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Many traits can make for an exceptional lead engineer, but which are the most important? 

Being an exceptional engineering leader isn’t solely about beefing up your delegation and supervisory traits; it’s about developing different types of soft skills. In our Engaging Developers at Work survey, we found that one of the top ways to engage engineering teams is through people-centered know-how – traits that are a strong indicator of an individual’s capacity to grow and contribute as an engineering lead. 

The good news is that, unlike an innate talent for genius coding, you don’t have to be born with these desirable soft skills to be an exceptional engineering leader. You just need to cultivate them. 

We’ve sourced insights from engineering leads and team members about the most desired characteristics. Read on to learn more! 

Engineering Leadership Trait #1: Be a Decisive (But Open-Minded) Problem-Solver

Engineering is all about solving problems, and since lead engineers bear the responsibility for their team’s performance, there can be a lot of second-guessing – hence Hackernoon’s designation of decision-making as “the most undervalued skill in software engineering.”  

Software development involves a lot of ambiguity and iteration (coding your way out of a problem can happen several different ways!), and an exceptional leader will direct engineering teams out of paralysis and into a decisive path. 

Though that doesn’t mean calling the shots alone, before agreeing on a direction with your team, tap into their creative hive mind for ideas – including opinions that are counter to your proposed approach.

To avoid endless deliberation within group-fueled decision-making, Stef, a self-described “Agile enthusiast and software developer,” suggests assigning a single Product Owner to be the engineering team’s “voice of truth.” Additionally, to reduce bottlenecks, weigh irreversible decisions differently than reversible decisions.

Extra reading: Engineering Career Growth: Helping Your Developers Get Promoted

Vincent Oliveira, the CTO of LuckyCart, advises engineering leads to document everything their engineering teams decide in a “technical decision logbook” that briefly explains how you came to each decision. This will better inform how your team makes decisions in the future, paving the way for a more swift process down the road.

Once you’ve decided on a plan, lead through enablement, and avoid being wishy-washy as new challenges arise – your developers won’t feel that familiar aimlessness that can plague engineering teams, and they’ll thank you for it.

Engineering Leadership Trait #2: Be Transparent and Communicative

Transparency and communication aren’t necessarily the same thing, but a good lead engineer executes them in tandem.

Freelancing platform Upwork is one example. They’ve adopted an “extreme transparency” policy that encourages engineering leaders to be honest with their technical teams in clearly relaying business goals, as well as personal successes and failures. That also means admitting to their errors

This not only humanizes leadership but fosters an environment of constructive behavior – one where engineering teams can admit to mistakes, provide feedback to leadership, and offer an element of predictability. These are tenets of a psychologically safe workplace, one of the top recruitment and retention strategies

Happy engineering teams start with engineering leaders who cultivate an environment of transparency and communication.
Engineering leaders who value transparency and communication create psychological safety within engineering teams. 

 

Being a strong communicator is especially important with the rise of distributed, more diverse, and remote teams. How you communicate matters. Written communications documenting essential conversations you had with the in-office engineering team members, for example, is key to distributed team members. You’ll also want to be cognizant of any cultural and language-based barriers.

If you’re managing outsourced and other contract workers, pay attention to what you’re communicating – for example, making sure that your contractors are fully informed and aligned with customer expectations or coordinating communicative status reports.

To be proactive with this soft skill development, ask your engineering team members to explain the next iteration’s goals, for example. This will allow you to assess how effectively you’re communicating essential information.

Engineering Leadership Trait #3: Be a Team Builder, Not a Micromanager

It’s been a year and a half since COVID-19 first emerged, and some of your engineering teams may have never met each other in person. An engineering team that is comfortable with each other collaborates better – and collaboration is the glue of remote teams. Our survey showed that, without a doubt, developers who code together see success more often, and lead engineers who establish good aspects of culture are more likely to have happy employees.

To help build camaraderie among our hybrid teams, We established Work Online Wednesday, when everybody has to work remotely. This has helped in-office team members better understand the needs of their remote peers – and provides at least one day where nobody is in the same place. 

Sharpen your team-building trait with collaboration tools. For example, if multiple team members hire a new software developer, virtualize the process through a shared hiring platform

You might also like: How to Prevent Burnout When Starting to Scale Development Teams 

A fundamental part of being a good team-builder is not to be a micromanager. There are few things more divisive and demoralizing than being led by someone who doesn’t trust you to do your job – and it’s not an uncommon experience in software development

Some leaders take the approach of comparing team member performance to drive excellence, but it never works. Don’t encourage a sense of competitiveness within your team because it only builds a hostile work environment, not a cohesive one. 

Remote teams are prone to micromanagement by insecure or inexperienced engineering leaders, and agile teams, by nature, can sometimes be an incubator for micromanaging behavior – so know the symptoms as well as the cure (like practice giving up control, give your team space to learn from mistakes, and over-communicate).

Want to learn more about engineering leadership skills development that your team will love? Read the complete Engaging Developers at Work survey.

Jane K. Callahan is a freelance writer who specializes in B2B technology. She, too, does not know how to code.

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