Top non-technical skills for Senior Engineers and Technical Leaders

As you grow as a Senior Engineer and beyond, the leadership side of your work becomes more prominent and, in some cases, eclipses the technical side. Designing a scalable system may not seem as hard as getting buy-in from key stakeholders and teams you will depend on.

That’s why it’s important to invest in improving your non-technical leadership skills as an Engineer, even if you don’t intend to grow towards the Management track in your career.

Here I explore a few non-technical skills that will help you become a stronger engineering leader.

Running effective and productive meetings

Let’s be honest, meetings feel like a waste of time for engineers. You would rather go back to coding and building instead of being stuck in another discussion that endlessly drags on. Even if your organization is great at async communication via writing and online tools, synchronous meetings don’t go away. As a technical lead you might have to schedule and drive meetings to drive projects forward.

A great, well run meeting give participants a strong sense of momentum and progress.

Ensure your meeting has a clear purpose and goal. Is it intended to communicate and get buy in for proposals? or is it a creative brainstorming session? Invite only the people that need to be there to synchronously contribute to the discussion. Allocate just enough time that you need instead of the 30 min-1 hour defaults. Distribute a one-pager or design doc ahead of the meeting. If you can wrap up and come to a decision asynchronously and avoid the meeting altogether, then great!

Wrap up the meeting with a decision and or action items with clear owners. This last step ensures that the time spent was productive.

Up-leveling and mentoring junior engineers

Growing and mentoring junior engineers is a high leverage activity for Technical leaders. Some engineers think that this is the sole responsibility of your Manager. Although the Manager has a role to play in coaching the team, the senior engineers can have a more direct impact on growing junior engineers on the team. It start with maintaining a high bar for craftsmanship and execution in your work. Model the behaviors and outcomes you want to see from others in your team.

Provide consistent and compassionate feedback to your junior peers. Especially during PR and design doc reviews. Connect with them 1-1 to learn more about their goals and find ways help and support them in their projects. Build a more formal mentor-mentee relationship with one or two engineers.

Mentorship is a great way to learn by teaching. You will grow and gain clarity on your own techniques and philosophies by contributing to the growth of other engineers.

Negotiating technical priorities

As you grow in your technical leadership, your impact goes beyond code, it becomes strategic. You need to think about technical improvements to the code base and infrastructure.

This is not about technical debt, although that’s part of it. We are talking about new architectures and systems that can be discovered through engineering driven prototyping and technical explorations. This can create opportunities for innovative new features and products.

Technical priorities will always compete with product features on the roadmap. And it’s not common for PMs to advocate for their prioritization. Rather that responsibility is better shouldered by the Senior Engineers together with the Dev Manager. That said, great PMs want to hear more from senior engineers on different innovative possibilities and are open to negotiate room on the roadmap for initiatives that can unlock value for customers.

Writing and speaking clearly

This is a simple advice. Clear communication, both in writing and speaking underpins all other skills. Language and communication is the foundation of leadership. This is true for your Manager, but also true for Senior Engineers.

Every design doc and proposal doc is an opportunity to hone your writing skills. Invest in delivering your message succinctly and clearly. It can be challenging to keep our writing simple, given the technical nature of our work. If you are dealing with acronyms, jargons or terminology, take time to define them in your doc. This ensures everyone is on the same page and reduces ambiguity and misunderstanding. The more clearly others understand your proposal, the better the chances of getting quality feedback.

Similarly, every meeting is an opportunity to speak clearly and to be economical with your words. We already mentioned effective meetings earlier. Avoid rambling or rants during meetings. Make your point directly and clearly. Ramblings are the easiest way to go off topic and kills time and momentum.

In both writing and speaking, be economical with your words and people will appreciate you.

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