The secret skill of the senior tech person

A while ago I was talking to a manager about some concerns they had about their “senior tech person”. They knew this person was very knowledgable, but there was a concern that they weren’t helping the rest of the team learn and grow.

It got me thinking about the skills needed for that kind of role. To be a senior tech person is not just to be very experienced or knowledgeable about technology, it’s also to be able to influence positively.

I once knew a senior tech person who introduced new technologies to teams without having a plan about how skills in those technologies would be learned or supported by other teams. Perhaps he thought it would be trivial for them, because he was very bright and it was trivial for him. But the reality was others found those resulting systems difficult to interact with, difficult to maintain, and so ultimately they limited the organisation’s wider flexibility.

By contrast, I also worked with another senior tech person who was also trying to introduce a new technology. But she realised she was introducing it not just to her team for a new project, but to the organisation more generally. She knew that new technology would outlast her team—she would inevitably move onto other things, and she knew her team members would, too. So she didn’t just do the technical research, but made sure to involve her team in that. She also ran department-wide talks, promoted the on-going thinking in Slack channels, and organised drop-in sessions for the curious—with doughnuts. These drop-in sessions were well attended, and I’m sure the doughnuts were part of the reason.

You might not think laying on doughnuts should be the work of a senior tech person, but that would be to misunderstand her aim, which was to educate, debate, influence and motivate. The work of the senior tech person is about much more than tech.

Photo by Eric Herot