Technical Leader – and 5 Great Ways to Become One

How to become a technical leader with 5 surefire tactics

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In this article we will see the true meaning of technical leader. I will explain you who technical leaders are, why they are important in organizations, what are the characteristics of a technical leader, and how to become one. As I am writing this article in early 2023, I am working as Senior Technical Program Manager for Amazon, so I feel quite confident on this stuff.

Disclaimer: what you read here are my opinions only, and do not reflect Amazon’s.

Technical Leader vs. Manager

Organizations grow and they hire more people. If you are a 5 people startup, you probably need no manager: everyone is doing everything. However, as the company grows, people tend cluster in teams, and you need some coordination among teams, so that they all work in the same way. Both a technical leader and a manager can serve that, but in different ways.

An analogy will make this crystal clear. Imagine your company is like a car that needs to get somewhere.

The manager is the passenger that hops on the taxi and tell the driver where to go. He doesn’t need to know much about how the car works, and he does not even need to know how to drive. The technical leader is instead the F1 coach that used to be a pilot. He talks with pilots about strategy, how to be fuel efficient, how to push the car to the limit. He knows how the car works, how it is supposed to work, and how it actually works in practice.

Technical Leaders know the details of their field, much like coaches in Formula 1
F1 in the United Arab Emirates. As you will see, there are many parallelisms between F1 and technical leadership.

I hope that now that everyone is going crazy with Formula 1 (probably thanks to Netflix), this analogy delivers. It contains the gist of everything you need to know about a technical leader, what he does (dives deep, has rich technical understanding) and why he is important to the company (he can enable more conscious decisions).

But I know this is not enough, and we still need to speak on how to become one (you will see, there are no shortcuts). So, keep reading, I will also have Steve Job chiming in later down in this article to reinforce the message.

Who Is a Technical Leader?

Technical leader are not taxi passengers. Technical leaders are like F1 ex-pilots that now are coaches. The idea is simple: they are not driving anymore, but they can discuss with a pilot about the best way to drive.

A technical leader is an individual that has technical expertise on its own field. That may be driving F1 supercars, it may be software development in Python, it may be inventory management in a warehouse, or any skill that requires specific expertise. That individual is so expert on this field, and yet she is not working there anymore. She knows how to drive F1 supercars, but she does not drive them (anymore). She knows ho to create a proper software development pipeline, but she doesn’t create one (anymore). She knows that the higher the shelf in a warehouse the longer the time to pick up an item, but she is not placing items on shelves (anymore).

The technical leader has stepped up. She looks at the larger picture, but she can dive deep into the details with the various technicians to ensure the larger picture falls into place. So, our technical leader navigates on multiple levels (global view, tiny technical details). The idea is that she can bridge the gap between the overall direction and the technical execution.

A technical leader doesn't have to be a nerdy guy wearing oversized jumpers. He or she can be any person.
Technical leaders are not necessarily nerdy guys with oversized Metallica’s t-shirts.

There are two types of technical leaders. Individual contributors do not have any report, they do not directly manage a team. Instead, they keep a larger picture and ensure the proper technical details flow from one team to another, ensuring no team is blocking no other team. This is my current job in Amazon (as Feb 2023). And then, there are technical leaders acting as managers. They have direct reports and manage the performance review for those people. They orchestrate the day-by-day technicalities of their own teams.

I hope you now know who a technical leader is, so we can move on to discuss why technical leaders are important in any organization.

The Importance of the Technical Leader

Since I am a Sr TIPM (The “I” is for infrastructure, as I do infrastructure projects) I am surely biased to tell how cool my role is and how important it is for my organization, or any organization. Instead of going through some sort of humble brag, let me have Steve Job explain this to you.

Thanks Steve. Back in 1985, he pioneered this concept that company don’t need managers. Managers are a byproduct that is needed to deal with the complexity of the organization, but in the perfect world there would be no manager.

Technical leaders are important because they inspire the team (“why would you want to work for someone you can’t learn anything from” says Steve), they set a common vision and help deliver complex technical goals. They connect senior leadership with the real details of the real world, acting as a glue between the vision and the frontlines.

In short, technical leaders keep things real and make them happen. Without them, we would have big complex projects that get may get done eventually, but that do not deliver value (the proverbial “bridge to nowhere”). Technical leaders prevent this from happening.

The Characteristics of Technical Leaders

Now that we know who is a technical leader and why it is important to have technical leaders in a company, we can start to think about their characteristics. How do you know if someone is a technical leader and not “just” an inspiring leader? What are the personal traits that make technical leaders who they are?

I tried to summarize them in a list based on what I have seen in the corporate world. Of course, every technical leader is different, but they all share some broad characteristics about who they are and about what they do.

  • Know the tiny details of technicalities. For a technical leader, having “a technical skill” is not enough. Technical leaders are experts of their fields, they have hands-on experience on that skills and know the edge cases where things do not work as they should. They know how to do things by the book, and they know what is the difference when coming to implementation in practice. In short, they know the details. A technical leader does not have to have past technical experience in a technical role. Yet, reaching this level of detailed knowledge is virtually impossible without such experience, and this is why most leaders of this kind come from a technical background.
  • Set the example. Having expert-level knowledge is worth nothing if you keep it for yourself. Technical leaders don’t do that. They spend time evangelizing about the best way to do things. They act as system architects, providing a general technical direction that integrates all technical components in a way that brings customer benefit.
  • Maintain the big picture. Even setting the example at technical level and having maximum expertise is not enough. Knowing all the details may mean you get lost in those details. That’s not quite what the technical leader does. Quite the opposite, technical leaders are like eagles: they fly high in the sky, but can dive deep fast to hit their target. They can go deep beneath the surface to understand the technical challenges of individual teams or even of a specific person and help them move in a direction that is consistent with the biggest picture.
  • Program manager.Okay, I am biased there as I am a TIPM, and that is not the only technical leader role. But every technical leader needs to be a program manager to some extent. Being a program manager means you can make things fall into place, ensure dependencies are in the proper order, and in general get things done appropriately. Technical leaders know how to do that, they do not focus only on the technicalities, but keep in mind what will work in practice.
  • Focus on business value. Even here I may be biased because my experience in Amazon taught me to always put the customer first. There may be companies where technical leaders are not expected to do so, but I find it a valuable approach. Technical leaders connect the business outcome, the value for the customer, with the technical implementation. They can keep any discussion on track toward what will deliver customer value.

These are the 5 characteristics that every technical leader should have. As you can see, they are quite broad and abstract, and there is nothing such as “they should know technology X” or “they should have worked for Y years in the industry”. Those are things that just happens when people try to reach these characteristics. Also note that most people just end up there, and they realize they have become a technical leader when they are already.

A technical leader can set the direction and lead at the front
The technical leader guides the rest of the team in the right direction, with expertise on their technical field.

Since these characteristics are so broad and even vague sometimes, how can you get there? What is the path to become a technical leader? That is the question you have all been waiting for, and now that you know the characteristics, we are ready to talk about that in the coming paragraph. Read on.

How To Become a Technical Leader

Becoming a technical leader takes time. You won’t buy a Udemy course that gets you there, you can’t ask ChatGPT to teach that to you, and you can’t even take a masterclass for that. It takes time, and not just time spent passively. It takes times with hard work, bruises from real experiences and things gone south at work. But, with patient and determination, virtually everyone can get there. How do you do that?

Start with the passion. I do not believe in the “follow your passions” life advice, because it conveniently ignores what the passions are about. But here it is important. Becoming (and being) a technical leader will mean diving extremely deep into things, obsessing with technical details that most people can just ignore. If you don’t like a technology or a field and are “just ok” with that, then you won’t become a technical leader.

You need to find your technical niche where you are extremely passionate. Where you are never satisfied and always want to know more, where learning more gives you an immense sense of fulfillment and untamable thirst for more knowledge. If you find such field, and that is a field where technical leaders are needed, then you are good to go. For me, it was Network Engineering. For others it may be Software Development, or something else.

Be always learning. You should never stop learning, regardless of your role, but especially if you want to become a technical leader. Whenever there is some new piece of information, or new knowledge, you should chase it relentlessly. Particularly, you should try to go deep rather than broad. This means you should prioritize learning that goes one level deeper, that gets you closer to the details.

For example, imagine the piece of knowledge “planes can fly”. You can go broad adding “boats float in the sea”, which is something that exists in parallel and are part of the same broader topic, in this case transportation means. Going deeper is to understand that planes fly because their wings are shaped in such a way that airs above the air runs faster than airs below, thus the air below the wing has more force and keeps the plane up. You may go even deeper and understand how the turbojet engine works, and then how the electrical controls work, and so on.

Take ownership for the broader direction. Don’t just wait for work to be assigned to you. Instead, think about the big picture and be vocal about what the team should do. Don’t keep it to yourself. If you want to be a technical leader, you need to understand the big picture, but also participate to that. The role of a technical leader is not just to make the details fall in place so that the big picture happens. It is also to question and challenge the big picture to ensure that is feasible and that it will actually work.

Discuss often, evangelize. This is a different flavor of the previous point. As a technical leader, you can’t keep things for yourself. Quite the opposite, you need to speak up and provide your technical expertise. And that’s not only when it comes to deciding about the big picture. It is important that you discuss with your peers, your managers, and most importantly less senior staff and other technical folks. You want to give people an opportunity for everyone to learn what you learnt. In other words, live by “sharing is caring”.

Technical Leadership and F1
F1 requires a lot of technical competencies. To make them all work together, they need technical leaders.

Learn some program management. All the previous times won’t work unless you know how to get things done. And that does not mean just getting the things you have to do done, it means making sure other people deliver as well. You won’t be a technical leader if you are unable to lead others.

So, learn how to lead others, how to keep track of work, and how to prevent a potential blocker to become an unsurmountable showstopper that will halt your project. You can start with referent power that will help to influence people, then dive deep into Responsible-Accountable-Consulted-Informed roles people have in projects, and then explore other topics of project management of your interest.

Becoming a Technical Leader in Summary

Long story short, to become a technical leader you will need to gain extreme technical expertise in your focus area, and then evangelize it to people and connect it to the big picture. Pair this with an ability to deliver and influence other people and boom, there you have it: a technical leader.

Of course, this article is not a shortcut. If you think you come here, read this, do a bunch of easy work for a couple of hours and you will be a technical leader, then no, sorry to break your dreams. But if you consistently follow the tips you found here, and dedicate time to that consistently, you will be on your path to technical leadership. At least, that’s how it worked for me.

Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.
Picture of Alessandro Maggio

Alessandro Maggio

Project manager, critical-thinker, passionate about networking & coding. I believe that time is the most precious resource we have, and that technology can help us not to waste it. I founded with the same principle: I share what I learn so that you get value from it faster than I did.

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Alessandro Maggio