One Year of Solitude: My Learning Experience as a Lead

It has been a little over a year since I stepped into a role as a technical lead and I thought this might be a good time to reflect on some of the lessons I have learned as I transition from being focused entirely on technical problems to trying to under how those technical pieces fit into a larger picture.

 

Tech is easy. People are hard. And I have no idea how to deal with them.

It is hard to understate this. People are really, really difficult to deal with compared to technology and I have so much to learn about this piece of sysadmin craft. I do not necessarily mean people are difficult in the sense that they are oppositional or hard to work with (although often they are) just that team dynamics are very complicated and the people composing your team have a huge spread in terms of experience, skills, motivations, personalities and goals. These underlying “attributes” are not static either, they change based on the day, the mood and the project making identifying, understanding them and planning around them even harder. The awareness of this underlying milieu composing your team members and thus your team is paramount to your project’s success.

All I can say is that I have just begun to develop an awareness of these “attributes” and am just getting the basics of recognizing different communication styles (person and instance dependent). I can just begin to tell whose motivations align with mine and whose do not. In hunting we call this the difference between “looking and seeing”. It takes a lot of practice to truly “see”, especially if like me, you are not that socially adept.

My homework in this category is to build an RPG-like “character sheet” for each team member, myself included,  and think about what their “attributes” are and where those attributes are strengths and where they can be weaknesses.

 

Everyone will hate you. Not really. But kinda yes.

One the hardest parts of being a team lead, is you are now “in-charge” of technical projects with a project team made up of many different members who are not within your direct “chain-of-command” (at least this is how it works in my world). This means you own the responsibility for the project but any authority you have is granted to you by a manager somewhere higher up the byzantine ladder of bureaucracy. Nominally, this authority allows you to assign and direct work directly related to the project but in practice this authority is entirely discretionary. You can ask team member A to work on item Z but it is really up to her and her direct supervisor if that is what she is going to do. In the hierarchical, authority-based culture and process driven business world that most of us of work in this means you need to be exceedingly careful about whose toes you step on. Authority on paper is one thing, authority in practice is entirely another.

 

Mo’ People, Mo’ Problems

My handful of project have thus far been composed of team members that kind of fall into these rough archetypes.

A portion of the team will be hesitant to take up the project and the work you are asking them to do since you are not strictly speaking their supervisor. They will passively help the project along and frequently you will be required to directly meet with them and/or their supervisor to make sure they are “cleared” for the work you assigned them and to make sure they feel OK about doing it. These guys want to be helpful but they don’t want to work beyond what their supervisor has designated. Get them “cleared” and make sure they feel safe doing the work and you have made a lot of progress.

Another portion of the team will be outright hostile. Either their goals or motivations do not align with the project or even worse their supervisor’s goals or motivations do not align with the project but someone higher up leaned on them and so they are playing along. This is tough. The best you can hope for here is to move these folks from actively resisting to passively resisting. They might be “dead weight” but at least they aren’t actively trying to slow things down any more. I don’t have much a working strategy here – an appeal to authority is rarely effective. Authority does not wanted to bothered by your little squabbles and arguably it has already failed because chain-of-command can make someone play along, but it cannot make they play nice. I try to tailor my communication style to whatever I am picking up from these team members (see the poorly named, Dealing with People You Can’t Stand), do my best to include them (trying to end-run them makes things ten times worse) and inoculate the team against their toxicity. I am fan of saying I deal with problems and not complaints because problems can actually be solved but a lot of times these folks just want to complain. Give them a soap box so they can get it out of their system so you can move on get work done but don’t let them stand on it for too long.

Another group will be unengaged. These poor souls were probably assigned to the project because their supervisor had to put someone on it. A lot of times the project will be outside their normal technical area of operations, the project will only marginally effect them, or both. They will passively assist where they can. The best strategy I have found here is to be concise, do your best not to waste their time, and use their experience and knowledge of the surrounding business processes and people as much as you can. These guys can generate some great ideas or see problems that you would never otherwise see. You just have to find a way to engage them.

The last group will be actively engaged and strongly motivated to see the project succeed. These folks will be doing the heavy lifting and 90% of the actual technical work required to actually accomplish the project. You have to be careful to not let these guys lean to hard on the other team members out of frustration and you have to not overly rely on them or burn them out otherwise you will be really screwed since they are actually the only people truly putting in the nuts-and-bolts work required for the project’s success.

A quick aside, if you do not have enough people in this last group the project is doomed to failure. There is no way a project composed mostly of people actively resisting its stated goals will succeed, at least not under my junior leadership.

Dysfunctional? Yes. But all teams are dysfunctional in certain ways and at certain times. Understanding and adapting to the nature of your team’s dysfunction lets you mitigate it and maybe, just maybe, help move it towards a healthier place.

Until next time, good luck!