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[Episode 2] A Day in the Life of a Thoughtworks' Tech Lead: Minna Yao

Meet Minna.

Minna Yao

When I was growing up, I had several school friends who would spend hours and hours in the Internet cafe (back when Internet cafes were still a big thing). I always thought that was pretty nerdy and would never have considered doing the same myself. Later, I became a student in the software engineering faculty, and I found myself having fun, spending all day in the computer lab writing small programs to chat with friends. I finally understood the appeal and the connection that technology could provide.

I spent a few years working as a TV journalist, and an editor of a newspaper fashion column, before moving into my technical career. My decision was influenced by my father, who was a university researcher in physics. I was always curious about how things work. I was encouraged to undertake an engineering degree. In hindsight, the experience of working in the creative industry makes me look at problems and my work through a very different lens, not only with a technical focus but also a human view.

Since my career change, I consider myself a 'nerd at the core,' and I am proud of that. I am constantly fascinated by new technologies and how they can change our lives. I feel very privileged to work in this industry, as we can make the real changes that can impact so many people. I want to make sure my work makes a positive contribution to people’s lives.

I have two children who have made me rediscover the beauty of the world. As my appreciation, I teach them how to write code for fun. And that has become an enjoyable activity. Now I teach my children’s friends too! I see coding as a method to help children develop problem-solving skills, as well as exercise their imagination - children are so creative!

What does a Tech Lead actually do?

The tech lead responsibilities are not too different from any other developer on the team. In fact, if you’ve been working as a software developer for a few years, chances are you’ve filled the role of tech lead at some point. Perhaps not officially, but most of us have, at one time or another, called the shots on important pieces of work or been the go-to person on a particular project.

In my experience, most ‘true’ tech-leads are “de facto” tech leads- leaders in all senses of the word, but without the fancy title. I have been in teams that contain several people who fulfill different aspects of the tech lead role, with one person excelling at organization and vision, another at execution and day-to-day engineering, and another at architecture, teaching, or getting stuff deployed.

I see a tech lead wearing a “hybrid” hat, with one end in engineering, and the other in many other things. When I am a tech lead, I still like to spend some time coding if possible. But my time is mostly devoted to helping individual developers increase their understanding of our stack or engineering in general, and helping the team continuously ship code to production. Or, on the other side, sitting with business and understanding requirements, so that I can facilitate the discussion with the team about how engineering will approach the problem. I like to think a tech lead is a facilitator first and foremost.

What does your typical day look like? 

If I am wearing a tech lead’s hat, much of my day is interrupt-driven. This is good for the team, but it adds challenges to scheduling my own time. On a light day, I’ll spend maybe a couple of hours doing tech lead work. But on a heavy day, I’ll get about an hour of time that’s not eaten up by interruptions. This can make it difficult to estimate what day I will finish something.

I often do things in roughly this priority:

Inner loop:
  1. Check the status of builds and the health of release pipelines
  2. Answer any Slack (or equivalent) pings
  3. Help anybody who needs it in my team’s channel
  4. Do any pending code reviews
  5. Make sure everybody on the team has enough work for the rest of the week
  6. Project work and code
Once a day (at least):
  1. Check production monitoring, performance graphs. Investigate (or delegate) major regressions to things it looks like we might have affected.
  2. Check all A/B experiments if there is any. For new experiments, look for bucketing errors, performance problems (or unexpected gains, which are more likely to be bugs), etc.
Once a week:
  1. Look through the bug backlog, make sure a major bug isn’t slipping through the cracks.
  2. Visit tech debts, and prioritise them in the backlog.
Admittedly I am not so good with time management. It is so tempting and easy to overcommit myself. Even today, I am still learning to master my time management.

What’s the most challenging part of your job?

The nature of tech lead- being both “technical” and “leader” - means you need to be constantly learning, and it is never-ending. Often I am out of my comfort zone. I find myself needing to be on my toes to meet the challenges that arise.

As one of the most experienced developers, I should be able to guide juniors, to suggest the best possible path. At times I do not have much knowledge about the programming language being used myself. But my experience and logical reasoning mean that I learn quickly. However, being a quick learner is not enough. More importantly, I need to be a good teacher. A good tech lead is a good teacher. I should multiply the knowledge in my team by teaching my colleagues. Teaching others makes you better at your own job and makes you more prepared to answer technical questions.

As a technical person, I also find learning to speak the business language a bit daunting. But to be able to be a mentor to the developers, and help the team deliver real business value, I need to have a good insight into business strategy and vision.

What’s your favourite part of your role?

If a product owner plays the role of a mini CEO, a tech lead must be a mini CTO. When I am a tech lead in a team, I always imagine I am playing a role in a tech startup, which is my team and I. For example:

  • The ability to deliver business value has to grow fast. This is similar to what a startup needs to ship the product to end users as soon as possible to validate the idea.
  • The business value needs to be visible as early as possible to get the buy-in from the business. A lot of startups seek funding from investors. This is how the team get “funded” from the business.
My favourite part of being a tech lead is that I get to play around with ideas for making my ‘startup’ successful. These are my key learnings:
  • Don't wait for the perfect team, build one
  • Take ownership and get stuff done
  • Encourage the team to learn and implement new technologies  
  • Plan work for at least one month ahead (knowing that 90% of the time it will change)
  • Accept that every day will pose a new challenge
  • Review code frequently
  • Be comfortable with making decisions with limited knowledge and resources
  • Use free startup tools to increase productivity
  • Be agile
  • Design the system for continuous delivery
  • Don't plan for scalability for MVP, but don't delay till the system breaks
  • Have mentors and thank them
  • Learn from our mistakes and celebrate our success. 

What are you measured on? 

Let’s look through a different lens - as a tech lead if I have to tell my team what to do, I am failing, and I need to do something about it.

I think as a tech lead, it is more important to build a high performing team than to focus only on good delivery, (although delivery is, of course, crucial.)  A self-motivated team can evolve the architecture, can shape up the product and can challenge the norms so improvements can happen - and successful delivery is an outcome of a high performing team.

Team workshop

If my team has a sense of achievement, is happy and motivated, to be the best they can, I can quite proudly say I have achieved my purpose.

What makes a good Tech Lead?

A good tech lead helps the team as a whole, but also individual members of the team to become amazing. A good tech lead understands individual’s goals and helps them to achieve their goals by:

  • Knowing when to give input
  • Knowing when to make decisions
  • Knowing when to step back and allow the team to take more ownership
  • Sharing responsibility, giving ownership … but staying accountable

A good tech lead is a steady, guiding communicator. Part of the Tech Lead’s responsibility is communicating to the team the aims and approaches of the project. A Tech Lead makes sure everyone knows what to do, how to do it, and has the tools to be able to do it to ensure expectations are met.

How do you balance coding/non-coding responsibilities?

When I am a tech lead, my first priority is the team’s holistic productivity. And I just need to fight the guilt that comes with this. It's incredibly tempting to say "oh, I think I'll have time this week, so I can take that story card". My job isn’t to crank out the most code. My job is to make the people on my team successful. If something important needs to be done, and I don’t have time to do it, I will delegate it. This will help the whole team move forward.

Having said that, it is very important not to neglect the hands-on technical activities, such as write code, define interfaces, complete code reviews and keep an eye on the evolution of the code, etc.. My lovely colleague who was the BA in my team helped me work out a system that worked well. I only took on story cards that were either small, non-blocking, or didn’t have a deadline. So I get to have my hands dirty when I find the time!

On your current project, what technology has you most excited?

On a recent project, I got to see how machine learning models were developed and how it was used for real-world prediction. It was all very exciting. Recently there were hackathons from the government and health sectors to use data and machine learning for building a better and stronger community and improving people’s lives. I think with the amount of data we have and continue to collect; machine learning is changing the world in a profound way.

How do you balance your role as a consultant, with the role of tech lead?

Being an effective tech lead requires good consulting skills. The main focus of a tech lead is to delegate, mentor, and develop the team. It requires good interpersonal skills, problem-solving ability, analytical skills, flexibility, and the ability to cope with pressure and challenges. All of the skills make a good consultant. Also, coming in as a consultant, I can have access to stakeholders and information broader than just technical. Having the right business context really helps me make better technical decisions. I see being a consultant and a tech lead as complementary. One makes the other one a much easier job.

I love being a consultant because:

  • I can make lots of friends working in different industries and companies
  • I can play with different tech stacks
  • I am challenged with different business problems
  • I am challenged every day to think out of the box

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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