Technical Leadership in Customer Products at the FT
“A Tech Lead is a software engineer responsible for leading a team and alignment of the technical direction” — Pat Kua 1.
While this is a useful high-level definition of the Tech Lead role, it’s not very specific to an actual business. You’ll find that technical leadership roles vary greatly between companies and even departments within the same companies. So, as someone who is fairly new to The Financial Times I wanted to better understand what the Tech Lead role looks like here, especially in the Customer Products group that I’m a part of, to see if it could be a good fit for the future me 🙂.
To do this, I went straight to the people that are doing the job currently, some of the Tech Leads in Customer Products, and got lots of great insight into how they lead their teams. I quickly started to understand some of the main themes between their roles, as well as some of the tasks that were unique to their individual teams. I see these themes fitting into four categories, our Tech Leads are:
- Advocates for their team members
- Responsible for technical direction
- The technical representative for the team
- Software Engineers
Advocates for their team members
This came across the biggest and most important responsibility for each of the tech leads I spoke to, which makes sense as it fits into the leadership part of the role. As I understand it, being an advocate for your team members can include a number of tasks, such as:
- Finding and creating growth opportunities
- Providing general support
- Championing their achievements
- Ensuring a safe environment for them to learn and grow
- Shielding them from outside pressure (when completely necessary)
- Being honest with them
James, the Tech Lead for the US Growth team, shared the benefits of having one-to-ones with each team member. James uses this as an opportunity to understand how each person is doing and a way to find out what they need. This can help with a bunch of the areas in the above list, and I’ve personally found it useful with Tech Leads I’ve worked with to develop rapport and build that working relationship.
Tech Leads have a good oversight of all of the different tasks happening within the team as well as the interesting initiatives happening at the wider programme level. This puts them in a great position to find opportunities to help the personal growth areas of each team member. Rowan, the Tech Lead for the apps team, mentioned that this could include delegation of Tech Lead responsibilities for those wanting to develop their leadership skills, and this would also work just as well for non-leadership specific skills like programming and communication.
Glynn, the Tech Lead of the Content Innovation team, talked me through the importance of ensuring psychological safety in this team. This is around making sure that team members know that they won’t be punished if they make a mistake and that they can be their authentic selves at work, which is essential for any team to perform well. Part of the Tech Lead role is to make sure people are comfortable sharing their thoughts and concerns so we can get the best out of them, enabling them to build better products.
Also, as part of my chat with Rowan, we discussed the interesting topic of protecting team members from outside pressures and company politics. Rowan has learned that it can actually be a good thing to allow team members to see some of those pressures. It can give them exposure to the realities of the role, and can also be another career development opportunity. It reminded me of a great talk at a Lead Dev conference I went to. Nickolas Means gave the talk called Eiffel’s Tower, in this talk it was noted that the common take on leadership has been to protect your engineers from all external pressures and act as the “poop” umbrella (💩☂️). While this has benefits, your team can become disconnected from the goals of the company which is useful for their role. Nickolas instead introduced the idea of the Heat Shield (🔥🛡) usually used in space. The heat shield doesn’t completely stop heat from coming through, but it shields enough heat to keep you alive. As a lead, you shouldn’t be the barrier between your team and the business, but instead you should let some of the heat in and block the really big fires that happen in your organisation!
Responsible for tech decisions and direction
Depending on the company and department you’re in, the responsibility of deciding the tech direction and making the decisions isn’t always on the Tech Lead. Sometimes this sits with a Technical Architect or a Principal Engineer. Here, in Customer Products a lot of this work is the responsibility of a Tech Lead, although for much larger cross-team changes the Principal Engineers will also be responsible.
Nick, the Tech Lead for the Acquisitions team, shared how autonomous the teams are. Each team is trusted to make the best decisions for their team, giving them the freedom to choose how they work. Tech Leads aren’t left alone to do this, they have regular catch-ups with other Tech Leads and Principal Engineers in the group to discuss these kinds of decisions, especially where it could benefit or impact other teams.
While Tech Leads regularly meet as a group to share information, many of the Tech Leads also regularly catch-up with the Product Manager and Delivery Manager within their team. This is what Rowan shared as the three amigos approach to team leadership, where, in our case, there is a representative from Product, Tech and Delivery. This can include deciding the next big thing to work on, discussing priorities for the next sprint and generally combining the interests of Product, Delivery and Tech. Practically, Tech Leads will be involved in roadmapping, providing estimates, and setting OKRs for the team. This is also a big part of Jen’s role as the Tech Lead for the Ops Cops team, which has a slightly different setup. Ops Cops is responsible for handling incidents that arise across the Customer Products tech estate and has rotating team members each week. This team doesn’t have a dedicated Product Manager so the prioritisation tasks and general management of what the team works on is all part of Jen’s role.
One of the things I learned from James was the importance of knowing how you’ll measure success for the work the team plans to do. Before starting work on any new project or task, we should be able to know afterwards if that change was beneficial. This is all discussed as part of the three amigos meetings.
The Technical Representative for the team
Umberto, the Tech Lead for the Content Discovery team, and Rowan both shared how Tech Leads are naturally the point of contact for technical questions. Fielding a wide variety of questions from external stakeholders, being the tech representative present in meetings, and sharing thoughts on things like technical feasibility are all responsibilities that will fall to the Tech Lead. Since they have the official title it makes sense to reach out to the lead if you have a general tech question. Being the technical representative also includes answering questions from within the team; engineers tend to go straight to the Tech Lead with areas they need clarification on.
On the flip side, it’s also up to the Tech Lead to surface technical risks to the stakeholders. Tatiana, Tech Lead for the Accounts team, shared the importance of ensuring stakeholders understand the risks of unmaintained tech to the users.
These areas are great opportunities to start delegating parts of the Tech Lead responsibility to others in the team, which is what Glynn does in the Content Innovation team. This gives people development opportunities and lessens the load on the Tech Lead.
As a Tech Lead you automatically have a bigger impact in the company given the nature of the role, this was something I talked to Glynn about. Tech Leads are the team representative in regular tech lead catch-ups, and are involved in larger tech strategy conversations which is a good opportunity to have a say in making things better for the product, our readers, and also the people we work with.
A Software Engineer
And finally, the thing that seems the smallest, but is still an important part of the Tech Lead role. While being a Tech Lead is about leading a group of engineers, you are still a software engineer. So, writing code, keeping up-to-date with new technologies, pairing with your team members and generally delivering software are still part of the Tech Lead role. Almost everyone I spoke to wished they had more time to spend on this!
One of the big differences in going from a Software Engineer role to a Tech Lead is that big reduction in how much time you’re able to spend writing code and figuring out problems by yourself. James spends a good chunk of time pairing with team members, giving advice on code and reviewing PRs; these are the tasks of many software engineers, but they are also leadership tasks. Similarly, Umberto talked about spending time reviewing PRs as a great way to get team members unblocked. This is actually one of our Tech Principles at the FT, we treat unblocking others as our priority.
But, what are the differences?
I’ve shared a lot about the similarities of the Tech Lead role between teams after talking to these Tech Leads, but there were differences. This is mainly because of the differences in what each team is responsible for. The Ops Cops team does a lot less stakeholder management, so Jen, unlike many of the other leads, also does product management, making sure work is clear, divided up and ready to be picked up by rotating team members. The Content Discovery team is the opposite of this and a lot of work is done with the Editorial team which takes time away from other tasks like fleshing out stories to be picked up by the team.
Also, I learned from Glynn that each Tech Lead leans on their own personal strengths; if they are naturally inclined to support other engineers then it’s easy to spend a big chunk of your role doing that, otherwise if you’re great at handling stakeholders then that can become the priority. Either way there is a lot of opportunity to make the role something that suits you, while incorporating the four themes I outlined.
It was really interesting to hear everyone’s experiences of being a Tech Lead in Customer Products. Learning about the role from each person’s perspective made the idea of being a Tech Lead here a lot less daunting! Advocating for team members, ensuring they get personal development opportunities and celebrating their achievements, is definitely a part of the role that appeals to me, though, I don’t need to be a Tech Lead to do that part!
On the other hand, I would benefit from getting more opportunities to make decisions about technical direction. Or, work with a Tech Lead as they go through the process of doing this for their team. I think this would put me in a better position to do this role effectively.
So, is the Tech Lead role a good fit for the future me? I think it could be…
Thanks to all of the amazing Tech Leads across customer products for taking the time to share their experiences with me!
1 The Definition of a Tech Lead — Pat Kua