adventures in making stuff with Daniel Higginbotham

Lessons Learned From My First Tech Lead Assignment

18 July 2012

Since September 2011 I've been the tech lead of a multi-cultural, distributed team in an enterprise environment. I've definitely learned a lot during this time and thought I'd set it all down here.

Communicate Honestly, Openly, and Compassionately

Trust is the bedrock of successful teams, and trust requires that everyone on the team communicate honestly, openly, and compassionately. This might even be more important on a distributed, cross-cultural team where lack of face time and cultural differences can cause misunderstandings.

This kind of communication can be hard. Speaking honestly about what's really going on for you requires that you be vulnerable. Speaking honestly about someone else's behavior requires that you take the risk of damaging a relationship. What's more, most of us don't ever develop these communication skills and feel like we don't know how to go about it.

Below are some of my notes on what it meas to be honest, open, and compassionate when you're talking with your teammates.


Perhaps the best way to explain honesty is to contrast it with "politics". You're engaging in office politics if you're hiding the truth in order to control the way other people behave. You're being honest when you faithfully relate your experiences and your observations.

If someone's behavior is upsetting you, it's essential that you talk about the behavior and the effect it's having on you. For example, if one of your teammates has a habit of looking at his computer screen while he's talking to you and that makes you feel like he's not acting respectfully, it's important that you tell him that you feel disrespected.

More often than not, these kinds of problems can be easily cleared up and you might even laugh about them afterword. But if you don't say anything then your underlying emotional issue will continue to fester, and some other behavior will trigger it.

Because really, no one cares about behaviors in themselves. It's the interpretations of behavior that ultimately matter. I might not even notice the way a teammate's late half to half his meetings, whereas you might see it as a lack of respect for your time and everyone else's. If that underlying emotional discomfort is present, it has to be addressed.


Being open means listening to what other people say without prejudice or defensiveness. It also means acknowledging that you come with your own set of biases, and that you don't have a perfect view of the universe.

Behaviorally, this amounts to listening to what your teammates are saying with the understanding that your job is not to prove to him that you've done nothing wrong. It means listening fully, without interruption, and being confident enough in yourself to investigate fully what your teammate's issue is.

It also means accepting that you do mess up, and that your teammate is giving you a gift by pointing out your mistakes (hopefully in a compassionate manner) because it shows that he trusts you enough to do so and because you're being shown a way in which you can grow.


Being compassionate means communicating with the understanding that your words will affect another human being. I think it's popular to believe that everyone is responsible for their own emotions and therefore you should feel free to say whatever you want however you want, but I don't think that's completely true. You have a responsibility to communicate wisely.

This doesn't mean that you should let people off the hook. Nor does it mean that you should sugar coat your communication. It just means that you should do best to look after the welfare of your teammate.

Clarify Roles and Responsibilities

This is just another way of saying that everyone should be clear about what's expected of them and what they can expect of others. Without this kind of clarity, it's easy for resentment to grow as teammates feel like they're not being utilized properly or like unrealistic requests are being made of them or like the people they're depending on aren't coming through.

It's also important to re-evaluate expectations when the team changes. It's easy to assume that things will continue as before (this is something I've done), but that's not likely to be the case. At the very least, have a discussion with incoming team members about their understanding of their roles and responsibilities.

Be Aware of Your Own Level of Engagement

I struggled for a few weeks with a feeling that I didn't really know what I was doing and that I wasn't being effective.

Once I was able to actually identify this feeling, I was able to talk about it with some of my colleagues and over a couple of days I redefined my role to something that I felt would allow me to contribute more. After that, I was super happy with what I did.

That's It for Now

So that's it for now. I'm sure I'll have more to write on this topic in the future.