After four years as an Engineering Team Lead, Mikko Kivelä decided to step out of the manager track. He became a Lead Engineer, taking over the responsibility for Smartly.io’s Creative Editor for Image and Video Templates.
"You often hear that engineers have to choose between two career paths — either you are responsible for the technology or the people building the technology. You know, the tech expert track versus the manager track. But it doesn't have to be either-or," Mikko says. "You can alternate between the two and apply learnings from both roles to become a better professional."
Learning about leadership always pays off
“The Lead Engineer opportunity came at a time when I was contemplating my next career move,” Mikko says. “After many years of leading a team of developers, I felt it was time for something new, and, ideally, that something would be focusing on technology.”
After moving from the people management track to technical leadership, Mikko focuses on the development team's productivity and product delivery. And he still works closely with people, too. "The leadership skills I've learned over the years have not gone to waste, I’m simply using them in a different context," he reflects. "Of course, a big part of the work of a Lead Engineer is to help with technical planning, implementation, and tooling. But understanding the team’s needs, guiding decision-making, and mentoring junior engineers are equally essential."
Learning through trial and error
All new leaders have a lot of firsts, regardless of their management track. The natural consequence of doing things for the first time is making mistakes. "At the beginning of my role as a Team Lead, I was learning about leadership through trial and error," Mikko says. "It helped me realize that what’s important is not that you failed but how you move on from that failure. If you can identify and act on it quickly enough, you might even be able to turn your mistake into a learning experience. Competence accumulates from the continuous application of previous learnings."
Working in startups has given Mikko insight into different phases of the business lifecycle. Different kinds of leadership are needed during different growth phases, and a leader has to evolve in response to the organization’s needs. "At Smartly.io, we have managed to identify when change has been needed and react quickly. We have restructured our organization and redefined our leadership roles and responsibilities to meet the new needs. One of the changes was introducing the Lead Engineer role, which also increases career alternatives for our Engineers," Mikko reflects. "For a leader, being fast to recognize where you need to grow and what help you need to get there is essential. What your team needed from you six months ago might not be what they need now."
Seeking advice and support to fuel development
There is one leadership-related myth that Mikko would like to debunk. "Leadership is not just an innate ability that some have, and some don't — it's a skill that you learn like any other. You gather experience from following best practices and being quick to react to and learn from what comes across your path."
"When I first became a Team Lead, I thought I was supposed to know everything," Mikko confesses. He suspects that other first-time leaders also have a high threshold for asking for help because they feel they are supposed to be the ones providing support and direction. "Speaking from experience, the faster you ask, the faster you learn to make the right decisions. Other team leads have similar challenges and have found a solution already, so you don't have to reinvent the wheel," Mikko says.
Peer support has been key in molding Mikko into the leader he is. "There is value in having people more experienced than you around to learn from," he says. "Smartly.io also provides a lot of support for leaders, like live and online training, peer learning sessions, and our Leadership Handbook."
How to get started with leadership
Mikko feels his diverse background has given his career a big boost. I originally started from UI/UX design, graphic design, and 3D modeling and moved towards software development. Then I entered the realm of people management, and now I'm learning technical leadership," he says. "Being able to contribute to both the technical and the people aspects of product development has been a big asset."
Mikko's advice for an aspiring leader is that learning about leadership to adopt in your daily work can be a great first step in thinking about whether that is an area you'd like to focus on more widely. "There's no right or wrong way of starting, but you can start paying attention to acts of leadership in your day-to-day work and becoming a strong self-leader. Both of these are important and pave the way for both tech expert and manager tracks. You are always leading something; for the very least, leading yourself."
Your leadership path doesn't have to be linear, and whichever track you sample first might be enough to help you forward on your way. "For example, all Smarties are trusted to take ownership beyond their role and expected to show leadership in their daily work and interactions. Therefore, learning about leadership is not limited to only explicit leadership roles," Mikko notes.
Mikko is not the only Smarly.io leader with a non-linear path to where he is now. ur Engineering Manager Holly took an alternative route to a career in software development and is currently managing two teams. Her journey has taught her how to keep calm, handle a crisis, and ask for help as she's setting our teams up for success in the long run. You can read about Holly's thoughts on leadership here.
Would you like to work with Mikko and Holly? Check out our open positions!