Diary of a new engineering team lead: Origins

I’m about to make the transition from senior engineer at a remote SaaS company to first-time Team Lead. I’m starting a new series today that I hope will be useful to people who might be in my current position at some point in the future.

This entry is the classic origin story of how I became interested in team leading; a reflection on the eve of officially moving into this new role (and on some level, new career).

I’ve worked at Hotjar for four years now, growing as an engineer from mid-level to more senior. I’m much more of an intuition-based programmer and generalist—but I have massive respect for those really tip-top specialist people at the technical pinnacle.

My rise to technical seniority was slow and steady, built on the back of delivering good results on projects rather than because I’m the most knowledgeable expert. I’ve always felt a little inadequate as a result. Impostor syndrome is a tricky beast.

Two years ago, I was first approached about moving to Team Lead at Hotjar (our equivalent to a first level line manager of engineers, with responsibility for a single team). I turned it down then and a few times since because I truly love writing code and wrestling with those technical problems.

I’ve always explained my job to people as being paid to solve cool puzzles, and my love for that has never diminished. Not only that, but I’ve seen it for many years now as a core piece of my identity. I was an engineer, a Guardian of Pure Logic, and while I didn’t feel like a superstar, I wasn’t cut out to be some bureaucrat manager watching while others did the “real” work. Not that that’s how TLs are at Hotjar, but I think it was more of a philosophical worry. I worried what people would think of me when I told them my job, those who do have that old-fashioned idea of what a manager is.

I was unsure at the time why I was even being asked to move to TL, as I saw no reason to think I’d be any good at it. It reminded me of being made a captain at my old football team. It was a considerable honour that I took very seriously, but also baffling to me as a skinny, not particularly gifted player. In this case, I’m still skinny, but I’m also not the most gifted engineer and I don’t think of myself as a visionary or even a particularly great people person.

Around the time I was first asked, back in November 2019, I met with an old friend, Jason, who I told what Hotjar had said about my leadership potential. He didn’t find it surprising (which I appreciated), and asked me a very interesting, insightful question:

When you choose books or articles to read, do you gravitate towards technical things or more “soft” subjects like psychology?

And the answer for me was unequivocally the softer subjects. Don’t get me wrong, I read some technical books and blogs and such to stay on top of things. I enjoy Just In Time Learning (JITL) for things I need to do at work. But I read people-focused books about mindset or philosophy or productivity or even bloody leadership itself for fun, unpaid.

That realisation really stuck with me, and has played on my mind ever since, even as I did eventually make the grade and get a promotion to Senior based on my technical delivery (no easy feat at Hotjar). People have continued to tell me they think I’d make a good lead, but it was realising on some level where my innate interest lies that has tipped me, very slowly, into wanting to try it. And it’s worth noting that leads at Hotjar are still expected to pitch in on the engineering, though perhaps do so off the critical work path. This is a little contentious for some engineers, but I’ve always felt it was nice both for the leads and their teams.

I was originally pegged to take the lead for half of my current team when we split into two at the end of this year, 2021. I’m writing this as of April 2021, and my first day as a TL will be the 5th. Quite the condensed timeline! So, what happened?

In short, Hotjar identified a new project that they want to get moving on ASAP, and I was the most obvious candidate (of the prospective leads available) to take the reins on it due to my experience. On Monday, I will be put in the lead seat of a team of very impressive engineers, the kind of engineers I find intimidatingly outstanding. As a team, we are being tasked with some of the most hairy, audacious work we could possibly take on. It’s daunting, but it’s also bloody exciting.

I think the early start actually works in my favour. I’m the kind of person who tends to worry about the future a lot (though I’m working on that), but I found out this was happening for sure only a couple of weeks before the start date. There was no time to worry.

Instead, I had to get rapidly up-to-speed, devouring the engineering manager-focused chapters of several books on engineering leadership in both text and audio, getting thoughts together on the upcoming project and its challenges and having conversations with all the people involved. It’s been an exciting couple of weeks, and now I’m only a day away from getting started.

So, what are my worries? It’s hard to know where to start.

  1. I’ll be crap and fail miserably at it, obviously, in lots of different flavours of what that may mean:
    1. At managing the project, which fails horrifically and embarrassingly.
    2. At serving my team members, who lose all respect and trust in me and grow to despise me, as do the people who put me in charge.
    3. At representing my team at the leadership level.
    4. At managing myself, leading me to be worse in my personal life, drained of people-energy.
  2. I’ll lose all my engineering skills.
  3. I’ll be no good at coaching and helping my team members grow and reach the professional heights they want and deserve to reach.
  4. I’ll be crap at giving good feedback, leaving people confused and uncertain as to where they stand. This ties in a lot with #3, and #1.2.
  5. I will miss that lovely short-term feedback loop of satisfaction you get as an engineer. See problem, plan solution, execute solution that solves problem, test and polish your solution to a nice sheen, repeat.
  6. I’ll never be able to get another job because nobody hires team leads, they only hire engineers. They especially don’t hire bad team leads.
  7. I’m going from a decently high rung of the ladder in a role I’m good at and already know I like, to the bottom rung of a ladder I may not be equipped to climb and may not enjoy (don’t TLs and above have to make loads of presentations?).

Really, though, I look at them all written down, and I think: it could also be the start of a great adventure, and one which will, succeed or fail, teach me an awful lot.

I have no illusions about it—I’m going to make mistakes and feel crap about those, but I’ll learn from them. I’m going to rub people the wrong way and need to apologise to them and earn back their trust. It won’t always be smooth sailing.

But I’m going to learn and grow a hell of a lot in the process, and probably come out the side as a better, more mature person. If nothing else, it’ll be a change of pace and, having been an engineer for ten years now, perhaps that’s no bad thing at all. Maybe I’ll even be better at this than pure engineering, when all is said and done.

All I can do is my honest best. I’ll keep you posted.