They become a better manager. They become more influential. They read a room better and know how to adapt themselves more effectively in any situation. They know how to manage their emotions. And they know how to inspire and delight others, instead of tick them off.
Along the lines of Emotional Intelligence, I should add Financial Intelligence to the mix. So many developers and technologists would be more effective in the business arena, if they mastered the basics of Financial Intelligence. There is actually a book called Financial Intelligence for IT Professionals. It breaks down the basics of how to think in financial terms. Innovation doesn’t fund itself. Cool projects don’t fund themselves. Technology is all fun and games until the money runs out. But if you can show how technology helps the business, all of a sudden instead of being a cost or overhead, you are now part of the value chain, or at least the business can appreciate what you bring to the table.
Building High-Performance Teams as a Technical Skill
Building High-Performance Teams takes a lot of know-how. It helps if you are already well grounded in how to ship stuff. It really helps if you have some basic project management skills and you know how to see how the parts of the project come together as a whole. It especially helps if you have a strong background in Agile methodologies like Kanban, Scrum, XP, etc. While you don’t need to create Kanbans, its certainly helps if you get the idea of visualizing the workflow and reducing open work. And, while you may not need to do Scrum per se, it helps if you get the idea behind a Product Backlog, a Sprint Backlog, and Sprints. And while you may not need to do XP, it helps if you get the idea of sustainable pace, test-driven development, pairing, collective ownership, and an on-site customer.
But the real key to building high-performance teams is actually about trust.
Not trust as in “I trust that you’ll do that.”
No. It’s vulnerability-based trust, as in “I’ve got your back.” This is what enables individuals on a team to go out on a limb, to try more, to do more, to become more.
Otherwise, they everybody has to watch out for their own backs, and they spend their days making sure they don’t get pushed off the boat or hanging from a limb, while somebody saws it off. (See 10 Things Great Managers Do.)
And nothing beats a self-organizing team, where people sign-up for work (vs. get assigned work), where people play their position well, and help others play theirs.
Vision, Mission, Values as a Technical Skill
Vision, mission, and values are actually some of the greatest technical skills you can master, for yourself and for any people or teams you might lead, now or in the future. So many people mix up vision and mission.
Here’s the deal:
Mission is the job.
Vision is where you want to go, now that you know what the job is.
And Values are what you express in actions in terms of what you reward. Notice how I said actions, not words. Too many people and teams say they value one thing, but their actions value another.
It’s one thing to go off and craft a vision, mission, and values that you want everybody to adhere to. It’s another thing to co-create the future with a team, and create your vision, mission, and values, with everybody’s fingerprints on it. But that’s how you get buy-in. And getting buy-in, usually involves dealing with conflict (which is a whole other set of technical skills you can master.)
When a leader can express a vision, mission, and values with clarity, they can inspire the people around them, bring out the best in people, create a high-performance culture, and accelerate results.
Execution as a Technical Skill
This is where the rubber meets the road. There are so many great books on how to execute with skill. One of my favorites is Flawless Execution. And of the most insightful books on creating an effective execution model is Managing the Design Factory.
The main thing to master here is to be able to easily create a release schedule that optimizes resources and people, while flowing value to customers and stakeholders.
I know that’s boiling a lot down, but that’s the point. To master execution, you need to be able to easily think about the challenges you are up against: not enough time, not enough resources, not enough budget, not enough clarity, not enough customers, etc.
It’s a powerful thing when you can turn chaos into clarity and get the train leaving the station in a reliable way.
It’s hard to beat smart people shipping on a cadence, if they are always learning and always improving.
Situational Leadership as a Technical Skill
Sadly, this is one of the most common mistakes of new managers. Seasoned ones, too. They treat everybody on the team the same. And they usually default to whatever they learned. They either focus on motivating or they focus on directing. And directing to the extreme, very quickly becomes micro-managing.
The big idea of Situational Leadership is to consider whether each person needs direction or motivation, or both.
If you try to motivate somebody who is really looking for direction, you will both be frustrated. Similarly, if you try to direct somebody who really is looking for motivation, it’s a quick spiral down.
There are many very good books on Situational Leadership and how to apply it in the real world.
Decision Making as a Technical Skill
This is where a lot of blood-shed happens. This is where conflict thrives or dies. Decision making is the bread-and-butter of today’s knowledge worker. That’s what makes insight so valuable in a Digital Economy. After all, what do you use the insight for? To make better decisions.
It’s one thing for you to just make decisions.
But the real key here is how to create simple ways to deal with conflict and how to make better decisions as a group. This includes how to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink. It includes the ability to leverage the wisdom of the crowds. It also includes the ability to influence and persuade with skill. It includes the ability to balance connection with conviction. It includes the ability to balance your Conflict Management Style with the Conflict Management Style of others.
Business as a Technical Skill
Business can be hard-core. This isn’t so obvious if you deal with mediocre business people. But when you interact with serious business leaders, you quickly understand how complicated, and technical, running a business and changing a business really is.
At the most fundamental level, the purpose of a business is to create a customer.
But even who you choose to serve as your “customer” is a strategic choice.
You can learn a lot about business by studying some of the great business challenges in the book, Case Interview Secrets, which is written by a former McKinsey consultant.
You can also learn a lot about business by studying which KPIs and business outcomes matter, in each industry, and by each business function.
It also helps to be able to quickly know how to whiteboard a value chain and be able to use some simple tools like SWOT analysis. If you can really internalize Michael Porter’s mental models and toolset, then you will be ahead of many people in the business world.
Thoughtwork as a Technical Skill
There are many books and guides on how to be a leader in your field. One of my favorites is, Lead the Field, by Earl Nightingale. It’s an oldie, but goodie.
The real key is to be able to master ideation. You need to be able to come up with ideas. Probably the best technique I learned was long ago. I simply set an idea quota. In the book, ThinkerToys, by Michael Michalko, I learned that Thomas Edison set a quote to think up new ideas. Success really is a numbers game. Anyway, I started by writing one idea per note in my little yellow sticky pad. The first week, I had a handful of ideas. But once my mind was cleared by writing my ideas down, I was soon filling up multiple yellow sticky pads per week.
I very quickly went from having an innovation challenge to having an execution challenge.
So then I went back to the drawing board and focused on mastering execution as a technical skill
Hopefully, if you are worried about how to keep growing your skills as you climb your corporate ladder, this will give you some food for thought.