I first became a tech lead in 2008, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. In my mind, I thought a tech lead was just like every other software engineer except they got to make the final call on tech decisions. The rest of the day, I reasoned, was just as I was used to with minimal changes. And so I was shocked when I found more and more of my day being taken up not with coding but with discussions. My calendar filled up with meetings to discuss the project with product managers, program managers, and engineering managers. In between, I was constantly being interrupted with questions from other engineers. Before I knew it, I didn’t seem to be getting much done.
This is a common experience for new tech leads: The time management skills you had up to this point are no longer working. Instead, you’re left with a steady flurry of interruptions that keep you from doing your own work and very little guidance on how to handle them.
Why tech leads struggle with interruptions
While the role of tech lead differs from company to company, and sometimes even project to project, it is commonly made up of two types of tasks:
- Helping others - You’re expected to spend some of your time helping other engineers do their work. This might mean providing formal code or specification reviews, mentoring, checking on progress, answering questions, or any number of other things to help move the team forward.
- Working on your own - You’re also expected to have deliverables of your own. This might be code, technical specifications, presentations, project plans, or other work where you are the primary driver.
Switching back and forth between working with others and on your own requires different time management skills, and this is often where tech leads struggle. They feel that it is their job to make sure people aren’t stuck and are always making progress, and, therefore, any time spent in a state where they can’t be reached has an automatic negative effect on productivity. They encourage team members to interrupt them at any point if they need help, frequently through real-time communication channels such as chat or instant message. The belief is that this fosters trust while ensuring that people are never blocked waiting for a response. While the thought process behind this approach is commendable, wanting to be there for the team, the end result is a chaotic day of work in which it’s difficult or impossible to make progress on personal deliverables.
Given that it takes around 15 minutes to regain your focus once interrupted1, it can be difficult for tech leads to get anything done when they exist in this interrupt-driven environment. So what is the solution?
Your team doesn’t actually need you that much
When I first became a tech lead, my team was using Yahoo Messenger to communicate. (For those unaware, Yahoo Messenger was a popular instant messaging program during the 2000s.) As a team that was distributed across not just different floors of a building but also in different buildings on campus and different countries, being able to quickly reach someone with a question was a significant part of our daily routine. As the tech lead, I was frequently bombarded with messages from one of the 24 front-end engineers on the team, not to mention back-end engineers, product managers, and engineering managers.
My stress level got high enough that I met with my director to explore if I just wasn’t cut out for the job. I gave him an overview of how I was spending my day, and he very calmly gave me some advice.
“In the beginning, you did a good job of teaching people to come to you when they needed help. Now, you need to teach them to solve problems themselves. Not every problem is a Nicholas problem. If it’s something only you can solve, then fine. Do it. But if it’s something someone else can solve, then let them solve it.”
It’s common for new tech leads to believe that they need to be involved in as many parts of their project as possible to succeed, and I fell into that category. In truth, the more parts of the project you’re involved in, the less functional your team is and the slower progress is made. Your teammates were hired (presumably) because they are also competent adults who can deliver quality software with or without you. Sometimes you will help them get unstuck, but most of the time they are capable of getting themselves unstuck.
Does that mean people will get unstuck as quickly as they would if you helped them? Not at all, and that’s okay. Everyone is slow at figuring out a problem they haven’t solved before. Struggling through a problem helps to solidify the learning better than if the solution is given directly.2 By swooping in and solving people’s problems for them, you’re actually robbing them of a more productive learning experience. Lessons learned through struggle are where growth happens.
You get the interruptions you reward
While some interruptions occur when people are stuck, a lot of the interruptions are not because people are truly stuck but rather because people don’t want to spend the time to solve problems on their own. If they can send you a message and get a response in a couple of minutes, then why would they spend 15 minutes solving the problem themselves? That’s so inefficient! You both get a hit of dopamine as they get the answer they’re looking for, and you feel proud for helping someone else move forward. It’s an addictive behavior that isn’t serving either of you.
Back when I was at Yahoo, I noticed a frustrating pattern: People would send me a message that just said, “hey.” I’d respond to see what they wanted only to find that it was some mundane issue that they could handle on their own. The “hey” was another instant gratification behavior — it was a ping to see if I was available before bothering to tell me what they wanted.
After going through this process for several weeks, I decided to try a different approach. When I received a message that just said, “hey” (or “hi” or similar), I would not respond immediately. I would wait to see if they followed up and explained what they needed, and if they didn’t, that was the end. And most of the time they never followed up, which told me two things: 1) Whatever they needed actually wasn’t that important and 2) They figured out how to deal with it on their own. And as a bonus, once I did this for a few weeks, the “hey” messages virtually disappeared.
This was an important lesson for me: You get the interruptions you reward. Had I continued to respond to “hey” messages quickly, I would have continued to receive them. By not responding to them immediately, I had provided negative feedback that taught everyone not to bother. They wouldn’t get the dopamine hit they were looking for through this behavior. On the other hand, if they messaged me with a specific question, I would respond right away. So I was providing negative feedback for the interruptions I didn’t want and positive feedback from the interruptions I did want.
To get your unwanted interruptions under control, just don’t respond immediately. Practice waiting an hour before responding to unwanted interruptions and you’ll gradually teach people not to expect instant gratification. (If an hour feels like too long, start with waiting 15 minutes before responding. Set a timer and don’t respond until it goes off. You’ll get used to it.)
Other interruptions you are encouraging
Of course, “hey” messages aren’t the only type of interaction you might accidentally be encouraging. Whenever I hear someone complaining about an interaction with someone else, I often think of this question that CEO coach Jerry Colonna3 asks his clients:
“How are you complicit in creating the conditions you say you don’t want?”
Many of the interruptions you encounter are a direct result of how you respond to them. So any time you get an unwelcome and unimportant interruption, ask yourself what you did to encourage this behavior and what you could do to discourage it. Here are a few other common interruptions that people struggle with:
- After-hours emails - I’ve spoken to a lot of people who believe after-hours emails are a normal part of their work life. While that might be true for some people, after-hours emails are almost always a result of you replying to after-hours emails. When people know that you’re checking email after 5 p.m., they will send email after 5 p.m.; when people know that you’re not checking email after 5 p.m., you’ll get little or no email after 5 p.m. (or at least, the emails you do get won’t require immediate attention).
- Meetings during blocked-off time - Some tech leads learn to block off time on their schedule for work or personal tasks, and yet when someone schedules a meeting during that time, they accept. And guess what? As soon as you do that, you’ve signaled that this type of interruption is appropriate and acceptable, and so that will happen more often. Once I kept my blocked-off calendar time sacred by rejecting meeting requests, I stopped receiving those meeting requests.
- Focus time interruptions - If you’re colocated with your team in an office, it’s helpful to set up focus time indicators that let people know that you’re not to be interrupted. Common indicators include the use of over-the-ear headphones, green/red post-its on cube walls, and green/red traffic lights above cubes. And of course, when you have your focus time indicator on, you need to dismiss people who try to interrupt. Protecting your focus time will gradually teach people to wait.
There are undoubtedly many more situations that you’ll run into where you’re encouraging the exact behavior you want to avoid. Can you avoid all interruptions? Of course not. There are legitimate interruptions, but there are far fewer of those than the ones that fill up your day and create needless stress.
Tech leads need to learn to balance working on their own deliverables and helping out others on the team. That necessarily creates some friction because most tech leads want to prioritize the team’s needs over their own and so they either explicitly or implicitly encourage interruptions. While that may benefit the others on the team, it also means you don’t have the time to do your own work.
The good news is that you are 99% in control of the interruptions you receive. You do not have to accept the status quo when it’s not working for you. With every interaction you are training your colleagues on what interruptions are acceptable, and if you are getting interruptions that you don’t want, then you can change that by eliminating the positive feedback.
Your teammates are capable adults who were hired to do a particular job, and while they might function better by constantly interrupting you, they will function just fine without interrupting you, too. You can encourage them to try to solve some problems on their own and get back to you if they truly get stuck, or let them know you aren’t available right now but will be available in a few hours and see what happens.
In part 2, I’ll discuss how to manage your calendar so as to minimize unwanted interruptions to your day.