A Leader's Perspective on Building an Exceptional Tech Team

Interview
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7 min

A Leader's Perspective on Building an Exceptional Tech Team

Imperva's Sebastian Mil recently sat down with Agnieszka Smolenska from ALLSTARSIT and shared his knowledge, experience, thoughts, and suggestions during a pleasant interview, which you can read below.

Agnieszka Smolenska: At the beginning of your career, you were a programmer, then you moved to quality, as a technical person, and then as a tester. So you followed this career ladder step by step. And then an opportunity to become a team leader, manager, and director. Is it possible to become a team leader without technical knowledge?

Sebastian Mil: There are different opinions on this, with one concept saying that you can become a manager without having a technical background. I am afraid it can be a more challenging career path, but it’s still possible. Nevertheless, when it comes to IT and other technical disciplines, it is way much easier to manage a team when you understand what people are talking about and have this domain knowledge. At the same time, it is worth remembering that understanding the team translates into the project's final result. On the other hand, understanding the topic greatly impacts proper communication within the team, directly affecting customer satisfaction and project success.

AS: You just mentioned communication, which is the key to success, but I would like to start at the beginning. I am curious about how to build a good IT team? What do you think is essential to pay attention to? 

SM: When it comes to building a good team, this relies on having a mix of skills and personalities. Technical competencies and a positive work attitude are two critical elements that affect a team's quality. It is worth remembering that the team members should find a balance in terms of these two elements, and the role of the leader is to help them achieve this and build a team that fits together. This process starts at the recruitment stage, designed to test technical and soft skills.

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AS: Your previous statements emphasize the importance of soft skills and a technical competencies mix necessary to create a real team. Soft skills are often more important to explore in the recruitment process because they are challenging to learn, unlike the ability to learn technical knowledge relatively quickly. In that case, what role do soft skills play in recruitment? Do we pay enough attention to this element? 

SM: Initially, we talk only about technical competencies, which represent an essential factor determining a person's hiring, i.e., engagement, but we cannot overlook the candidate's soft skills. In fact, over time, these soft skills turn out to be more important than competencies, as competencies can always be acquired, but soft skills not so much. We are trying to pay as much attention to soft skills as technical competences. That is why the recruitment process is divided so that a large part of it examines these skills. As a team manager, I am trying to learn more about them and understand their potential behavior in certain situations. We have a set of tasks and questions designed to test a candidate's potential reactions and mindset. We are trying to discover how they could behave in the future in a given, specific situation. Of course, it takes a lot of time, but it is a vital part of the recruitment process. 

AS: We have focused on the team, on the qualities of its members, and on recruitment so far. Let's look at the IT team's creation from a leader's perspective. What qualities should a good leader have?

SM: We need to remember that the leader is a representative of the organization in the eyes of the employee and is in charge of realizing the organization's goals. However, the leader mustn't lose sight of the employee as a person – the employee is not just a machine that performs certain tasks and achieves goals in some deterministic way. This person is subject to emotions, the influence of personal life, and a life outside work. The leader's role is to consider the employee a person, not a tool to perform tasks. From my perspective and experience, empathy plays a significant role here. In addition, a person who would like to manage a team in the future must be open to multitasking. Leadership is a very complex role, requiring a focus not only on the project and the client but, perhaps most importantly, on the employee, whose personal development also translates into the company's development. He or she should be perceptive to react promptly to a situation and courageously take appropriate steps and sometimes risks.

AS: Now that we know about a good team leader and the importance of soft skills let's talk about how the team leader works with the recruitment team. What should this cooperation look like?

SM: In terms of the recruitment process itself, before hiring a person, we think very hard with the recruitment team about what the profile of such a person might look like, both technically, looking at the specific project, and what the needs are there in terms of competencies. We spend a lot of time creating this model. We are aware that thoughtful, sensible and practical recruitment is a considerable saving in the long run. The found candidates then undergo my initial verification based on the resumes provided. After this part, together with the recruitment team, we assess whether this person could fit into the team, perhaps he or she has competencies or experiences that we lack, or on the contrary, their history alerts us to potential risks. The candidate then has technical discussions with me or other team members to see how he or she could function in the team. We also sometimes have meetings with the entire team to analyze interactions.

AS: We all know work has daily ups and downs there is no time for boredom. You mentioned multitasking, which is evident in your job. What about the challenges and joys of the team leader's job? What causes you the most hardship or gives you wings and motivation?

SM: Challenges are a manager's joy, as no manager would want to work in a monotonous and repetitive environment. First, the greatest satisfaction is facing these challenges and achieving the organization's goals. Secondly, it is a great reward to observe people on my team developing in the company. There is an excellent synergy between employees motivated by their own ambitions, aspirations, and desire to develop and an organization embracing growth. So if we make this match, combining these two things, it becomes the greatest satisfaction for the manager, as they worked on building this environment so that all goals follow each other rather than diverge. 

AS: From your perspective, what is the work as a team leader like?

SM: To be a team leader means working with people. It is a job that is related to managing people. A team lead develops not only technical competence, which is especially important at the beginning of a career, but also develops as a person because –here, there is no denying– many things in team management are related to soft skills. Companies can also influence the development of these soft skills. At the same time, you cannot separate your personality from work, home, or private life. By developing soft skills at work, you are actually developing soft skills at home, which translates into the quality of your life or the competencies you use daily. This also applies to others, for example, negotiation, listening skills, etc. 

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