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Technical Leadership – The First Transition

Posted by Sri Subramanian (@whosissri) on July 2, 2011

In Technical Leadership – An Introduction, I claim that real growth involves changing what we do. This post is about the first change.

We join the workforce as interns or college recruits with limited work experience. We are eager to learn, and to work hard, but need to be told exactly what to do, and, at some level, how to do it. Oh, we are expected to have some basic skills, and even some self learning skills. However, we do need a lot of guidance. We need training programs, pointers to documents and books, and someone overseeing the results of our work.

The first transition is from ability to work on well defined, simple problems with help to solving loosely defined, complex problems with more independence.

The most common error as we make this transition is not knowing when to ask for help, and when not to. We know that in order to make this transition, we must first show that we can address the current well defined problems with little outside help. In an effort to show this, we end up not asking for help at all. The result is that we sometimes take inordinately long time to do what could have been done very simply. When this happens growth opportunities come slower.

On the other hand, asking for help for everything, can leave our colleagues frustrated, and become career limiting.

So, what is one to do?

A good approach is to take every opportunity to succinctly talk about what we are doing – at the manager staff meeting, at the water cooler, at lunch with friends and colleagues. By sharing what we are trying to figure out, and how we are approaching the problem, we give our colleagues the opportunity to give us those pointers – to docs, training, and other resources – that can help us achieve our goals faster, and demonstrate growth potential.

Often, developers associate this transition with going from bug fixing to writing features. It is not. A simple, well defined problem may be a bug, but it is a certain type of bug. [A hello world (or such) program is also a well defined, simple problem – though of little use to a typical workplace.] Working on a race condition bug, on the other hand, is a loosely defined, complex problem that is worthy of a senior developer who has successfully made this transition. In fact, the most complex issues are often issues with code already written and in use by customers. The live customers add some very interesting complexity to any problem 🙂

In order to make the next transformation, one needs to work on different types of loosely defined and complex problems – difficult bugs, customer escalations, feature development, tool development, etc. – but that is a topic for the next post 🙂

The full series of blogs on Technical Leadership:

Technical Leadership – An Introduction

Technical Leadership – The First Transition

Technical Leadership – The Leadership Transition

Technical Leadership – Impacting The Customer Experience

Technical Leadership – The Technologist

6 Responses to “Technical Leadership – The First Transition”

  1. Meg Bear said

    One great way to make this transition is to start getting in the habit of sharing what you have learned. This is a different way to solicit feedback from more senior people as they will watch your sharing and often give you slight corrections as you go.

    Developing a habit of helping others with things you have learned can work well to support future transitions also.


  2. Sri Subramanian said

    @Meg, How true! Your tips are appropriate for *all* transitions! Thanks for chiming in.

  3. Sri Subramanian said

    Comments I got on my facebook page reaffirm that these transitions are generically applicable outside the software engineering world as well.

    #This is so true in my field of education as well.

    #Great article. Equally applicable to manufacturing process.
    TQM suggests to have good levels of standardization of processes along with on the job training to have a smooth transition.

  4. […] Technical Leadership – The First Transition […]

  5. […] about how growth is associated with doing different things, and not necessarily doing more. The first change is the transformation into an independent problem solver. The second and third changes are about […]

  6. […] Technical Leadership – The First Transition […]

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