Being a Leader, with Felix Rieseberg

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Felix Rieseberg is a Tech Lead at Slack and creator and maintainer of various open source projects like Electron, Windows95 and others. He’s also author of  “Introducing Electron“. Prior to Slack he worked at Microsoft and Apfeltalk.

ES: This is 5 Minute Mentor, a podcast where you’ll get advice from prominent engineers, authors, artists, and more in 5 minutes or less.

FR: Hi everyone, my name is Felix I’m a Tech Lead at Slack, and I currently work on desktop applications.

FR: I want to talk to you a little bit what it means to be a tech lead to me and how I think you can be an effective leader in an engineering organization, because I believe there is a somewhat common misunderstanding that the tech lead or the senior engineer is the person in the team who writes the best code, and people often ask me whether that is the case for me, and it’s definitely not. And I want to use my 5 minutes to tell you that being a senior engineer has very little to do with being a very good engineer. Once you master your craft, in coding and whatever it is, in my case it’s C++ and javascript, desktop applications and front-end code, whatever your code is, what you really have to master is building the right thing.

FR: I’ve recently started being a tech lead, and I think there’s three things that I’ve learned that are really really important. And the first one is that, if you have a team, and you have a bunch of fun tasks and a bunch of non-fun tasks, which is always the case, right, every single engineering team has a few things that are super important and very fun, and every engineering team also has the opposite, a bunch of tasks that just need to get done but aren’t all that exciting. Whenever you’re in that position make sure that you give everyone on your team all the really fun tasks, and just hold on to all the bad ones. If you’re the leader it is your job to do all the dirty work, and let all the fun work trickle down to someone else.

FR: The second thing is, engineers are usually the first ones to complain about being interrupted. You know the typical situation where you sit at your desk and you have your headphones on. If you want to be a leader in an engineering organization you have to be available. Whenever someone has a question be grateful that they’re asking you. Be always available. Never make someone feel bad for interrupting you, but ironically the other way around I try to protect the engineers from being interrupted all the time. Try to do whatever you can to give them space. Whenever you have a question for them, and if you want to discuss their approach or you know, have any other need that needs a debate, make sure that you find the right time.

FR: The third one, and that’s my favorite and also that I think the most important one, and one that I am still learning right now is if you’re a tech lead, fundamentally at some point it’s going to be your job to make a decision for a technical approach. Right, whether it is to release something today or, or an architecture decision, and eventually you’re going to hear some proposals that you don’t like and the real trick here is to not just shoot them down. Right, if you have a proposal that you don’t understand, do not shoot that down. And I’m not trying to be overly kind here. What I think you should do, and what I think it’s the true art is to figure out why you don’t like it, there’s probably something in your gut where you understand why you don’t like the approach, and then turn that into a question that you can ask the engineers. And if there’s a certain technical approach you don’t appreciate, try to figure out what it is, why that approach doesn’t sit well with you, and turn that into clever questions that your engineers can answer. The ideal case is that they also figure out that it’s definitely not the right approach. Or, even better, you figure out that it’s actually the right approach. And you have collected the data to get yourself proven otherwise.

FR: So, that was me, four minutes of my ramblings about how to be a leader in an engineering organization and I think that if you follow those three things you’re going to do pretty well.

Felix Rieseberg, Tech Lead at Slack

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