Ask an Engineering Team Lead: How to Transition from an Engineer to Team Lead

It’s a common question and concern for engineers looking to make the transition into being a team lead and management! Some things will be obvious, and some won’t be. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of really important things to consider and work on as you work on getting out of being an individual contributor and ease into being a good leader.

Change your focus

The biggest thing required is your mental shift you need to do. This will make or break how successful you’ll be. Your primary goals are about people now, not writing code. Your work will enable others to code really well, but you yourself will be doing a lot less code. Most of my managers that I’ve had that didn’t do well couldn’t let go of doing tickets.

Elevate others

I see being a team lead as a person that “elevates” everyone around them. You elevate your team to do their work better, faster, more effectively, with more context, with less barriers, etc. You help product have more wisdom to make better decisions, introduce less tech debt, prevent over-committing which eliminates stress of the team, etc. This requires you to constantly analyze what’s going on around you, seek feedback, push for things, and at times stand up for what you believe in.

Research team culture

Learn about team culture. Every company has a culture, but so does every team, and it’s unique to that team. Work hard to understand what makes a team culture, what you want that culture to be, and understand that you cannot control it, but you can use your own core values to influence it. Like mine are autonomy, treating others like adults, respect, healthy communication, making mistakes are normal and to be embraced and not feared as long as we learn from them, humility, etc. That’s helped shape my team over time in how we work together in a healthy way.

Learn how to measure

Learn how to effectively measure things, and what to measure. Dig into what KPIs are important, how to frame OKRs so that they’re useful. This will be unique to your team and their needs, but ultimately you should work hard to see where you can improve, make it actionable, meaningful, and get your team on board. My last 2 quarters were great, through our OKRs, we changed a lot, and we ended up having the best velocity, sprint predictability, and highest impact on the product, all while having the healthiest sentiment to the team / company.

Prioritize meaningful one-on-ones

Make your 1:1s regular, and meaningful. This is harder than it seems. Sure sometimes you won’t have a ton to talk about, but more often than not your 1:1s should provide value and move things along like their career goals, providing feedback, checking in on various topics, etc. There are a lot of guides out there if you need help finding topics.

Take project management seriously

Depending on your responsibilities, you may be a project manager now. Learn about core PM things like critical path, projections, etc. You don’t need to be certified as a project manager, but don’t wing it either.

Give feedback in a way that it’s readily accepted

Don’t shy away from giving feedback. But know how to give feedback. And this is interesting because you’ll have to really understand each person individually to know how to best approach giving feedback. There are good overall guidelines to follow, but it’s best received when you know how to give it effectively to each person. Some can take it straight, some you have to word it carefully, etc.

Embrace feedback

Similarly, embrace feedback. Ask for it, and make people feel safe for giving it. And take it seriously. If you get feedback, make it clear how you’ll approach it. A lot of people get scared to give feedback up to their boss, but it’s incredibly valuable.

Absorb context all around you

Absorb as much context as you can. How does your work affect other departments? How does your work get presented to customers? What documentation exist for those teams to support it? How often are you getting questions about what you’re producing? What are your competitors doing? What changes are happening to the industry you’re in? And share what you can and what’s relevant to your team. Knowledge is power and how you use it is wisdom. All of this can greatly affect how you approach things, but it takes work and time to slowly accumulate it.

Again, this isn’t an exhaustive list, but prioritizing these things, and many others, will help enable you to be a good leader. There’s a huge different in being a good leader, and just a boss. People leave bosses, but rarely leave good leaders. And the quality of life you can bring to yourself, and everyone around you can continually get better and better, but it starts with you.