Geek Logbook

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How to be a lead by Dan Ingalls

Daniel (Dan) Ingalls is one of the creators of Smalltak. Other interesting development of engals was the Context Menu

Seibel: Do you have any tips on how to be a good technical leader?

Ingalls: The first thing is being clear about what you’re trying to do. The job is to get a clear vision. If you’ve been around, you can see actually how you’re going to implement that, so you can start to see how that would work out in terms of what various people can do and how it would all fit

There have been times when I’ve been working on a project where I could see everything. It felt really powerful because whenever anybody was stuck I could tell them immediately what the next step was, or how to get around it. And people feel that, too, if you know where you’re headed. They can
immediately sense it’s all there—he’s got it. And that’s empowering for the team as well.

Seibel: Does having too clear a picture of what you want ever disempower people—since you’ve got everything in your head, there’s nothing fun for them to do?

Ingalls: Well, you can leave it open how they do their part of it and you maybe only step in with micromanagement where it’s needed. And often things turn out better. I was lucky to work with a great crew of people for a long time whom I trusted. Trust is part of it, trust for the people that you’re
working with. The other thing is just confidence. When the picture’s clear, it’s easy to be confident about it. I think the kind of thing that makes for bad micromanagement is you’re worried and you’re insecure, and so you’re feeling like you have to nail everything down.

Seibel: Have you ever had a really great team leader when you were a worker bee?

Ingalls: The best boss in my life has been Alan Kay. I worked under him at Xerox for some very formative years, and that was an interesting combination, because he knew what he wanted but he hardly ever said how I should do things. But he was technically savvy about all of it so he was a
good critic. I and the guys who came to work with me were really productive so I think he felt enough progress that he didn’t have to interfere much. He made an umbrella for me, for us, and he really had a picture of what he wanted to do.

Coders at Work – Page 360 – Dan Ingalls

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