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From Engineer to Manager and Back Again

This post lists the key insights from this article, from a staff engineer at Flipp, Daniel Orner.

So what does the term “team lead” mean to you?

From senior engineer to team lead

As a senior engineer in a small team, with time the author became more confident in his role and started:

  • mentoring other, more junior devs
  • taking part in more conversations with their stakeholders and liaised with other teams
  • taking on coaching responsibilities
  • doing more design and architecture work
  • trying to make sure they were iterating and improving their sprint and JIRA process.

Then, he got a pleasant surprise by having his job title automatically bumped up to “Team Lead, Software Engineering”.

The difference in responsibilities between those positions

This was his calendar as a contributor:

And here’s what it looked like as a team lead:

He was sad that I couldn’t give everyone his full attention, but still felt elated that so much responsibility was being trusted to me.

During this time, his company had been making an effort to better define its roles. Team Lead was a tricky one. They realized that the benefit of a Product Owner would be better realized by allowing them to take a step back and think bigger-picture and longer-term. The day-to-day duties which the Product Owner used to have were put on the Team Lead and/or a Scrum Master, depending on how many we had and which teams had them.

We also realized we had to get better at coaching and performance management. This became a focus of the Team Lead role as well. This was done without actively reducing the existing expectations of a Team Lead to be the “most senior engineer” on the team, and responsible for all the architecture and technical decisions as well.

Eventually, this definition broke. They realized that having a single person be responsible for so much simply wasn’t feasible.

The main focus of the role was now on “people” (performance management, coaching, and growth) and “delivery” (ensuring things weren’t blocked and were delivered on time).

How he moved back

The key event which made him realize that he was no longer what he wanted to be was a negative performance review. Part of this was due to confusion about his responsibilities, but that definitely wasn’t the full picture. He was wearing so many hats that his “team lead” hat started falling off.

Several weeks later, his coach and his VP of Engineering asked him the honest question: “Is this what you want to do?”

After much soul-searching, he told my coach that he didn’t want to be a Team Lead any more.

This was a hard decision. There were (and are) a number of things he really enjoy about being a Team Lead:

  • Being responsible for team culture and team health
  • Being in meetings with other leadership people
  • Being part of discussions that were basic to how the company functioned
  • Helping to define roles and point to improvements that needed to happen around communication, compensation, policies, etc.

The fact that he realized that in order to be effective, he needed to spend all his time in this headspace and leave the technical side to others, made him realize that it simply wasn’t what I wanted to do.

He also realized that many of the things HE enjoyed didn’t go away. He still act as a mentor to others on my team and he is still part of conversations which help to define how we as a company think of ourselves.

Does he regret being a Team Lead?

Hell no. He learned an incredible amount in a few years which he’d never have gotten the chance to learn otherwise.

In the end, what he found most important was to ask the question, “Do I enjoy what I’m doing? If so, why? If not, why?” We all must grow in our work, make mistakes, and learn from them. If you find work stressful because you’re not good enough at it yet, the answer there is to get resources and help until you are. But if it’s because the work doesn’t speak to you and isn’t where you want to spend your time, see what you can do to change that.

4 min​ read

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