Home » 2013 » February

Planning Ahead

Today Sparky invited me out of the office to talk.

Sparky told me that my future boss, the CTO of my new company, called and talked to him about me, to gain Sparky’s insights about me and my strengths and where I could use the most help. Sparky spoke very well of me, of course; he’s good that way. But the conversation between him and me branched out to two important topics: The insights Sparky gained from CTO, and his advice to me as I go forth to, essentially, take on Sparky’s role at my new company.

The first part of the conversation was shorter. CTO is principally concerned with my ability to balance keeping on task with accepting new tasks and scope changes (and Sparky thought my abilities to do such were very strong), and also with my ability to accurately estimate tasks (which I never thought I was very good at, but Sparky seemed to think I’m better than I think). So being good at these two tasks will be important to my success.

The second, much longer part of the conversation was a very welcome discussion of his tips to me for success. And I wish I had taken notes, but I think I remember all the important points. In no particular order, here they are:

  • Never show up at a meeting without a pen and a notebook. Not a notepad; a bound, leather-clad notebook. Take notes about everything, particularly about any commitments I make, or any commitments or assurances made to me. Make it very clear I’m recording everything I can; this helps to create an air of authority and of seriousness, but warns people trying to BS me.
  • Get familiar with the industry. Not just my new company’s business, but in e-commerce and online marketing in general. If the company has a social media presence, get to know about social media, and social media return-on-investment metrics in particular. There are local meetup groups involved in such.
  • Consider a subscription to Safari Books Online — they have lots of reference materials that I’d benefit from reading. It’s 20 bucks a month but can be written off my taxes, and I might be able to convince my new company to expense it.
  • Get familiar with all aspects of the product development life cycle, including things where I’m not the most competent, like project management. Project management may not be what I’m called upon to do, but I should know the details of what a project manager does.
  • Get in sync with CTO. This means, partly, being willing and able to carry his vision to my team and to my peers, but it also means bringing my own ideas to the table that help implement his vision, or even to enhance and improve it.
  • Try to establish a mentoring relationship with CTO. This is a suggestion Sparky gave CTO in their conversation but he impressed it upon me too. CTO has been there and done that, and I will benefit from his experience and expertise.
  • Establish relationships with key people throughout the company. Not necessarily CTO’s peers, but their assistants, the lower level managers, my peers throughout the company. Also establish relationships with my peers. Never eat lunch alone if I can help it. If I’m not eating with the CTO, or peers, I should be eating with my team. Sparky thinks I have a very gregarious personality and this works to my advantage. But, don’t establish these relationships just to gain a career advantage — let it be a happy side effect.
  • Establish a reputation as a serious, knowledgable member of the team who is the go-to guy when it comes to questions about technology. This means my natural tendency to be the company cut-up, cracking jokes and making people laugh, needs to be, well, managed. It’s not that I can’t make jokes any more, but I need to be sure that I’m serious when I need to be serious, when the conversations are important.
  • Learn to manage vendors. Ask them the right questions. Don’t lay all my cards on the table. Give them high level issues and ask them how they can address them. Let them fill in the blanks. Don’t let them craft their responses to promise me pie in the sky to meet all my needs. Ask to see samples. Ask to see documentation. Ask to talk to other customers. Ask for access to their technical people, if applicable. And don’t call them out or create a hostile relationship if it’s not necessary, and ESPECIALLY if I don’t have an alternative to them. If they have a proverbial gun to my head, never let them know it.
  • Learn to manage up. This means establishing a good relationship with CTO, but also to other members of the senior leadership team. It also means setting and managing expectations, and communicating the needs of my team to facilitate meeting the company’s objectives.

Sparky has said I can call on him for advice and counsel in the weeks and months to come. Which is a relief to me. Not only is he the most brilliant developer with whom I’ve ever worked, but he’s a genuinely decent, kind-hearted guy with whom I hope to continue to keep in contact.

I also plan to seek the frequent counsel of Red, who’s about 90 days ahead of me in moving into a similar role. She, too, is a brilliant developer and architect, and I expect her experience growing into her role will give her some important insights that will help me grow into mine. She’s already recommended a book to me — “The First 90 Days” — which I need to find, buy and start reading as soon as I can.

The story so far

Last Friday, I turned in my notice.

I have been given a great new opportunity at a new company. I am being hired on as the team lead. ¬†Only without a team. There’s no team, yet. Among my first tasks will be building the team I’m going to be leading. And then working with the CTO, my new boss, to establish the development environment, methodology, and structure moving forward — both internally and externally.

Needless to say, this is a very exciting opportunity for a guy who’s been a senior developer for years but a lead only for a few months. I’ve been serving since December as the development lead at my current company, since “Red”, the last team lead, departed to a job analogous to the one I’m moving into.

I’ve learned a lot in the last couple months about being a lead; not just the informal mentoring, architecting and collaboration things I’ve been doing for years, but also the formal planning and interaction with the project managers and business leaders, the encouraging my team to look to me for direction and support, and the surprising number of large and small things that come with the job.

Throughout it all, I’ve had the unwavering support of my boss, “Sparky”, the development manager. He’s been fantastic and I’m going to deeply miss working under him. But I’ve seen the frustration he’s been laboring under, the inexplicable, ADD-like business decisions, the rapid increase of bloat in product management, and especially the strongly combative nature of “Exidor”, my company’s CTO, which has pushed so many good people, some of the finest developers with whom I’ve ever worked in my fourteen years in development (including and especially “Red”), out the door in search of greener pastures.

It has been clear for a while that it’s time for me to move on. It’s just serendipity that this opportunity presented itself and that it proved to be so enticing.

So now I begin my journey of wrapping up my current job (and doing right by the people I leave behind) and transitioning to my new one (and doing right by my new company, my future team, and my own career).

I have little doubt I’ll make a lot of mistakes, big and small, along the way. But I’m going to learn from each of them, and also from my successes, to be the best lead I can be.

First comes defining what “the best lead I can be” is. Second comes charting a path to the goal of becoming that lead.