Becoming a Developer Chapter Lead — What I’ve Learned in 90 Days

With a new year comes a new challenge, and with the dawn of 2020 comes my new role of a Developer Chapter Lead, or DCL. Through hard work, passion, and a love of software people I’ve been chosen as one of the first in my organization to take on this exciting new role. This is what I’ve discovered in my first 90 days.

For Context — What is a Developer Chapter Lead? What is a Chapter? What the Heck are you Talking About!?

A chapter is a group of professionals from various cross-functional teams that embody the same role in their day-to-day life. There can be chapters for developers, designers, scrum masters, product owners, you name it. Their whole purpose is to develop & share the knowledge & skills needed to excel in this role, and set standards for how a professional should do their job. A good chapter provides direct benefits to its members’ teams, namely members that have the skills needed to drive the teams towards excellent business outcomes.

The chapter lead is the leader of one of these chapters, believe it or not. They’re responsible for driving the skill development & standards establishment of the chapter, in accordance with the needs of affected teams. In many organizations the chapter lead is also the line manager for their chapter members, coaching, assessing performance, handling issues, and ensuring members have what they need to contribute their best work to the teams. Finally, the chapter lead still spends ~50% of their time developing on a team, meaning they keep their own development skills sharp, and can speak from a place of recent (or real-time) experience.

With that out of the way, on with the lessons.

First, Get Your Elevator Pitch Together

If chapters are a new concept in your company (like they are in mine), the first thing you can expect to hear when saying the words Developer Chapter Lead is “what the heck is that?”. You’ll notice the conciseness of the chapter & chapter lead descriptions above. That’s because I’ve had to explain these to concepts over and over again, and validly so. It’s a new idea for most organizations, meaning it’s often up to you to sell & cement their value to stakeholders who could make or break your chapter’s success. Though it doesn’t hurt to build fans across the organization, focus most of your efforts on winning over the product owners, scrum masters, and tech leads of your chapter members’ teams. Make it clear that your job is to make their jobs easier, by providing them well-skilled, capable, professional developers. Establishing that trustful, symbiotic relationship will give you a lot more leeway to take time for training & coaching, trading a small velocity hit for long-term capability gains.

You Have Less Control than you Think

Most people’s idea of being a leader includes establishing all encompassing visions, giving commands, and generally having the final say on what employees work on. While chapter leads handle the person-management of their members, what members ultimately work on is dictated by their teams. So if you want a member to gain experience by working in a new part of the system or by trying out different responsibilities, you’ll have to clear this with their team (mostly the leadership triad). Even time for learning new tech or establishing best-practices has to be taken from team-focused development time, requiring a careful dance with your members’ triads. Influence becomes a critical skill for any successful chapter lead.

Trust Your Eyes & Ears (and Gain Some Extra Ones while You’re at it)

Part of a DCL’s job is performance & personal management for their chapter members. This gets tricky when you’re on different teams and not directly interacting in standups, pair-programming sessions, or sprint planning.

If you’re lucky enough to sit near your chapter members, keep your eyes & ears open. Do people frequently come to your chapter members for help & advice? Do your chapter members go out of their way to support their teammates? These are all data points that can go into assessing behaviors.

At the same time, standing meetings with your chapter members’ triads will help you monitor their performance, big wins, and opportunity areas.

Finally, so long as the triads allow it, being a fly on the wall for ~1 standup/week is a good way to get a pulse on how well your chapter members are moving tickets across the board and generally contributing to their team.

Objectives & Measurements Can Be Murky

What’s the point of a chapter? The easy answer is “To improve the skills of its members”. Okay, but what does that mean?

Ultimately the goals of a chapter will be very context-specific. In some cases a broad exposure to a wide variety of tech makes sense. In others the development of expertise in one area is preferred. Still in others the establishment & proliferation of best practices is the best way to add value. Usually the chapter’s purpose is a combination of the three with a hearty dose of coaching, mentoring, problem-solving, and idea sharing thrown on top.

Understanding your progress towards these goals is a challenge. The easy measurements like number of classes taken or number of certifications gained don’t always correlate with improved performance, and soft-skill development (the area where developers’ improvement is often most valuable) is specifically hard to quantify. Though imprecise and prone to bias, frequent surveys & discussions with team members is often the best way to understand progress.

Balance is Hard

Since the DCL is only responsible for 1/2 of typical management responsibilities (how people do & are doing in their jobs, not what they’re actually working on) DCLs usually act as developers ~50% of the time. This sounds fine on paper, but can be challenging in practice. Especially since most DCLs were considered senior engineers pre-new-role, team members frequently look to them for input, advice, and help. This is great, until you realize the amount of time all this takes. My tech lead can attest to the newfound challenge of finding gaps in my calendar, and the time it sometimes takes for me to respond.

Find & Get to Know the Experts

Though your selection for this role was (partially) based on technical expertise, with close to half of your time devoted to chapter & people management, you can’t become or continue to be the technical expert in everything. But don’t fret, there are plenty of smart people who are experts at such things, and part of your job is to reach out, make connections, and connect your chapter members with their knowledge.

These experts can be in your team, your program, your division, or even cross-org. Though you may get 1–2 “Nos” back, most people at are more than happy to share their knowledge in brown bags or KT sessions with eager students, and some consider it to be part of their jobs.

Coach, Don’t Tell

As soon as you enter a leadership position, it’s very tempting to start dispensing instructions left & right. But this just turns your smart, talented chapter members into order takers.

Instead coach them towards realizations & greater performance through asking questions, probing topics, and asking them to think more critically about issues they face and work they do.

Try, Learn, Adapt

Finally, the best way to learn how to be a great DCL is to try some things, learn from their results, and adapt your approach.

When I first entered the role I spend months trying to fine-tune my strategy & OKRs to account for the rapidly changing needs & structure of the organization. Two months later I had a stack of half-finished or out-of-date documents, and not much to show for the buzz I created around my chapter.

So instead I started small, scheduling a few brown bags on topics I knew were necessary, and starting a small code standards & best practices documentation initiative that could provide immediate (though not massive) value.

So once the chapter kickoff’s complete, feel free to start small, gain feedback from chapter members, triads, etc. and adapt.

Enjoy the Ride

All-in-all this has been one of my more enjoyable roles. To be able to have a positive effect on the work, careers, and lives of talented engineers is a gift, and it feels good knowing my work has an impact beyond what my fingers can type out.

If you have the option, and want to experience the people-oriented & management side of software while still staying embedded in the code, I highly recommend taking this role.

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