R&D team leaders have a special set of skills that help bring new ideas to life, while making sure their team is happy and productive. In the fast-paced world of software R&D, team leads have significant challenges. They're not just experts in their technical fields; they're also people managers. This unique role is like doing two difficult jobs at once.
Team leaders must guide their team, help them overcome problems, set goals, and keep track of projects. They're also creating a good work environment, connecting with others, and supporting their managers.
How do these leaders balance their many responsibilities and the important role they play on their teams?
As a team lead, you’re responsible for guiding the team as a whole, as well as each individual member. Team members need to be coached in everything from developing their code, to working in front of their interfaces (people they interact with, such as product and project manager), to tackling their day-to-day tasks.
Mentoring also includes testing your team’s work and giving feedback on where to improve. In
through a weekly one-on-one with each team member. This allows you to hear how each person is doing personally, to support them professionally, and to give specific guidance to help them grow as software engineers.
Sometimes the mentor/coach role involves challenging your people to take on tasks outside their comfort zone, whether that’s giving a lecture at a group meeting, or on a meetup, or asking them to work on a very technical feature.
One way to challenge your team is to use a post-mortem when the team encountered some kind of failure. Whether the product failed, or customers didn’t get service, or you breached customer privacy, call a meeting to understand what happened. How was it fixed short term? How was it fixed long term (if it has been)? What could have been done to avoid the problem in the first place? How will it be avoided in the future?
Challenging your team is an iterative process, improving the team, the features, and the processes. It will not happen overnight. You should also be challenging them to work on long-term goals, such as leading a feature if an engineer has expressed interest in becoming a team lead.
Along with mentoring and challenging, one of the most important roles is serving your people. One of the primary ways to do this is to remove obstacles that prevent them from doing their job efficiently and accurately. This means you need to look ahead and plan, working to anticipate what problems may stall your team.
For example, your team uses a database with a limited amount of storage. It’s your responsibility to know when you are close to running out of space and then to fix the problem, preferably by delegating, so the issue doesn’t tie up your team or the organization and, in turn, harm customers.
Whether it’s predicting how the product will change over time or discussing the contents of your team’s next sprint beforehand so you all can strategize, removing obstacles requires foresight, an important skill that will serve you in many areas as a team lead.
Part of your job includes setting your team’s goals: creating better scale, fewer bugs, quicker features, fewer production issues, and so on. Setting goals like these requires seeing the big picture, knowing where the company is heading, your team’s part in that plan, and why you need to focus on specific features. You also connect the team to the bigger picture, explaining the business goals of the company.
Part of goal setting is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your team so you can assign tasks accordingly, whether that’s creating an important feature or pushing them to work in an area where they are unfamiliar, but need to be knowledgeable.
In addition to setting team goals that ensure the organization’s goals are met, you can help individuals set and achieve personal goals. For example, one team member might want to become a senior engineer. To achieve that goal, she needs visibility and proof that she’s successful. You can give her some limelight and help her build experience and confidence by making her the lead on an important feature or by having her lead a small team.
Once the goal is set and the project is in motion, you’re in charge of keeping your team on track. This includes sharing the plan and deadlines and explaining the number of points needed for a sprint. During the sprint, you, together with the team, should estimate the time points of each feature.
Keeping everyone on track once again involves looking to the future. You should know what’s slated to come next for the product. You should also know how heavy the features are (the heavier a feature is, the longer, riskier, and more complicated it is). A heavy feature is like a house renovation—you don’t know how many problems might pop up until you start.
Planning for the future also involves creating the timeline for feature delivery. While your team might give you input for how long they think certain tasks will take them, it’s on you to actually create the overall timeline. It’s your responsibility to make sure everything will be ready for production on time.
You also are in charge of building in buffers to make sure you deliver on time. Buffer amounts depend on the risk involved in the feature.
Tracking performance may be one of the hardest parts of your job, especially if you have underperforming team members. The quality of someone’s performance depends on more than the quality of their code or technical abilities. It also includes attitude and an ability to work effectively with others.
If someone on your team isn’t measuring up, it’s on you to take action. If an engineer is being rude or disrespectful, start by talking to the person about what you’ve observed and what you and your organization consider acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Then issue a warning. Toxic behavior should not be tolerated. If someone continues to behave in unacceptable ways, they should be let go.
When you notice a team member underperforming technically, speak with your manager, especially if the team member might be fired. The sooner your manager knows about the problem and the possible end result, the better. Then you and the employee in question should build a plan together that helps her grow. Sit down and together try to determine the root of the problem. Maybe she needs more time to complete each feature, and if given that, the quality of her work will go up. Maybe she has a knowledge gap that needs to be filled. It could even be that she’s under emotional duress at home and is struggling professionally because of it. Together, you should try to analyze the problem so that you can come up with a solution to improve.
Once on an improvement plan, your employee has the tools and potential to succeed. If she doesn’t, however, it’s better to fire her. Keeping someone on when they can’t perform as needed is a burden to your team. In a way, you’re implying that poor performance is acceptable, which can be demoralizing to other team members.
Firing someone is one of the hardest things to do, but you can’t avoid it just because you feel sorry for the person. As a lead, you should prioritize the quality of your team. Also remember that it’s a good experience for you, as you will run into this dilemma many times in your career. Ignoring it leads to a mediocre team.
As the team lead, you set the atmosphere for your team. Your behavior, attitude, and words determine how the team behaves and, in turn, how your team feels about the organization. Part of this means not demeaning the organization or other employees.
One way to contribute positively to the environment is to have a weekly team meeting. During the meeting, encourage everyone to share what they are working on and how it’s going. Then you can share your priorities for the week, as well as challenges, directions, and goals. While this meeting will have a technical component, try to make it friendly and fun so you set a supportive tone.
In building your team, work with your own personal style. People will want to work with you based on how you lead. My style is friendly management, which draws certain individuals. Other people prefer a colder or more formal atmosphere. Don’t try to be someone you aren’t. People want to feel that you are genuine.
Some projects require two teams or more. Your team might rely on the infrastructure built by another team, or they might build upon a feature created by another team.
Whenever your team needs to network with another, your responsibility is to coordinate the interaction to ensure a smooth process. This means defining boundaries, needs, and timelines, as well as creating positive relationships so the project can succeed. This doesn’t mean you do all the communication yourself, but you do need to start it and set the tone.
One way to build good relationships is by establishing clear agreements on how you work together—both technically and personally. On the technical side, this might mean agreeing on timelines, interfaces, and APIs. Personally, this might mean having the two teams join together for a fun activity away from work. Your teams are working together toward a common goal, so the collaboration should be approached like a partnership.
As the chief networker, your job also involves working closely with the product team. They need to understand your team’s challenges, problems, technical debt, abilities, and pace. Building this relationship includes understanding the product’s challenges, pace, and timelines. When you communicate these things to the product team and build that relationship, it will be easier to work together. You can overcome problems and obstacles, while working toward mutual success.
The team lead is the main communication channel between the product manager and the team. High-level feature definition, detailed feature definitions, grooming, and release planning all start with the product manager, who then funnels the information to the team lead, who passes it on to her team. The team lead orchestrates all of these processes, making sure each team member is completing their tasks efficiently and on time.
Whatever you do, don’t be the one who creates conflict with other teams. Avoid blaming others, not delivering on your promises, and starting arguments.
Though one of your biggest responsibilities is mentoring and supporting your team, you also have another person to support: your manager. As a team lead, your manager is your main client or customer, the main person you should impress and please. Your goals, plans, and vision should be compatible with hers, and you should seek to make her happy with the work you’re doing.
One great way to succeed is to know how to manage your manager—that is, cultivate a harmonious working relationship in which you work toward mutual goals and mutual understanding. Do what you can to help your manager with her specific concerns and show yourself trustworthy. Not only will you create a positive relationship of mutual trust, but you’ll get the added benefit of having extra sway in her decisions.
Ultimately, you need to find a way to make what you both want work together. Know how to explain your goals to your manager. For example, you might want to focus on creating cleaner code. No one in management will be interested in that. However, if you explain that once you create cleaner code, you can improve the scale of the service you’re responsible for and, therefore, serve more customers faster, management might take an interest. Or perhaps you want to change the architecture of the service you implemented. Stating, “We will have better code,” won’t interest management. However, if you explain that changing the architecture will enable you to build new features much faster, they’re more likely to see the value in it.
As a mentor, I once worked with a woman who struggled to align herself with her manager. She focused on improving the technology situation for the team. Meanwhile, her manager focused on delivery, prioritizing the bigger picture, and the company’s interest. This led to a lot of conflict between them; they each became frustrated with the other. At one point, the team lead considered leaving the company. When I sat down with her, I explained that being a technical person and a nice person wasn’t enough. She needed to deliver what her manager asked for. She could do this while maintaining what was important to her. Her priorities didn’t contradict her manager’s, she just needed to shift her attention to take them both into account and figure out how to communicate with her manager.
Even if you try to be a manager supporter, it may simply be that you and your manager aren’t a good fit. If so, you might need to find another group within the company or go elsewhere.
One Title, Many Roles
So, that's what being an R&D team lead is all about. It's a big mix of different jobs, all rolled into one. You get to be a teacher, a problem-solver, a goal-maker, a planner, and even a friend to your team. It's a lot, but it's also pretty exciting.
Think of yourself as the captain of a ship. You're guiding your crew through some pretty cool adventures. You help them learn new things, get past tough spots, and reach big goals. You're the one who makes sure everyone is working well together and having a good time doing it.
Remember, being a team lead isn't just about the work. It's about making a difference and having some fun along the way. Every day, you're helping to build the future, one step at a time. You're not just doing a bunch of tasks; you're helping your team grow and do amazing things.
So, go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back. You're doing a great job in a tough role. You're the hero behind the scenes in the tech world, wearing all those hats with a smile!
Anat Rapoport has worked her way through every rank in the engineering and technology industries. She has been VP of engineering at multiple companies and was GM and co-CEO in her last two roles. Rapoport is an experienced R&D manager with a master of science in computer science from Tel Aviv University. She is an Israel Defense Forces 8200 alumni, and a mom of three. Her new book is Woman Up!: Your Guide to Success in Engineering and Tech, (Lioncrest Publishing (May 31, 2023).