What Makes a Great Lead Engineer?
At TechniCap Partners, we structure our project teams with a lead engineer and generally one or more associate engineers. The leads are responsible for driving the project from a technical perspective and working with the business analysts and account manager to ensure deliverables are met. The associates are there for support, some less senior and others more senior and available for consultation where needed.
In no particular order, below are some key elements, in our opinion, that make a great lead engineer.
A lead engineer should have enough technical knowledge and skill to be able to deliver on the requirements quickly, if given their full attention. However, being a lead can mean others need consultation to help with blockers, or to discuss implementation options and use of relevant frameworks or architecture patterns. But even so, there may be aspects of work that a lead is not familiar with. In this case the lead is able to quickly find a solution, in consultation with others, and be able to implement it without it becoming a major blocker.
Big picture thinking
A lead engineer is able to see the big picture, ie. the overall design and architecture of a given solution. When new requirements arrive they are able to see where those requirements fit into the solution and understand what kind of knock-on effects there might be. They don’t see those requirements as mere tasks to be executed in isolation, but within the bigger scope of the solution. They are able to leverage existing code to allow implementation to be done quicker and more efficiently and reliably than if done completely in a silo.
A lead engineer is able to focus and prioritise tasks so that the high value/critical path elements receive the appropriate attention early on. They are able to find ways to break down the work into manageable pieces that can be completed more efficiently. In addition to this, they are able to organise this work into portions that can be done by other engineers in parallel. They are also able to communicate timeously with stakeholders (clients, account managers, business analysts etc.) to ensure everyone is on the same page with regards to progress and any possible issues that might affect delivery.
A lead engineer is able to find the simplest and maintainable solution to a given problem. Sure, they might have a very complex and technical solution to the problem, but they understand that other engineers might need to maintain that code at some point in the future. Thus it needs to be clear, easy to follow and well organised to reduce the risk of having to maintain complex or even fragile code.
A lead engineer is able to lead. That might seem obvious, but some people might think that it just means they do all the really technical stuff and others must figure out what to do and where to fit in. That’s not the case at TechniCap Partners.
A lead engineer is able to bring others along, meaning that they are able to include other engineers by breaking down the work in such a way that they can share the load, but also provide guidance, feedback and assistance when needed. Code pairing is a highly valuable element of this kind of technical leadership. A lead engineer is able to do this to provide insight and a better understanding of the problem at hand and the greater context within which the problem exists.
A lead engineer is able to delegate work. Doing all the work themselves might seem the best option, but is not always possible when having to meet deadlines and doesn’t bring anyone else with them. Giving others context and direction can help them take more ownership of their work, thus boosting the delivery of the team/company as a whole.
A lead engineer takes responsibility and ownership for the work given to them. There’s no blame passed to others that didn’t deliver what was expected of them. The lead takes on this responsibility. If they lead well, then others should be able to follow well.
A lead engineer mitigates risk by leveraging shared knowledge. While they are experienced, they probably won’t know everything, but should be humble enough to ask others for advice and leverage the collective knowledge of the team at large. Being a lead doesn’t mean you have to be able to write everything perfectly from scratch, it means you’re able to use the frameworks and libraries available to you in such a way that you can deliver robust and maintainable solutions efficiently.
A lead engineer shows they can handle stress and pressure by keeping calm and focusing on the critical path to ensure the delivery value is upheld. They find ways to manage scope or delegate further to assist with the delivery timelines.
While the above elements are by no means exhaustive, we believe that these are important aspects that make up a great lead engineer.