Saturday, July 10, 2010

Becoming a Technical Leader

I picked up Gerald M. Weinberg's Becoming a Technical Leader: An Organic Problem-Solving Approach because I'm interested in the intersection of leadership and technology, having seen the results of a lack of leadership.

Like all of GW's books, this book made me think and reflect personally. In this case, on my own leadership style (or lack thereof).

The book is based on the knowledge GW has acquired from 20 years of running leadership workshops. One constant about Gerald Weinberg: He is a master storyteller. At times I forget that I'm reading a technical book.

The book begins with a premise - leadership is familiar, but not well understood - and provides a basic definition:
Technical Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered to solve problems.

The book presents some interesting observations about technical leaders:
  • They are not the pure technicians produced by the engineering and science schools, nor are they the conventional leaders trained in the schools of management.

  • They have a rare combination of technical expertise and leadership skills

  • They have a concern for the quality of ideas and want everything to be the best

  • They have a nurturing process and do not take charge of people's lives

  • GW humorously describes his initial desire to avoid leadership: make doubly sure I would never have to deal with leadership questions, I chose a career in computer software.

    He then goes on to describe how he fell into leadership, which is how I see a lot technologists become leaders:
    Whenever I did a reasonably good technical job, my co-workers learned to respect me a bit more. Because they respected me, they looked to me for advice, for leadership.

    The books presents and describes leadership within two models: Linear, where one effect stems from one cause, and organic, where an event is the outcome of hundreds of other factors, including the passage of time.

    The linear model is focused on leading people and allows for dealing with people quickly and efficiently. But the linear model tends to place individuals into categories or roles, or what people should be. This results in a tendency to view leadership as simply a role of issuing threats and doling out rewards. Also, the linear model does not handle complexity which is prevalent in most critical events involving people.

    The organic model defines people in terms of their uniqueness and allows different people to find a common basis for working together in complex situations. Instead of leading people, the organic models focuses on leading process. The organic model is useful in technical work because it takes complexity and innovation into account. The organic model focuses on empowering people.

    Technical leadership fosters an environment where change can occur. Change in other people, change in working groups, and change in organizations. In order for change to occur the environment must contain three factors: motivation, organization and innovation.

    The best technical leaders use these three factors to create a problem-solving leadership style that concentrates on three major areas:
  • understanding the problem
  • managing the flow of ideas
  • maintaining quality

  • The book does a good job of describing both the obstacles to motivation, organization and innovation, and ways to promote them. It also describes how to transition to leadership, where you'll have a whole new set of rules but no rulebook.

    A couple of quotes that stood out for me are:
    Leaders that don't care about people don't have anyone to lead, unless their followers don't have a choice.

    Leaders have twice as many areas to criticize - both content and process.

    The part of the book that I enjoyed the most is the epilogue where GW offers some really good advice on the need to think about whether or not you want to be a leader.

    It takes many leaders to create software that is successful. And whether or not you have Leader in your title this book will help you become a problem solver and someone that others look to for advice and leadership.

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