Amy was a recent computer science graduate of a reputable technology educational institution. She had landed her dream job as a software developer, working for a well-recognized software company with a reputation for cutting-edge technology and an employee-friendly atmosphere.
She loved her job, she really enjoyed her team members, and she felt that she was a great fit for the organizational culture. However, she had a nagging feeling that something wasn't quite right.
Her manager Christine was making her a bit uneasy. It had nothing to do with personality conflicts. Christine was very pleasant and friendly. In the months since being hired, she had made every effort to make sure Amy felt like part of the team. She held weekly meetings with Amy, and had taken her out to lunch a number of times.
However, in the recent weeks a trouble pattern had emerged. As Amy had become more familiar with the organization, she'd been asking more questions during her weekly meetings with Christine. Questions about corporate strategy, questions about product direction, questions of product positioning and marketing, questions regarding trending technologies, and potential technology changes that could be implemented in the products her team was working on.
Each of these questions had been met by Christine's brilliant smile, and a wandering prose of technological buzzwords, management clichés, and corporate fluff. Further questioning had provided some rather surprising and troubling insights.
Christine didn't seem to understand how her team's work supported the overall strategic direction of the organization. Her knowledge of the products her team worked on seemed rather limited. She was completely clueless regarding product positioning and marketing strategy, and wasn't able to explain who the primary competitors were.
Her knowledge of technology seemed to be about ten years obsolete (which happened to correlate closely with her first promotion into management). She seemed more interested in Amy's family than Amy's work assignments. She routinely skipped important team discussions regarding product strategy and technical direction. Her excuse was usually that she had an important corporate strategy meeting that she needed to attend with other department leaders. She would usually leave instructions to update her on any key decisions that were made.
After checking with other team members, Amy discovered that this was normal behavior from Christine. This revelation had been a bit startling to Amy, as her first impressions of the team were that they operated incredibly efficiently. Amy received most of her direction and work tasks from the senior members of the team. It appeared that the team was operating efficiently in-spite of their manager, rather than because of her.
It seemed that Christine was more interested in self-promotion and socializing with upper-management than what was going on with her team. She knew just enough about what her team was working on to take credit for their accomplishments within various organizational forums. Beyond that, she had mostly checked out of what they were doing. Luckily for her, the team was a veteran team that was able to operate with minimal oversight. Unfortunately for Amy, while she was able to keep focused on tasks provided by her team, she was unable to receive much in the way of oversight and career guidance from her manager. A challenging position for a rookie software engineer.
Undeterred by the realization that she wasn't going to get any help from her manager, Amy made a mental note to find a mentor among her peers.
The importance of knowing the product cannot be understated. Managers who don't have an intimate knowledge of the products that their team is working on are not able to provide important guidance on product direct when such direct is needed.
To fully understand your customer's needs, you need to step into their shoes. You need to understand how they interact with your product. You need to interact with your product as if you were the customer. This will provide you with valuable insight into the quality of the user-experience. You can then leverage this knowledge to provide product guidance to your team.
Additionally, if you are not continually interacting with the products produced by your team, you won't have the appropriate context to understand what specifically your team is working on. This will cause them to spend significantly more time providing you with updates, as they will need to be also providing you context.
If you expect to be an effective software leader, you will need to keep your technology expertise up-to-date. While you clearly won't be expected to have the same level of technical depth as your software engineers, you should have solid understanding of the context and advantages of relevant and trending technologies. Many of the trending technologies could be leveraged by your team to help them operate more efficiently. If you are not familiar with these emerging technologies and the context in which they are valuable, you will not be in a position to provide appropriate technical guidance to your team.
Your ability to understand the market for your team's products will determine your level of effectiveness at providing product context for your team. You should clearly understand who the competitors are, how your organization positions your product from a marketing perspective, your product strengths, and your product weaknesses. You will need this information to help guide and communicate with your team so they understand the importance to the work they are doing. This will help create a sense of purpose and ownership for your team members, and get your team organized around a single mission and focus.
Similar to the need for understanding the market, you will also need to maintain an awareness of organizational strategy. You will need to help your team understand how to create actionable tasks that support strategic company objectives. You will need to articulate to your team how the work they are doing supports the organizational strategy. Your ability to create this organization context and importance on your team's work will help create a sense of belonging, and make your team feel like they are a valuable part of the organization.
To be an effective leader, you need to be aware of what is happening around you. You need to be continually evaluating information from the organization, the market, your product, the technology landscape, and your team. You need to use the information to help you set your direction, articulate your vision, and galvanize your team around a common set of goals and objectives that supports both your team and your organization.