João Alves

November 1, 2021

The manager-elevator

I first read about "servant leadership" in a job offer when I joined mytaxi  (FREE NOW) back in 2018. They were looking for a "servant leader." I bit the bullet and changed my career from software development to engineering management.

Before joining the company, I searched for books that more experienced folks in the industry recommended. I ended up buying "Turn the ship around" and "Maverick!". These are two masterpieces of enlightenment when it comes to driving teams and organizations. The two most relevant concepts I captured were:

  1. Lead by example. One cannot change the culture through elaborated pitches and preaching how best practices™ will improve your team members' lives.
  2. Create leaders, not followers. Some charismatic people tend to think its job is about deciding things or, worse, giving orders. Empowering people to make decisions themselves and creating other leaders unlocks organizational potential. Hence it's more durable.

They felt natural to me because that's how I always have seen myself. Someone that pushes other people to try new approaches and guides them through these changes.

Glorified coaching

Lately, I've been hearing a lot about "servant leadership." Usually, with a negative connotation. When digging into the root causes of this mock, I've found patterns.

Sometimes, people confuse it with cheerleading. It's great to bring your team coffee or ask for food delivery because they're solving a significant problem. But wouldn't it be better if you did that while communicating to other teams, managing blockers, or helping answer less-important inquires on Slack? I admit cheerleading is essential as a leader, but it's not all.

I've also seen the laissez-faire style. These folks are utterly reactive to what their team does, and their best quality is to say, "If you need help, I'm here." That's not how it should work. If you see someone drowning, you don't wait for them to ask for help! Likewise, if you see your team getting stuck or something odd, taking immediate action — it may be as simple as listening to someone's complaints — is crucial to create natural trust in leaders.

Finally, the "I don't know about the details" type. I get it. It's challenging to be on top of everything. If you're managing a complex domain or scope, it may be daunting. However, these details give you superpowers. They allow you to have more productive conversations with your peers, directors, other folks in the industry. They allow you to understand what is exactly happening when another person approaches you for escalation.

While this post is not a rant against agile coaches, you'll likely become a glorified coach rather than an engineering leader if you tick most of the above boxes.

Engineering Leadership starts with Engineering

I won't be the person that says that an engineering leader keeps coding. Sometimes it's desirable; sometimes, it's not. It also heavily depends on how many other things you're doing. Nevertheless, it would help if you kept your hax sharpened to lead any discipline effectively. Reading technical blogs, whitepapers, books, reviewing design documents, or doing code reviews may help too.

Going to the trenches and getting your hands dirty gives you a clearer perspective on how things work in practice versus how they're supposed. You start seeing more trade-offs. You can challenge the status-quo and make your teams reflect better.

Engineering leaders are aware of where the industry is going. They aren't afraid of sponsoring strategic decisions that might affect one or more teams. These decisions go from migrating from a technology that's becoming a liability — e.g., Adobe Flash — to try a different approach to DevOps — e.g., Platforms as products —, and so on. That's engineering leaders' scope. They help businesses deliver value through creating and shaping organizations. If they run away from it or let teams and systems rot, it's their responsibility.

If we take off engineering from engineering leadership, what's left? 

From strategy to tactics and back

I love to listen to a good story. I love to feel inspired by leaders that shape an industry or the world. The other day, I was amazed by how Ferran Adriá explained innovation and how he was a forward thinker more than 30 years ago. But it worked way better because Ferran was passionate about cooking. He was a cook himself. 

Being strategic and visionary is a great way to drive and motivate your teams. At the same time, if you don't take the time to be on the ground and support your team members, you'll likely miss crucial details to support your strategy.

That's why I believe the best leaders are in the manager-elevator spectrum. Someone that's able to be in a tactical meeting — even if it's to listen — and one hour later is writing the strategy of the whole department or presenting it to the CTO.

Let's press the button and ride this elevator up and down.

— João