Informal Leadership in Software Engineering – What You Need To Progress

Unfortunately, it still seems that it’s not commonly understood that soft skills in software engineering are critical. But these are the foundation for being able to lean into informal leadership in software engineering— something that will be vital for progressing in your career.

But what is informal leadership? Before we get there, let’s start with leadership itself:
Our ability to influence and guide others.

Let’s dive into what this leadership business is all about.

What’s In This Article: Informal Leadership in Software Engineering

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Formal Leadership in Software Engineering

In software engineering, among other professions, many often consider those in higher-up roles to be the “leaders”. The CEO, the VPs, the executives… Those are the leaders within the company.

The perception of those in leadership extends to those in management roles as well. These are the individuals who are leading specific teams, after all, so it makes sense that they’re also leaders.

What I’d like to draw your attention to is that the roles these individuals have by definition include some type of leadership expectation. But leadership itself is a trait that one can possess, and on its own is not a title. So for these individuals, we say that they are in “formal leadership” positions because as non-individual contributors (non-ICs), we expect that their position requires a demonstration of leadership to be effective.

Informal Leadership in Software Engineering

This brings us to informal leadership then, which is nearly identical but the expectation of this characteristic is not intrinsically built into the role being performed as an IC.

Informal leadership in software engineering still looks like influencing and guiding. It means being able to help offer clarity and reduce chaos for your teammates and colleagues. Leveling up the more junior software engineers by helping them understand more complex areas. Helping organize and drive progress on project deliverables…

The list goes on.

If you’re a more junior software engineer, one of the best ways that I can draw attention to good informal leadership (generally speaking, not as a rule), is for you to think about the more senior software engineers that you love to work with.

What kinds of characteristics do they have? What makes you enjoy working with them? How do they approach problem-solving with you? How do they make you feel when it comes to accomplishing your work?

Odds are these more senior software engineers are making you feel safe, ensuring that you can progress in your work, both challenging and encouraging you, and inspiring you to do your best work.

Why Informal Leadership Matters

As we grow in our software engineering careers, a few things are almost certain:

  • You’ll work on higher-impact areas
  • The scope of the areas you work in will be wider
  • The surface area of individuals and teams you work with will increase

Your ability to deliver on these three facets will require you to be proficient at informal leadership. To work on the higher-impact areas, you’ll need to be working with people, guiding them to progress on these deliverables. And because the scope of impact is broader, you’ll need more people to be guiding to facilitate this! Both of these tie into the final point which is that your surface area of influence has increased now so effectively leading is critical.

You rarely get promoted and advance in your software engineering career and THEN get told to increase your informal leadership. It’s often the reverse order. If you’d like to see growth in your role and your responsibilities, you’ll likely need to demonstrate these informal leadership traits first.

What to Focus On For Informal Leadership

Remember what I was saying earlier about emulating more senior software engineers that you look up to? Odds are, they’re doing things that encompass good informal leadership because you can feel it in your work with them.

More specifically though, here are some things to focus on:

  • Help more junior software engineers problem solve. Don’t give them answers or do work for them, but truly enable them to solve problems more effectively by helping them get unblocked.
  • Drive clarity in the projects you work on with others. Who is working on which part? Which parts are blocked? Is everyone aware of the next priority? What about the risks?
  • Create a safe place for other software engineers. Software engineering involves some amount of risk, especially when we’re pushing boundaries. Make sure that you’re helping create an environment that’s not only safe to push technical boundaries but safe to ask questions without fearing you look stupid.
  • Strive for collaboration. Remove silos between teammates and between other teams.
  • Actively listen and make sure others have a chance to share their perspective. Don’t just wait for a chance to interject.

On the other hand, this video walks through a handful of things you should avoid if you want to be great at informal leadership in software engineering:

YouTube player

Summarizing Informal Leadership in Software Engineering

Informal leadership in software engineering is not only something that levels up an organization, it’s your key to leveling up your career. In this article, I explained that “higher up” positions from C-Level, through VPs, and down to front-line managers have expectations of them for formal leadership. However, we can have (and should have) informal leadership at the individual contributor (IC) level as well!

Informal leadership in software engineering allows you to have a broader and greater impact in the areas that you’re involved in — including technical deliverables as well as a circle of influence. It’s likely not going to show up for you AFTER you become senior, but it’s much more likely that you’ll need to be skilling this up before you get promoted to senior.

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    Frequently Asked Questions: Informal Leadership in Software Engineering

    What is Informal Leadership in Software Engineering?

    Informal leadership in software engineering refers to the ability of individual contributors to influence and guide their teammates and colleagues without holding formal management positions.

    Why is Informal Leadership crucial for Software Engineers?

    Informal leadership is vital for software engineers as it allows them to have a broader impact, including technical deliverables and influencing their team, essential for career growth.

    How can junior software engineers demonstrate Informal Leadership?

    Junior software engineers can exhibit informal leadership by emulating traits of senior engineers they admire, such as problem-solving skills, clarity in projects, and creating a safe environment for technical exploration. Odds are, juniors admire these more senior software engineers exhibiting these traits because they are great informal leaders.

    What are some of the key focus areas for Informal Leadership?

    Key areas include helping junior (or other) engineers, driving project clarity, ensuring a safe working environment, encouraging collaboration, and actively listening to team members.

    How does Informal Leadership differ from Formal Leadership?

    Unlike formal leadership, which is tied to a specific title or role, informal leadership is not role-specific and can be exhibited by anyone on the team regardless of their official position.

    author avatar
    Nick Cosentino Principal Software Engineering Manager
    Principal Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft. Views are my own.

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