The biggest problem tech leads face and how to overcome it

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This article was originally published on .cult by Yasas Sri Wickramasinghe. .cult is a Berlin-based community platform for developers. We write about all things career-related, make original documentaries, and share heaps of other untold developer stories from around the world.

As you know, being a tech lead is much more than defining the technical aspects of a project. I’ve found that they tend to worry much more about another aspect they face in their day-to-day:

The difficulty of keeping a solid team for a long period.

It’s a problem that can substantially impact a team’s productivity. Remember, no matter how talented you are in leadership and technical skills, your biggest asset is your team.

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In this article, let’s analyse this challenge further and look at what tech leads can do to overcome this problem, including some techniques to try out.

Why do great people suddenly leave software teams?

You may have already noticed that the most extraordinary members of your team are all-rounders in their work. They also have great passion and commitment. But, unfortunately, these are also the people most likely to leave during organisational changes, which can be extremely painful both for the project and morale.

Great team players consider their workplace as their second home and treat their team as part of their family. These types of developers are the ones you count on when things are not quite going the right way.

However, as you’ve probably witnessed, these “A-players” often decide to leave the team on short notice. Most of the time, they don’t even reveal the reason for their resignation. Why is that?

You may tend to consider great team members as perfect individuals and focus only on guiding average and below-average members in your team. Well, A-players also need (and want) mentorship and guidance. Don’t neglect them.

Alternatively, you may see the potential of an individual and you want to see him/her become the best version of their professional selves, which is perfectly fine. But you might set too many expectations for success. This can lead to stress and burnout.

The key is finding the right balance and rewarding great work.

Every team member has their own career goals and expectations. A-players in particular know they can excel and uplift a project anywhere they land. Therefore, they directly or indirectly expect a return from their current leaders. It can be a promotion, salary increase, or recognition for their efforts.

Maintaining a great team

If you want a sustainable solution to keep your team together in the long run, remember that there is no universal formula to follow. But I can give you some suggestions to try out according to your team dynamics and the nature of your project.

1. Don’t overload a great team with work

This may sound counterintuitive but, if you have a team that’s great at conquering new tasks and getting work done, don’t allocate more work to them. Just because they’re great at what they do doesn’t mean they should do ALL of the work. If you don’t ‘protect’ this team you’ll soon lose them in the short term.

2. Find a time to sit with your team members and listen to them

Remember your first days at work? How many doubts you had? How many expectations you had for your future career? Try to understand your subordinates’ perspective. Just being a good and active listener can do wonders for team morale and health. Everyone tends to feel a bit better after unloading.

I wouldn’t recommend a group discussion, instead take each member for a casual one-on-one and LISTEN. You’ll learn a lot about your team this way, things that you would have otherwise never known.

3. Don’t let individual members maintain knowledge silos

In every team, there are few people who are experts in some particular project functionalities. They know every bit and piece of the code and all the pitfalls of the current implementation. As a tech lead, never depend on them in the long run — you can’t expect them to always be there. Instead, arrange knowledge transferring activities to disseminate their expertise among other members. As another option, you can also introduce a knowledge management system (KMS) to the project.

4. Promote your work culture

Always emphasize the team culture that you value within each other, and create a friendly, open work environment. Talk about company procedures, standards, and level of quality that everyone in the team should try to maintain.

When all team members are focused on the same goals and objectives, it’s easier for you to create a long-lasting impact on the project. It pays well to remind the team every so often, cause we all eventually lose sight. I would also suggest that you remind them of how far they’ve really come and all the great work that’s been done.

5. Implement a future proof recruitment plan

When you are on a tight delivery schedule and a team member decides to leave — it’s basically a tech lead’s worst nightmare.

With short notice resignations, you’ll be scrambling to fill the position. With such time constraints, you don’t always get the best candidates, and you don’t really have the luxury to pick and choose.

This is hard because hiring the wrong person is a highly costly mistake.

You have to spend a lot of your and other team members’ time to transfer domain knowledge to newcomers. Also, newcomers will take a considerable amount of time to get up to speed. After everything, if you find that the new joiners’ attitude isn’t aligning with your expectations, you’ve just wasted a lot of hours and resources.

My suggestion is never to proceed with quick recruitments, but plan ahead and follow a recruitment plan. As a tech lead, you can use your network to identify top performers in other companies, including recent graduates from training and academic institutions. This way, if a team member leaves, you already have an idea of who is going to replace them. Also, keep a team onboarding process specific to your team.

Generally, we think it’s always the technical problems that matter the most, but successful tech leads always expect the unexpected!

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