How To Develop Technical Leaders

Few technicians have the expertise and personal influence to be considered a candidate, and those who do must master these four competencies.

Larry Tieman, Contributor

May 25, 2011

5 Min Read

In part one of this two-part series, I discussed the organizational challenges of maintaining a technical career path that truly parallels the IT management track and how to get the right people into these positions. This column discusses the core competencies of technical leaders and how to develop them.

Without exception, all the technical leaders I have known over the course of my 40-year career (and I can remember every last person who reached that level) had a primary and an exceptionally strong secondary area of technical expertise. Some of the technical pairings were ACP/TPF and SNA/VTAM; Smalltalk and data modeling/IDEF; Tuxs/JMS/Tibco/WebLogic and disk drive performance; JAVA/Spring/Eclipse/Hibernate and Oracle DB; and so forth.

The person who will be a successful technical leader must also have the personality to influence individuals and groups, and the expertise to solve problems. As Rob Carter, FedEx's CIO, would say: "Look for the person with a line at their door." Compared to the subtleness and richness of the competencies needed by IT management, these basic traits seem relatively easy to develop. But in reality, few technicians have the expertise and personal influence to be considered a candidate for technical leader.

Beyond those fundamentals, the four core competencies I value in technical leaders are communications, delegation, teamwork, and mentoring.

A mentor of mine at American Airlines, Joyce Wrenn, the long-time CIO of Union Pacific, taught me that communicating well is more important than being precise. Back when I was a manager at American, I was due to make a presentation to Max Hopper, the senior VP of IS, on object-oriented programming, and I couldn't get the presentation past Joyce. I was trying to explain object-oriented programming by going into the details of inheritance, encapsulation, class structure, etc., and Joyce was having none of it.

She kept emphasizing that Max doesn't want to know those details, that Max is a businessman and he wants to know what it all means. I finally got the presentation past Joyce after two weeks of work, and I thought it was the dumbest presentation I had ever seen. But Max loved it--all 5 minutes of it--and he "got it." That experience taught me that technical topics must be tailored for the audience, and sometimes precision has to be sacrificed to get the main points across.

Technical leaders also must be able to communicate with senior management. Often, that communication comes at a time of high stress for everyone--for example, a major system is down and it's all-hands-on-deck to solve the problem--so the explanation must be concise and understandable. At other times the technical leadership may be championing a technology change or a system that needs re-architecting. No matter the situation, the communication has to elevate to cause and effect, in contrast to the detailed technical discussions held with the technical teams.

When developing technical leader candidates, I ask them to select as a topic either a technical problem they had solved that had a material effect on the business, or a technical problem that should be solved (and a proposed solution) that would have a material effect. Then the candidate prepares a presentation of 10 minutes or less for the CIO and staff. It usually takes six months to go from preliminary topic selection to suitable presentation. Occasionally, it takes more than a year.

While the development of the presentation and presentation skills are ongoing, I ask the candidates to begin transitioning themselves out of a job by delegating most of their current work to others and, in partnership with the management team, selecting and training a replacement. I make it very clear that with this role they will be assigned to a number of different projects and problems, and always as my representative. The very best technical leaders are given license to insert themselves into any project or problem. This new role requires new skills.

This process of delegating and developing a successor often exceeds a year, and it's quite revealing. It shows how well candidates work with teams, because by delegating the work no one person knows it all. This process forces candidates to act as mentors. It also reveals how well each candidate had developed technical talent; if the successor's knowledge gap is large, the candidate will have to work longer to train the replacement. Only when the management team is confident that the replacement can do the job has the candidate been successful.

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A technical leader formally and informally forms teams to solve problems. As the communication, delegation, and mentoring aspects progress, I send the candidate into situations with other groups. Over the course of the year or more that it takes to master the other skills, the candidate gets experience with teams that just can't quite find their way or are in full crisis mode.

This process of transforming senior technical talent into technical leaders is a lengthy one, but when it's completed I have a person I trust in the most difficult technical situations, whose solutions are well vetted with the technical teams, who understands the importance of developing more technical talent, and is a model for other new talent. I have developed a few dozen technical leaders and a few senior technical leaders in my career, and every one of them has been a success.

Dr. Larry Tieman has been a senior VP at FedEx, a CIO, or a CTO for the last 20 years. He has worked with some of the great CIOs, including Max Hopper, Charlie Feld, and Rob Carter. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Larry Tieman


Dr. Larry Tieman has been a senior VP at FedEx, a CIO, or a CTO for the last 20 years. He has worked with some of the great CIOs, including Max Hopper, Charlie Feld, and Rob Carter. He can be reached at [email protected].

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