Leaders of development teams have versatile roles which require a combination of people skills and knowledge of different technologies. In this article, we will open up the role of such leaders and share our thoughts on how to become one.This article is based on our second Peer Talk event's panel discussion, in which three tech leaders, Kirsi Louhelainen (Barona Technologies), Erkka Pynnönen (Grano) and Tomi Suomela (Nordea) shared their thoughts and experiences about leadership and how they have reached the role they are in now. The event was a peer mentoring event for future development team leaders who wanted to know what is good leadership in development teams and how to become one.
Leaders are chameleons who easily adapt different roles
Leaders are versatile people with different skills and roles, especially in development teams. Since these organisations usually have very low hierarchies and the teams function independently, the role of a leader is mostly to inspire, enable best working conditions and communicate with your team and all the stakeholders.
Visualising the future and communicating the direction your team is heading at is extremely important when you are building something new. Your team needs to understand why their actions matter and how to prioritise your common work load.
“For me leadership boils down to creating meaning and clarity for the people you work with.”
Motivating people requires empathy and trust. You need to be genuinely interested and listen to your team members to truly understand what motivates them and in which directions they want to go in their careers – and help them to take the right steps towards these goals. Working closely with the team and being available when needed helps you to gain trust among your team. However, trust is something that is difficult to build but is easy to break: so make sure you are worth it.
“One of the biggest themes of leadership for me is being together and working together on a daily basis. You need to learn to know people and understand what motivates them.”
“In addition to having purpose and clarity, we as leaders need to make sure that the team has the best tools available and there are no obstacles – anything that prevents us from solving the technical problems.”
A leader’s role is also often to stand between the team and the customers or the surrounding organisation. They are the ones who communicate what the team is working with and how the projects are progressing. They help the organisation and the customers to see what kind of champions they have in the team. At times, the leaders also need to act as a shield and protect the team from the unnecessary pressure or irrelevant feedback.
In development teams, it is also important to give advice on technical decisions. The decisions are usually made as a team, but it helps if you as a leader can bring the challenge and different opportunities to the table. Some roles require more technical knowledge than others, but you can also successfully lead a development team without a technical background. In this case, you just have to trust your team’s decisions even more.
“If you are not a technical person, don’t worry about it. You can learn it. Leadership is 80% people skills.”. – Erkka Pynnönen
Micromanaging and other pitfalls of leADERSHIP
What is the single most obnoxious thing leaders can do from a developer’s point of view? Micromanage. And this applies to other teams and organisations as well. All panellists agreed that micromanaging is the quickest way to kill innovation and decrease the level of motivation in the team. Of course it is! These people love solving problems and creating something new as a team. Not just executing someone else’s ideas.
Another common pitfall is to be distant and cold. These people want to be able to rely on you and get your approval and appreciation of the work they have done. When building something new, you don’t necessarily know how it will end up. So make sure your team knows that they are doing the right thing and going to the right direction.
“I want the leader to be close to the actual work and team. Instead of saying do, you need to say let’s do this together.”
Also, if you are unpredictable as a leader it creates uncertainty in your team. As an employee it is annoying when your leader doesn’t have a clear direction where you should be heading at. Or if the direction is changing every now and then. It makes you feel that the things you did in the past weren’t right, and on the other hand you don’t know how to prioritise in the future.
Break silos and find better ways for collaboration
Instead of micromanaging, focus on building a team based on openness and trust. Try to collaborate as much as possible, do the code reviews and design together, because many minds are greater than just one.
Also, take the responsibility in developing the communication between customers, stakeholders and internal organisations. Help the stakeholders to understand what your team is working with and how great they are doing – share success stories and make sure your team members are seen as champions. Make sure that the team has full concentration to work with the prioritised features and projects, and help all the parties to understand why prioritising has been done as it is.
“One thing we must focus on is being closer to the customer."
– Kirsi Louhelainen
As a new born leader, focus on gaining the trust of your team members. Good place to start is to sit down with each one and try to understand what they are doing and what motivates them: also in case that you were chosen to be a team lead for your current colleagues. As a co-worker you might know their ways of working and skills, but you don’t necessary understand what motivates them and where they want to head at in their careers. So, take time to listen and understand this.
“Really focus on understanding what motivates the people. You have been working with them and know their work methods. But you don’t necessary know what motivates them and what they want to achieve in their career.”
– Tomi Suomela
Also, be honest. Usually when a new leader has been selected, some changes will follow. We all know this. So be honest and tell your team members that they don’t need to worry – important things will be preserved, but some important changes will be made. Helping your team to understand and take in these changes help you gain the trust and give room for the upcoming changes.
“Everything is going to remain the same and something is going to change. These two things needs to be communicated at the same time. This is actually a good situation to execute bigger changes because the dynamics are changing and it creates room for something new."
– Kirsi Louhelainen
“Also, it is good to be prepared with self management, as most of the new team leads face this challenge at some point. If you try to do everything by yourself, you will run out of time. You need to learn how to delegate and prioritize, and you need to be able to communicate this honestly to the team.”
- Erkka Pynnönen
So, how to become one?
If you want to be a leader in the future take the initiative and tell people that this is something you are aiming at. Bring up challenges you notice but also remember to bring a solution too. Learn how to communicate these to the team and to the stakeholders. And don’t be afraid to tell this to your manager or colleagues – how could people know what you want if you don’t tell it out loud.
“Tell people that you want to do this. Nobody is going to do it for you. Also, start taking responsibility without waiting for a specific role. If you prove yourself capable of carrying the responsibility, you will increase your chances.”
– Kirsi Louhelainen
Also, gain understanding about the business you are interested in. As a leader you need to combine technology to business; see and communicate the value of the projects and decisions you make.
“People skills, business domain knowledge & personal domain (tech) knowledge – and to be able to combine these topics.”
– Erkka Pynnönen
It is also a good idea to move back and forward in different roles to gain more insight. Being a leader helps you to prioritize better as a developer and trying out different roles helps you to understand each team member better. So, don’t stick into one role but try out many.
Most importantly, start learning people skills – this is also something you can practice. Learn to listen to your colleagues, see in which areas they are good at and in which they need to develop in. Learn where they want to head towards in the future – and help them do that. And listen to yourself too. Is this something you truly want? What do you need to develop in order to become a leader?
“Listen to yourself. If this is something you want to do in you career, go for it. Skills you can learn, but the most important thing is that the will must be there.”
– Tomi Suomela
These were just some highlights and keynotes of our 45 minute long panel discussion. If you want to hear more thoughts on leadership, e.g. how values are shown in leadership methods and what kind of challenges tech leaders encounter, you can request the full video from by email here. The video will also be added here shortly.
NEXT PEER TALK: WOMEN IN GAMES AND SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT TUE 15.5. 16.30->
Our third Peer Talk event focuses on encouraging and empowering women in games and technology to become braver and take in bigger responsibilities. There are still few places available, so if you are interested in hearing how women have built their career in technology, come and join us. Also opportunity a workshop for developing your pitching skills. Check out the program and the panelists and register here.