Technical Leadership

As companies grow and mature, it is difficult to maintain the pace of innovation that existed in the early days. This is why as many companies mature (i.e. Fortune 500), they sometimes lose their innovation edge. The edge is lost when technical leadership in the company either takes a backseat or evolves to a different role (different than the role it had in the early days). I see a number of companies where over time, the technical managers give way to “personnel” or “process” managers, which tends to be a death knell for innovation.

Great technical leaders provide a) team support and motivation, b) technical excellence, and c) innovation. Said another way, they lead through their actions and thought leadership.

As I look at large organizations today, I believe that technical leaders fall into 3 types (this is just my framework for characterizing what I see).

The Ambassador

A technical leader of this type brings broad insight and knowledge and typically spends a lot of time with the clients of the company. They drive clients in broad directional discussions and will often be a part of laying out a logical architectures and approaches. They are typically not as involved where the rubber hits the road (ie implementation of architectures or driving specific influence product roadmaps). Most of the artifacts from The Ambassador are in email, powerpoint, and discussion (internally and with clients).

The Developer

A technical leader that is very deep, typically in a particular area. They know their user base intimately and use that knowledge to drive changes to the product roadmap. They are heavily involved in critical client situations, as they have the depth of knowledge to solve the toughest problems and they make the client comfortable due to their immense knowledge. Most of the artifacts from The Developer are code in a product and a long resume of client problems solved and new innovations delivered in a particular area.

The Ninjas

A technical leader that is deep, but broad as appropriate. They integrate across capabilities and products, to drive towards a market need. They have a ‘build first’ mentality or what i call a ‘hacker mentality’. They would prefer to hack-up a functional prototype in 45 days, than do a single slide of powerpoint. Their success is defined by their ability to introduce a new order to things. They thrive on user feedback and iterate quickly, as they hear from users. Said another way, they build products like a start-up would. Brian, profiled here, is a great example of a Ninja. Think about the key attributes of Brian’s approach:

  1. Broad and varied network of relationships
  2. Identifying ‘strategy gaps’
  3. Link work to existing priorities
  4. Work with an eye towards scale
  5. Orchestrating milestones to build credibility

That’s what Ninja’s do.

Most large companies need Ambassadors, Developers, and Ninjas. They are all critical and they all have a role. But, the biggest gap tends to be in the Ninja category. A company cannot have too many, and typically does not have enough.

Reference: Technical Leadership from our JCG partner Rob Thomas at the Rob’s Blog blog.
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