This blog post is all about: why engineering leadership is both - engineering and leadership, why both strategic & tactical perspectives HAVE to be mixed (and what happens when they are not).

This is one of THESE posts. No solutions, no conclusions, pure rant ...
WAIT, wrong attitude. Not "rant", but "an unfavorable observation".
Yeah ... That's better ;)

I work in a mode I've nicknamed "continuous recruiting" - basically, if there's an person with relevant skills/experience and a correct attitude who could truly benefit a team, it's my duty (& pleasure) to build up a position/role for such a person to contribute (even if we didn't have that position beforehand). This mode is a privilege of our growth - there's literally tons of work for everyone, the main constraint is finding proper people who would be culture fit & driven by motivations congruent to ours.

OK, to keep the long story short - recently I was looking for leaders, engineering leaders. Some external talent whose input could enrich how we Get Shit Done here. I've read carefully 120+ resumes, had phone calls with dozens of candidates, F2F interviewed 10+ of them, ...

All the observations & conclusions I've collected could make a pretty thick book :) The one I'd like to refer to today is:

It's damn hard to find an engineering leader capable of fluently operating on both strategic & technical perspective levels.

Hmm, some of you may be surprised - we're still talking about software engineering, not running military campaigns, right?

Right. But leading engineering units requires these both perspectives as well:

  • strategic is more high-level & ... slightly dehumanised: technology vision, architecture roadmaps, mid- & long-term goals & how to get there (initiatives, milestones, juggling alternatives), more abstract (higher level) metrics & forecasting; growth, org models & principles
  • tactical is more "trenches-level" and all about human factor & pure execution: leading by example, arm-to-arm "evangelisation", fact-driven continuous feedback, active listening & highly-aware "field" observations (due to gemba/MBWO)

Strategic sounds like nothing about engineering, which is very far from truth. Won't you feel better knowing that there's something who actually realises importance of technical depth & has a plan of how to tackle that? Someone actively working on alignment upon the same architectural principles? Someone who sees engineering organisation how it's gonna look alike in 6 months from now & jumps on the problems which are yet to manifest themselves?

I thought so.

So, both perspectives (tactical & strategic) are crucial, both bring certain benefits and ... both become dangerous traps when you focus on one of them only:

  • strategic - you aren't true leader w/o connection with people (even if your work benefits them), you may omit (don't see) many signals of forthcoming issues, people don't get enough "bandwidth" from you (which can result in understatements & "we VS them" attitude)
  • tactical - "running" things can consume all time & energy, stepping back helps with getting a wider perspective & pushing "aspirational" type of work (Kaizen style improvements) and sometimes tackling challenges that are too big to crush through in the trenches

One can't do everything, it's obvious. The deeper "leadership tree" becomes (whether it's a formal hierarchy or not), the more strategic the "root" has to be. But contrary to what many people apparently think, there shouldn't be any single moment of a binary switch (tactical -> strategic) but a gradual transition through "shades of grey".

Engineer who becomes a leader doesn't have to abandon her/his engineering heritage - this change is not about overriding our previous perspective, but broadening it with some more abstract, higher level aspects.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying it's easy. Quite the contrary - mixing both perspectives in a healthy, balanced way is a helluva challenge.
But this is how the (engineering leadership) steel is being hardened.

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