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How to Establish Yourself as a Leader

Personal Growth
Leadership
Career Path

2 April, 2021

Irina Stanescu
Irina Stanescu

Tech Lead & Staff Software Engineer at Ex-Google Ex-Uber

Irina Stanescu, ex-Tech Lead at Google and Uber, shares how she established herself as a leader without clinging to a title or long waiting for promotion.

Problem

I was 5 years into my engineering career when I joined a team as the second member and realized I’m passionate about leadership and wanted to help my manager build the team. I didn’t think I had enough experience to be a tech lead, but I cared about how things were done, and wanted to help set the people that would join the team up for success. I was drawn to the tech lead role but didn’t really think I stood a chance.

If you want to find out how I ended up becoming the tech lead and furthermore a tech lead manager, keep reading.

Actions taken

A pivotal moment in how I approached work happened after I attended an in-house leadership course back when I was at Google and I was still a simple IC, not even at a senior level yet. That course made me challenge the importance of having a leadership title and how it affects my work behavior. I realized I had one limiting belief which was: I thought I had to wait to get the title first, then start acting like a leader. I also thought seniority and number of years of experience are important when getting a leadership role, and this limiting belief also ended up being incorrect, as we’ll see in the following.

For the first time, I heard about the concept of self-leadership that encompasses a much broader space than the workspace and is tightly-knit to how we inspire others. It’s more of a way of living. I also learned that tech leads or managers aren’t necessarily good leaders (unfortunately), and good leaders don’t necessarily have to be tech leads or managers.

I now use another definition for what a leader is: someone who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way. What this made me do is basically start acting as a leader. I stopped focusing on getting the title and just started acting like I already had the title. Whenever there was an opportunity where I felt I knew the way, I would do it and show it to others. I didn’t need a title; what I needed was to give myself permission to be a leader. And that was very empowering and changed everything.

For example, there was a lot of inefficiency due to folks waiting on code reviews. It was never clear who was a required reviewer for various code reviews, and people were left confused. I proposed introducing an SLA for code reviews; no one had to do it immediately, but we would expect reviews to be completed by the end of the day. I also asked all thrift changes to be reviewed by at least one iOS and one Android engineer, in addition to one backed. I set up team-wide expectations on code reviews that established accountability without interrupting people in their daily work. Also, there was a lack of clarity on the steps to test new features, and I made sure to document my own testing method into a step-by-step guide that would allow people to be more autonomous and efficient. As a big believer in teaching people how to fish rather than giving them a fish away, I also introduced knowledge transfer and teaching practices that were particularly helpful to more junior people on the team.

And this is how I became the tech lead for the next big project. I became the next obvious choice for my manager when the need for a tech lead appeared because I had already demonstrated my leadership skills and capabilities. Moreover, when my manager needed to scale the team further, I was asked to start managing a handful of my previous peers, becoming their tech lead manager.

The seniority of the folks that I was leading varied, some of them being more senior than me. And although at first, I had to work extra hard to prove my competence despite being more junior, in the end, I was able to demonstrate that being experienced as an IC does not translate directly into how good a leader you are/will be.

Lessons learned

  • Transitioning from being an engineer to becoming a leader is never easy, but women may find more obstacles along the way. Women tend to be more critical toward themselves and allow self-doubt to impact their actions. They are also less likely to nominate themselves for promotion. You don’t have to wait for anyone to nominate you or officially be a tech lead to start leading. Be the person who empowers yourself.
  • View any interaction with your team as a teachable moment. Focus not only on a problem at hand but also on what a person could learn through the process of solving a problem. I want to leave things -- whether projects, companies, or even people -- better than what they were when I came there.
  • Age doesn’t matter when it comes to leadership. Don’t be afraid to lead people more senior to you. People will often find themselves in this trap -- they will not dare to challenge someone more senior. Being more senior doesn’t make someone’s right by default.
  • If you feel called to and are passionate about a leadership role, you will have to learn to quiet down your inner critic and fear.

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