Being a leader as an engineer
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Being a leader as an engineer

Have you heard the story about the two engineers and the manager who found a Genie lamp? This manager and his team were looking for a laptop with crucial information for delivering an app. While searching their storage room, they stumbled into an old oil lamp that would look cool in the office, so they decided to clean it. After a couple of rubs, a Genie comes out.

The Genie told the three he will grant one wish to each one of them, so the first engineer is quick to say: “I want to be in the Bahamas, living in my dream home and owning a yacht” Puff! He is gone. The second engineer screams: “I’m next! I want to be in Hawaii with my husband and a bottomless margarita.” Puff! Gone.

The Genie then turns to the manager and say “Your turn.” so the manager, without skipping a beat replies “I want them back after lunch for the deployment.”

Have you ever encountered a leader like that in your career? Or perhaps you are already a leader, and while reading the story, you were already worrying about what was going to happen to the delivery.

The approach of leadership the manager of the story took is not popular or conventional, but it’s aligned with one definition of “lead” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, that is: “to guide on a way especially by going in advance” (Merriam-Webster)(1). Leading can be a controversial topic with different approaches and various outcomes.
In November, Tango, through, led a panel at Yelp’s offices in San Francisco, with the intention of talking about this topic of leadership specifically as engineers and different approaches from 3 different perspectives.

You can watch the panel in this video:

Virginia Tan (Engineering Manager) and Steve Workman (Customer Growth and Engineering Manager) represented Yelp, Jason Monberg (CEO) was there for Presence, and Eric Siegfried (CEO) moderated the talk and gave shared his experience with Tango.

Leadership in engineering

First, we need to establish what leadership looks like as an engineer, and during her participation, Virginia described it like this:

“Leadership isn’t necessarily having a fancy title or having people who report to you and call you boss. To me, leadership is taking on a set of responsibilities that go beyond what you are able to do yourself. Be responsible for the work of other people, even being responsible for another person’s growth.”

Usually, leadership can be recognized by a professional title, maybe manager, or technical lead, but engineers have opportunities to be leaders even without them. When you step ahead and take some responsibility outside of your core responsibilities, that is showing leadership.

After being asked his point of view, Jason added to the definition: “Your leadership is independent of your technical skills”. This is encouraging for developers who don’t have the most seniority in the group. You can actually showcase leadership even without being the most technically-skilled in the room.

What does a leader look like?

Rather than having a strict list of dos and don’ts, leadership comes in different shapes. What a leader looks like is more inherent to your organization than to a checklist, and even that is capable of changing depending on the situation. Still, there’s one thing that will help you identify your leadership or leaders within your team. A leader has a following.
You might have seen Derek Sivers’ (Founder and former president of CD Baby) Ted Talk about “How to start a movement”. If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do it, it is one of my personal favorites.

In his short and hilarious talk, he describes how a leader is made by the people who follow her/him and the capacity to embrace followers.
Now, I don’t want to get in the uncle Ben’s cliche of “With great power comes great responsibility” but having a position of leadership does come with a number of responsibilities. Steve described it as “It’s like piloting an oil tanker so if you are the pilot and you realize you are going in the wrong direction, you need to figure out where you are right now, and what speed are you going, and how fast you can turn the whole ship and you start going in the right direction. You have to make those changes in the right way. When leading people, you need to have a vision of where to go to figure out the strategy to get there, leading your people towards that.”
Leadership can be showcased thru these three sets of skills:
• Judgment – To be able to recognize something (intuition).
• Action – How to act to influence others.
• Communication – Verbally and written (working and communicating to the clients).

Born a leader and trained leader

It’s common to find these people in our lives. In school, there’s the person who runs for class president.. In your first job, you encountered the peer that volunteers for difficult tasks. Now you might find the engineer who is always willing to help people with their challenges.

These people are known as “natural leaders”. Due to personality traits, they radiate leadership wherever they go. It is just a natural reaction to situations. If you are not a natural leader, don’t worry, there’s still a second group you can fit into. Trained leader.

A trained leader might not have the same social skills as a natural leader, but that doesn’t mean she/he can’t learn how to deal with a situation with an equally successful approach.

Eric talks about leadership as “Anything that isn’t taking a requirement and turning it into code. That’s potential leadership.” This should be encouraging to all those who are not natural leaders or don’t see themselves as leaders. When you do something like saying “this requirement is wrong”, that’s an act of leadership.

Both natural leaders and trained leaders can expand their abilities through experience and mentorship. If you are a leader or are aspiring to be one, look for your company’s training programs. You can practice and improve your skills through a guided process. Also, find a mentor. Part of the job of your current leaders is to help you grow, so use that and ask them or a leader you know to mentor you during your learning process.

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