As someone who spends most of their time speaking with engineering leaders, the question I get asked the most is: What advice do you have for ICs who want to/are transitioning to engineering leadership positions?
As luck would have it, we recently had Nuno Antunes, VP of Engineering at Datadog, on our podcast, and the conversation centered on this question. Nuno has been through the IC to Eng. Leader journey himself and helps guide ICs into their leadership roles. So, today, we deep dive into his three essential lessons for anyone who wants to succeed in this transition:
If you want to find out how to make a successful leap from IC to engineering leader, or help others on their path, keep reading.
Every time someone starts the journey from an individual contributor to being a team lead, you hear the same things: "Okay, what do I do? Where do I start? What does it mean to be a team lead? Am I going to start out being a people person, or will I start out being the process execution person?" Engineering leaders decide early on if they will take the “people” or the “execution” path.
On the people path 👉 Leaders want to take care of and shield their team. They are more focused on happiness and motivation.
On the execution path 👉 Leaders are looking for the right processes and organizational setup. Their goal is to answer the question, “how can we deliver?”
The thing about being a leader is that you have to have the overall viewpoint. You can’t choose one path. You need to find a balance between the two. But finding this balance is not easy, so what tends to happen is you will have pendulum shifts.
One day you might notice that you’re too much of a “people-oriented” leader, so your team is happy, but not delivering the impact you need. So you turn the wheel and move to the “execution” lane, and now your team is executing, but they are not happy. Frustratingly, your team will also not deliver the impact you need on this path.
Jason Warner coined the term “Newton’s Cradle of People vs. Execution” on the podcast, which helps to illustrate this pendulum shift:
💡 Something that will help balance the people and execution sides is ensuring that your team finds purpose in what they do. Purpose is the main ingredient of both excellent developer experience and delivery.
To create purpose, find a metric that your team can clearly influence and is connected to your business goals.
When DataDog acquired Sqreen, in 2021, Nuno started to ask people how they could bring their work closer to the business. “They had this Dashboard that showed critical, high, and medium tickets, with numbers and growth. It was very operational and something I quickly tried to change.”
They soon realized that they could identify the ARR that each of their languages (Java, Ruby, Python, etc.) was generating. So a new dashboard, which showed the number of customers and the ARR for all the languages they were growing, was created.
“One time we were doing OKRs and one of the engineers said, ‘okay, I want my OKR for this quarter to be that we reach half a million in ARR.’” Suddenly, his goal was not to eliminate soft tickets or to have zero tickets. It was a business goal.
This approach can shift the mindset of the team towards the business, getting everyone to focus on something bigger than just their work, and it ultimately creates a high sense of purpose.
💡 Sometimes it's hard to correlate the work of a team with ARR so we need to find something in the middle. If it's not ARR, what are the proxy metrics that we know will be good? You might have to experiment with different levels, but the key is to find the metrics that can show your team’s impact on the business.
Having difficult conversations is one of the most critical skills of a leader. This is the practice of transparency, and without it, your team simply won’t succeed, and you will probably be an unhappy leader.
Something which is often misunderstood is vulnerability. Some will say it’s about weakness and therapy, when in fact vulnerability is about being able to show that you are human. For example, when I’ve had a really bad night of sleep, I will let my team know that they’re probably not getting the best version of me.
Being vulnerable in those moments and allowing the rest of your team to show their human side will also help maintain the balance between people and execution by making those difficult (and crucial) conversations easier to have.
💡 One of the books Nuno recommends (and I do too) is Radical Candor, which will help you master the art of difficult conversations. Nuno also recommends reflecting on your strengths and weaknesses on the path to becoming a leader and then asking your team to give their own views on those. It’s a surprising exercise that will help you work on vulnerability, and set you on the right path for progress.
A new role requires new tools. You probably don't master those tools yet, and that's fine. You need to crawl and walk before you run. So, one final piece of advice is: Don’t go through this journey alone. Find someone that can help you.
If your manager is a great leader, perfect. If not, mentor with other people inside or outside the organization, read some books, join some communities, listen to our podcast, message me on LinkedIn. But don't put it on your shoulders to make this journey on your own. It's much easier when you have someone do it with you.
Listen to the episode where these lessons came from 👇