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6 tips for successfully leading software developers

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Developers are notoriously grumpy and unamenable to disruption. They tend to want to continue working until they arrive at a place of completion and satisfaction.

What’s an IT leader to do?


The following perspectives will help you better understand what motivates and mystifies developers and can guide your thinking on how to be the leader your team needs.


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Cultivate business awareness

One of the critical tasks for all leaders is to provide an overhead strategic vision to the people who work on the lower-level tasks. This is especially important—and challenging—when working with developers because their work is so demanding of careful, focused attention.


Developers are required to master an enormous amount of complexity that can squeeze out the larger context, resulting in a kind of myopia. The work itself is enough to occupy even the most ambitious and active mind, so it becomes especially important for leaders to provide the two-way channel between the daily coding and the larger direction.

Convey meaning

Although strategy and business value are valuable to communicate to developers, there is an even higher thing which we’ll call purpose or meaning. The strategy is engaged to support the mission. The mission is the raison d’etre for the company itself.


Does the company have a potent mission statement? Is the essence of the mission well distributed into the ranks? The rightness or goodness of the enterprise should be infused into everyone’s activity.


Developers are especially tricky, as they are typically rather resistant to what they often cynically see as indoctrination. Nevertheless, the sense of legitimacy is just as necessary for long-term developer contentment as anyone else.

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Foster creativity

Developers’ will to create is strong, but it can be hard to perceive as creativity is often obscured by the technological nature of development. Developers communicate with a strange patois of acronyms that hide the artistic spirit behind it. Learning to perceive and nurture that spirit is a special kind of leadership that developers will appreciate.

Allow space for failure

Despite their mastery of complexity, developers are prone to feeling like they are not really up to the job at hand—the strange phenomenon known as imposter syndrome.


This kind of insecurity is more common and sensible with green developers, but you would be surprised at the accomplished programmers who still acknowledge running into it. Even coders coming from great success can find themselves burdened with uncertainty about their ability to handle the next thing confronting them.


Every leader’s style is different, of course. So is every developer’s. Instead of a hard and fast rule like avoiding harsh criticism or promoting recognition, it’s good to simply bear in mind the kind of difficulty developers wrangle with in their daily work. The path of execution is rarely a straight line for a developer. They frequently must call upon an inspirational force to get there, and this can be frightening when deadlines loom.

Encourage taking breaks

Here is a practical insight: When you have developers who are facing blocks, they have a tendency to beat their heads against the wall of impasse. Usually, the block is a creative one that can’t be solved with faster shoveling and hammering.


Know when to encourage a break. It’s counterintuitive, but so many times the breakthrough a programmer is looking for is not to be found in working harder but in getting some distance from the problem.


Developers themselves frequently miss this point. In fact, they will actively resist it when they are in the grips of a tough challenge. They believe that continuing to grind away at the thing is the path to a breakthrough.

Provide balance

Developers suffer from discontentment, stress, and burnout at a high rate. Whatever you can do to mitigate this is welcome. Developers do it to themselves and also are subject to external pressures. Both of these forces can be addressed by leaders.

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