Leadership is the most important factor in any team. Whether in sports or in a family, in combat or in business, leadership is the single most significant reason behind the success of any group of people attempting to accomplish a mission together. It’s that simple. As Jocko Willink, author of the bestseller book Extreme Ownership states: “There are no bad teams, only bad leaders.”
When it comes to the world of software product development, the same principle is true: leadership has the greatest impact on the success of a team or engagement. In this article, we will explain how we at Victory Square have identified two distinct yet crucial leadership roles in every software engineering team. We will also briefly describe how we invest in curating the leadership skills needed to create a healthy team culture that generates successful software results.
The Problem We Identified
When we created Victory Square Partners, we knew one thing for sure: to achieve its mission, an engineering team needs a strong technical leader. That is an immovable truth in the software development industry and is why, to this day, each of our engagements is led by senior engineers with field experience. It is a non-negotiable for us.
However, as things progressed, we noticed something interesting. Despite all teams having excellent technical leaders, some engagements were running more smoothly than others. While all teams were progressing against the roadmap, some teams found it harder to bond with their respective clients and navigate sometimes complicated interpersonal relationships. It made us take a step back and reassess our approach.
Ultimately we concluded that for an engineering team to be smart, healthy, and productive, we needed two types of leadership: Technical and Relational.
The Victory Square Approach to Leadership
I. Technical Leadership
This is what the average person would expect from a software engineering leader: to be technical. A technical leader has typically been a coder for multiple years, deployed and supported critical software, and is the de facto engineering leader of the team.
Technical leaders make things happen by tackling the toughest technical issues. They leverage their years of experience to design and architect smart, scalable solutions. Their colleagues look to them when solving complicated issues. They jump into the code and make all software engineers around them better.
At Victory Square Partners, these Technical Leads or Staff Engineers named themselves “Mud Dogs” since they roll up their sleeves and get into gritty details with their teams. The Mud Dogs are the technical experts who are ultimately responsible for building and shipping the critical software our clients have hired us to create.
II. Relational Leadership
Relational leadership is often an afterthought. However, as we stated before, we find it to be the differentiating ingredient that leads to a successful team. This type of leadership involves the creation of healthy teams, proactive communication, risk mitigation, and ultimately building a trusted relationship among internal and external team members.
There are countless human dynamics that can disrupt or disintegrate team success. Relational leaders have to navigate these complex interpersonal dynamics and make a way to positive resolutions.
For example, they create the right team needed for a specific engagement. They must understand the business leaders’ and product managers’ objectives and constructively challenge ideas to achieve a better outcome. When conflict occurs (and it will), these leaders help the team navigate difficult conversations so that cohesion increases and trust doesn’t erode. A great leader doesn’t micromanage but instead gives people the opportunity to grow by putting them in positions where they can succeed.
At Victory Square Partners, these Technical Managers, Engineering Managers or Directors of Engineering are referred to as the “Transformers”. The Transformers have both Technical and Relational leadership skills. Every client engagement must have a Transformer leading it.
Pulling Them Together Within an Engineering System
One way to look at what we build at Victory Square Partners is that we are creating an engineering platform or system for our clients. For this system to operate at full throttle, we are constantly working to find the right balance of technical and human dynamics that optimize our clients’ chances of success.
The Transformers are the ones architecting and optimizing this system, while the Mud Dogs are creating and assembling the various pieces. Like a well-oiled machine, it could not work without their combined efforts.
We’ve been vocal advocates of building solid relationships in the software engineering industry. It’s because we figured out that successful engineering teams, in order to fully utilize their technical mastery, need to master the human elements of team dynamics.
Thus, it was essential for our team leaders to embody both competencies. We had the Mud Dogs from the very beginning, and soon after, the Transformers entered the picture as a necessary role.
What It Means to Be a Mud Dog
Becoming a “Mud Dog” inside of Victory Square is a badge of honor. It’s a recognition of an engineer’s excellent technical abilities. It is a cumulation of a team member’s impressive work on past projects. A Mud Dog is acknowledged as being deep in their engineering craft and team members trust them with building the solutions for the most complex technical projects.
When one of our team members becomes a Mud Dog, it’s a celebratory career step. A rite of passage. To become a Mud Dog, one must have years of field experience and have proven that they have the technical vision and expertise to rise to any of our project’s demands.
The Mud Dogs are also a group that comes together to exchange knowledge and learn from each other. They have monthly get-togethers and their own stream of online communication where they share tech challenges and support each other. While their technical knowledge is excellent, they also believe that there’s always more to learn.
What It Means to Be a Transformer
The underlying requirement for all our Transformers is to also have exceptional technical backgrounds. A leader who doesn’t have the battle scars that come with releasing software products will have trouble understanding how to move a team along, no matter how fantastic their interpersonal skills are. That’s why, a Transformer must have the technical bar met with a minimum level of a Senior Software Engineer. In addition, they must have shown in practical situations their leadership abilities.
All Transformers were (or still are) Mud Dogs. However, not all Mud Dogs wish to become Transformers, and that is okay. But for the ones that do aspire to a dual leadership role, the “Transformer” designation is a career step forward.
Transformers are included in ongoing business related discussions, having a say in how Victory Square is shaped. For this, they are provided insights related to how our company is performing so that they can weigh-in with suggested solutions for specific challenges. On a recurring basis, the Transformers gather to offer their feedback and to share knowledge and experience.
Ultimately, Transformers are co-creators of what Victory Square Partners becomes. They are the culture setters. We want their influence permeating throughout our teams, our strategy, and our company.
What We Concluded About Leadership
The partnership between Mud Dogs and Transformers creates a dual-bond of leadership that advances an engineering team to overall success. This leadership cohesion creates an efficient engineering platform for our clients. It builds upon both the technical and human strengths needed. It creates a strong and balanced culture inside of Victory Square Partners.