Not everyone is well suited to be an Engineering Lead, Director or CTO. Aside from demonstrating outstanding technical expertise, there are other real skills they must be effective with in order to make a significant positive impact on the products and the company. Here is a checklist that represents the minimum bar of what else you should expect from your Engineering Lead.
If your answer is "no" to any of these questions, you should reconsider whether or not they are in the role that’s right for them.
- Do they consistently guide the team to solve problems that could not have been solved individually?
An Engineering Lead ensures each individual on the team benefits from being part of the team; each individual can accomplish more than they could as an individual contributor alone.
- Do they consistently have a vision for the future and a strategy to achieve it?
An Engineering Lead has a written roadmap and can articulate how the team is going to get from here to there, not just technically, but also how they will manage the inevitable cultural resistance that’s a part of any big change.
- Do they consistently represent the values of the company well?
An Engineering Lead must be a positive example for all the values of the company; they gave up the right to whine and complain when they accepted the role and the fact that whatever the problems now may be, it’s their fault. And unless your company values include being self-absorbed, sexist, racist asshats, those are not behaviors an Engineering Lead would demonstrate.
- Do they consistently demonstrate a commitment to self-improvement?
An Engineering Lead dedicates a significant portion of their own time and the team’s time to growing and learning new skills and teaching what they have learned.
If anything is certain, it’s that whatever problem you are solving today will seem trivial by tomorrow’s standards. Not having an actual plan for improvement is a good sign this isn’t happening.
- Do they consistently demonstrate a willingness to understand others’ wordviews?
An Engineering Lead interprets others’ motives in the most generous way possible and doesn’t blame others for how they perceive the issues; they understand that perception problems are still real problems and address them quickly.
- Do they consistently set clear and reasonable expectations for the team?
An Engineering Lead always knows the specific change they want and the team knows what they need to do to meet those expectations; they define the problem and the constraints, and leave the specific solution to their team of experts.
- Do they consistently manage their risk portfolio well?
An Engineering Lead manages a portfolio of short-term and long-term goals, and low-risk and high-risk bets, and can clearly state how resources are being allocated in a way that is consistent with the company or department’s budgeting strategy.
- Do they consistently manage uncomfortable situations well?
An Engineering Lead stays calm under pressure and handles the most uncomfortable situations first; if there’s a communication problem or someone is behaving in a way inconsistent with the values of the company, they do not wait for later or a better time to confront the situation.
- Do they consistently make good decisions in the face of an uncertain future and sparse data?
An Engineering Lead can be trusted to make reliable choices given imperfect information in a rapidly changing environment that pay off in line with their risk portfolios; they don’t hedge with “well, that depends…,” they make the best decision they can with the information they have and adapt quickly when things change.
- Do they consistently communicate complex ideas in a way that can be understood?
An Engineering Lead serves as a bridge between their team and others and can clearly communicate the problem, the costs, the benefits, and the impact in a way that’s actionable to those other teams.
- Do they consistently take personal initiative when confronted with hard problems?
An Engineering Lead actively seeks problems; they relentlessly go out of their way to discover where things aren’t working as expected and take action to resolve those issues. An Engineering Lead isn’t waiting for “someone” to do “something” and they are in no way defensive about criticism.
- Do they consistently minimize surprise plan changes?
An Engineering Lead that can only give you the bad news after it happens is worse than useless. An Engineering Lead makes adjustments at the first sign things aren’t going as anticipated and doesn’t rely on “hoping for the best” or fantasies of “making up the time” to ship the work. There should be literally no way a change or missed deadline comes as a surprise after the fact.
- Do they consistently see changes through to the end?
An Engineering Lead that doesn’t stick around anywhere long enough to see the real impact of their choices (and mistakes) isn’t a lead at all.