14 Ways To Become A Better Technical Manager & Leader

They say people don’t quit jobs, they quit bad managers… Don’t become one of those managers. Be the reason why they stay.

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11 min readJan 16, 2018
Photo by Ethan Weil on Unsplash

What triggered this post was a question asked on Hacker News about becoming an engineering manager. My relatively short response received a good number of approvals, so I decided to elaborate on my thoughts in this article.

I started my first draft by saying “I’ve been in software development for more than 20 years,” not because I’d like to pretend I know it all, but on the contrary, because I’ve made my share of mistakes, and I’ve witnessed even more blunders done by others. Along the way, I’ve had the chance to work with some amazing people and to try different approaches to different problems. Here’s what I think about the challenges of becoming a technical leader/manager (please let me know in the comments section what else you think should be included in such a list):

Training. Training. Training.

“Whatever you are, be a good one” ― Abraham Lincoln

Bad news: you have a lot to learn (do we ever stop?)
Good news: you’re probably used to self-development and learning new things. You’ll be able to flex those muscles even more.

Look around you! Have you noticed that in technology, most of the technical leadership positions are filled based on technical merits? Have you also noticed that these new managers rarely (if ever) get any formal management and leadership training? Unfortunately, the technical competency that gets us to our new position can rarely be helpful in becoming good managers or leaders. Going from individual contributor to manager is a huge leap. It is the beginning of a new career.

There could be many reasons why companies don’t want to develop their managers despite the fact that a good manager is a productivity multiplier. But you don’t necessarily need to follow a formal Management and Leadership training if your company doesn’t support you. Without a doubt, benefiting from the presence of a professional coach or an experienced mentor would be an amazing start in this important stage in your career. Not only you wouldn’t waste time making the typical mistakes, but you would also raise the productivity of your team earlier, which would undeniably contribute to the success of your company.

Lack of training also creates another problem, which feeds into a bad feedback loop: as we lack skilled managers and leaders, we end up following or learning from the wrong examples that we encounter. We replicate their unhealthy habits thinking that’s how it must be done. We must break this cycle by getting rid of our assumptions and sitting at the learning seat.

So, what do you do? Where do you start from? Thankfully, outside of formal training courses, there are probably an infinite number of resources at our disposal: books, online articles, blogs, podcasts, TED talks, online videos, online communities, meetups, etc. I listed some resources at the end of this article.

Management ≠ Leadership

Hopefully, this one is obvious: Management is not the same as Leadership. You are a leader because your people follow you. And you are a manager because your people work for you. There are managers who are not leaders, and leaders who are not in managerial positions.

Management and leadership are not the same thing, but they go hand-in-hand. Therefore, as my first point suggests, you need to develop them both to be successful in your new position.

Servant Leadership

“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Congratulations! You are now a servant to your team. Or to be more precise, you are now a leader with a servant’s heart.

The principles of servant leadership are simple, but most people in leadership positions struggle to give up power. Your job is NOT to be above your people to boss them around, to solve the technical problems on your own, to micromanage them, or to exercise command-and-control. You don’t command, but persuade. You put your team before yourself. And during all that, you act with humility.

You are at this position to help them become their best, and work harmoniously and productively. Ideally, you are to become a multiplier by helping your team reach higher levels of productivity.


The root cause of most of the managerial problems that I’ve witnessed in my career has been communication. It is probably very difficult to become a good leader without being a competent communicator first. This is another area that you may need to work on.

Whenever you have the option, chose face-to-face communication. For most of us, the written medium is not the best way to convey all the intricacies of our thinking. When communicating, you would want to be able to read the body language of your interlocutor(s), and react accordingly.

While we’re on this topic, here’s a word of warning: do not insist on communication’s flowing through you. Let your team talk to other teams, to other managers or even to your manager directly. Encourage the ideas to flow freely without conforming to the “proper channels” for the good of your company.

As a manager you’re going to learn to recognize critical information and how to handle it. You want that type of information to be fresh. That’s one of the reasons why 1-on-1s are a very important tool that you need to learn to use.


Transparency is the main pillar that supports the trust and the fellowship that a good leader strives to build.

At a higher level, we want a company culture that embraces transparency. We would all want to know how well our company is doing, and where we’re heading. One of the reasons why founders and managers are sometimes reluctant to be transparent is their fear of the reaction they think they are going to get for bad news. But we are grown-ups, and we want to be in control of our careers. We know that life doesn’t always offer good news and that the road to success is rarely straight. We want to feel that we have a confident and competent captain at the wheel, especially during a storm. Furthermore, we learn from these failures by doing retrospectives, and by adjusting and improving continuously. Isn’t that one of the best ways to get better at what we are doing?

It is similar at the level of your team. Celebrate your wins, but shoulder the burdens together as a team. If you inspect and adapt rigorously as a team, you’ll leave every mini-storm stronger than before.

Furthermore, you don’t lose authority by being transparent. If anything, you want your people to know that you are not afraid of the challenges that life throws at you, and you are able to stand strong. That’s how you earn the trust of your team.

Trust Your People

As I mentioned under the Servant Leadership section, you are not here to solve all the problems on your own. Convey your vision, communicate the mission, and trust your people in their execution.

For this to work, you have to communicate well so that your team does the right thing. You also need to develop your team’s skills so that they do things right.

There’s another aspect to this: you need an environment where failing is not seen as the end of all things. At first, it may seem counterintuitive to make your people feel that they are safe if they fail, but how else you can encourage them to be creative and show their full potential? And if they happen, failures must be part of the feedback loop, and part of the triggers that make the continuous improvement wheel turn.

Let them fail, but don’t let them be failures.

Leading by Example

“What you are speaks so loudly, I can’t hear what you are saying.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

You are your own best tool in influencing your team. It’s not what you say, but it’s mostly what you do that sends the right (or the wrong) signals to your team. Your actions will indicate what matters the most. What you measure, recognize and reward will be your team’s focus.

I usually summarize these points by the leading by example concept. The non-verbal messages that you will be sending with your behavior speak much more loudly than your words. For example, if you want them to know the importance of being punctual, you always have to be on time for your team meetings or one-on-ones.


In our path to happiness, we all want to be:

  • Heard (being able to talk)
  • Listened to (being able to ask questions)
  • Cared about (seeing those questions and concerns addressed).

How do you ensure that your people are heard, can ask you questions, look for guidance and tell you about their worries? How do you ensure that they know you address those concerns as best as you can? The best tool that I’ve used to satisfy these points has been regular one-on-ones. I find them energizing and motivating.

As technology has offered more and more channels of communication, our chances of using a wrong one have increased. To conduct your one-on-ones, resist any temptation to use e-mail or IM. Nothing beats face-to-face (or video if you’re connecting with someone remote). Allocate some time to talk to your team members individually, and do this at a frequency that suits your team culture (my sweet spot has been mostly one or sometimes two weeks depending on my teams and my people). Also, try not to send the wrong signals by being late or constantly rescheduling them. Show them that you care!

Do not view one-on-ones as time for status reporting. It is a discovery time for you. It is one of your best productivity and motivational tools. It is the perfect time to talk about professional development and career plans, to question whether you, individually, as a team and as a company, are doing the right things and doing them right. For me, addressing my employees’ concerns and following up on personal development come first. Don’t be afraid to tackle big things and make long term plans.

And on occasion, one-on-ones may also be the time to appreciate that your team members are not work machines, and they have a life outside of the office too. And what they are going through in their non-professional life may be affecting their work.

This is also an opportunity for you to get some feedback. Ask your interlocutor how best you can help her/him and how you can improve in general.

Motivation & Engagement

At its core, life is about having pleasant experiences. Therefore it’s no surprise that happy people are more productive.

You are there to ensure that your team’s motivation and engagement are at a high level. Be careful! One can be motivated but not engaged. You need to understand the differences, and different ways to increase them when necessary or maintain them at an appropriate level.

Naturally, paying attention to this article’s other points would create a healthier environment for motivation and engagement to develop. For instance, being a good communicator, being approachable and responsive, and holding regular one-on-ones will greatly increase your efficiency in motivating your employees and creating better engagement.

Also, don’t assume that your people are motivated by the same things that motivate you. Use one-on-ones to discover theirs.


Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. It is not difficult to see why a well-honed ability to put one’s self into another’s shoes would be considered an important leadership skill.

Unfortunately long-running studies indicate that we are becoming less empathetic, especially in the last 20 years, which coincides with Internet’s (and consequently other related technologies’) entering our lives. In a society where we are finding harder to relate to others every passing year, being a good leader means paying extra attention to this aspect of your life.

And, ladies! Here is a good news for you: Some scientific studies tell us that in general, average woman is better at feeling and showing empathy than the average male (even in babies and toddlers).

Personal Development

“Leaders don’t create followers. They create more leaders.” ― Tom Peters

We touched on this briefly in the section on one-on-ones. I believe that putting focus on personal development is one of the best ways to keep your team members happy, motivated and engaged.

This may feel counter intuitive at first: You have to ensure that your people become good enough to be able to find plenty of jobs elsewhere and leave your company, but you also have to ensure that they wouldn’t want to leave.

“Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.” ― Richard Branson

Be Yourself

At first, this one might seem obvious, and even a little irrelevant. But hear me out!

One day you were working with your peers and team members, the next day you come back to the office as their manager, and you’re hoping to become their leader. At this point, it would be easy to fall into the trap of creating a new persona and start playing the boss. Unfortunately, this is guaranteed to fail. Do you remember what we mentioned above? Your job is not to boss people around, and create a command-and-control structure. Your job is to create an environment where they can become better.

Be Humble

Develop a beginner’s mind!

At the start of this article, I mentioned that I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing men and women. I’ve learned so much from them. Guess what? I was the manager of most of them. It’s crazy how much you can learn from your people if you truly listen and have a beginner’s mind.

Advocate for Your Team

Leaders promote a vision that is embraced by the team. And what your team is doing is important.

In an environment where no team is an island (most companies rely on multiple teams), it is important to talk about your team’s mission and the importance of it to your peers and to your top management. Nurturing good relationship with other managers, the influencers and the decision makers in your company can be important for the success and the longevity of your vision.


Here are some resources that I’ve found valuable over the years. I’m not claiming that they are the best ones. Most definitely, they are far from being the only ones. But they are a great start. I’m sure that you’ll find your own favorites as you explore, and I’ll be grateful if you share them with me.

(Needless to say, I’m not affiliated, in any way, with the resources cited below.)



Online Communities

TED Talks

Web Sites

Thank you for reading.
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Yağız "Yaz" Erkan

Engineering Director @ Insider. Avid reader. Passionate communicator of ideas and experiences. YouTuber. Coach. Mentor. Beekeeper.