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How to Become an Engineering Leader in 10 Hard Steps?

July 18th, 2019
Engineering Productivity
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In my career, I’ve observed a few people rapidly rise in their careers within while most others simply drift along. What distinguishes engineering leaders from non-engineering leaders?

Our eighth anniversary is as good as any other day to reflect on the subject of engineering leaders. So here goes my advice and observations, listicle style.

1. Everyone wants to progress, but only engineering leaders are willing to sacrifice for it

We all know what’s good for us: exercising regularly, eating healthy food, quitting smoking, and meditating. Yet, how many of us have the willpower to follow through?

Wanting and really wanting is two different things. Really wanting requires sacrificing short-term happiness for long-term success. I know you know that already but I also know that the common wisdom is hard to follow through. We all fall into temptations decided by today’s mood.

engineering leadership requires not falling into today’s temptation and putting in long hours when you least feel like it to do extra work, extra learning, helping others, going the extra mile. To be an engineering leader is to sacrifice today for tomorrow.

2. Engineering leaders look up, while non-engineering leaders look sideways

After college, when we’re young in our careers, it’s natural to bond with co-workers and peers of similar age. And just like college mass bunks, it’s easy to huddle up with work friends and get into a comfort zone. We are a sum of people we spend time with.

As uncomfortable as it may sound, engineering leadership requires going above and beyond. If your standards of work quality and effort are set by your peer group, you’ll progress slowly. To be an engineering leader is to always set your standards to what people much better than yourself have (and not the standards that people like you in your peer group have).

3. Engineering leaders select themselves in roles of engineering leadership

It’s a myth that people are promoted to engineering leadership positions. engineering leaders don’t wait for an official engineering leadership position or title. They simply start behaving like engineering leaders wherever they are and then the organization simply gives them an engineering leadership title to recognize what they were anyways doing.

As the name implies, engineering leadership means leading the organization and not just following instructions. If you’re doing whatever your manager asked you to do, you’re not leading but following. You’re an engineering leader if you do whatever your manager asks you to do PLUS your own initiatives that propel the company forward.

Your chosen direction could be wrong so you may gravitate towards playing it safe and only doing what is explicitly asked. But that’s not engineering leadership. To lead is to take the risk of being completely wrong.

4. Engineering leaders make themselves dependable and indispensable

It was surprising for me when I realized that different people have different definitions of ‘work’. For most people, ‘work’ is activities they need to perform in order to make a salary. For engineering leaders, ‘work’ is more personal as they put their soul into their work. Because they have high standards, they take it personally when they fail to deliver. They know it’s upon them to work harder if the deadlines are tight or they’re asked to do the impossible.

For some mysterious reason, irrespective what project is given to them, I have never come across an engineering leader who externalized the failure on someone else. engineering leaders never make excuses. I mean it: never. They always take it upon themselves to do whatever it takes to get stuff done.

While others are ‘working’, engineering leaders are ‘delivering’. The tenacity and stubbornness to deliver good results make them dependable. Because the organization knows they always deliver, they’re given more responsibilities and they get pulled into most important projects. engineering leaders consistently prove their ability to deliver and that’s how they become indispensable.

5. Discipline is a superpower and engineering leaders know that

Nobody teaches us the value of discipline early on but I’ve come to realize that it’s a superpower. In India, where our culture is easy-going, the surest way to stand out and be noticed is to be disciplined. To be disciplined is to always come on time, taking copious notes in discussions, delivering before deadlines, doing regular and consistent follow-ups, and most importantly, keeping your promises.

You wouldn’t realize but you reduce confidence from others in you every single time you ‘forget’ a meeting or ‘miss’ a deadline or do ‘half-baked’ work because that’s all you remember from the discussion. For people early in their careers, being disciplined is the #1 predictor of their success. (And it’s also unfortunate how few know that it is so important).

As they say, the secret to life is simply showing up.

6. Engineering leaders are unpopular among their peers because they work hard, know more and deliver regularly

This is counter-intuitive but I’ve seen that engineering leaders quickly become unpopular in their peer group because they’re just so much better at what they do. This growing unpopularity makes many would-be engineering leaders uncomfortable and they start changing their behaviour to gain approval from their peer group.

engineering leaders who breakthrough and progress rapidly swallow the bitter pill and do what’s right for their growth. A group of non-engineering leaders is like friends where they comfort each other. A group of engineering leaders is like a soccer club where they know that their lack of performance cannot be justified because some other (or even everyone else) on their team are not performing. They understand that when the next season comes, it’ll be their performance that’ll count first and only then the performance of the team they belonged to.

7. Engineering leaders are intimidating because they’re masters of their craft

When you talk to engineering leaders, they’re capable of intimidating you because they know so much about their field. All great engineering leaders are functional experts. You put them against a peer in the same function and they’ll know more both in-depth and in breadth.

This almost PhD-level mastery of their field requires long stretches of tinkering, reading, and thinking. And the interesting part is: nobody asks them to master their craft. It’s easy for them to be good at what they do, but they’re not satisfied at that: they want to become great at what they do.

Non-engineering leaders have a ‘fixed’ mindset and accept their fate of learning ability or IQ. engineering leaders have a ‘growth’ mindset and that makes them put in additional hours every day required to master their craft. (The extra hours require sacrifice, but that’s requirement #1 for engineering leadership)

8. Engineering leaders lift the entire boat, and not just themselves

engineering leaders are independent but not individualistic.

People who’re individualistic in nature hit a ceiling in their career because as they grow, they find their job transform from doing great work by themselves to helping others do great work. But because bright young people are driven to succeed, they start competing with the very people they’re expected to help.

To be an engineering leader is not to be competitive. It’s to be great at what you do and proactively going around in the organization asking everyone ‘hey, how can I help you?. Taking the analogy of a football club, this means a star player knows that in order to be successful, s/he has to perform his/her best and coach / encourage / mentor fellow players to perform their best.

The selfish path to greatness is to help others become great.

9. Engineering leaders are firm in their resolve but never shout

One of the hardest parts of becoming an engineering leader is to learn how to be firm and direct, without being an asshole. It’s easy to tilt in either direction: you can be nice and accommodating but get pulled down by low standards. Or you can be rude and tell others how pathetic they’re.

Neither of these is OK. What’s required is a fine balance where you’re direct but respectful. Assholes that perform spectacularly hit a ceiling in their career. So do really sweet people who get rolled over by lack of performance by their peers or team.

10. Engineering leadership is hard so it’s OK not to aim for engineering leadership, but it’s not OK to whine

Engineering leadership is glamorous as engineering leaders get fat salaries, prestige, and juicy projects. But it’s also not meant for everyone.

In fact, to summarize, engineering leadership requires ALL of the attributes below:

You miss an attribute and you toss away your chances at engineering leadership. This means engineering leadership requires deliberate effort over long stretches of time. It’s a process that never ends because there’s always a better engineering leader out there who can do what you do better and faster.

So choose engineering leadership as a career choice ONLY if you’re willing to work for it. It’s okay to choose a comfortable career too, as long as it’s a deliberate choice. What’s not OK is wanting to progress but not willing to sacrifice for that progress. Sorry, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

To get slim, you have to give up on ice cream. To have healthy lungs, you have to give up that puff. To progress, you have to give up on today’s comfort. Are you ready for it?

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