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5 Leadership Tips on Creating Space for Technologists to Thrive

Technology underpins almost every government service and program. For areas that technology hasn’t touched, digital transformation is just around the corner, ready to help organizations improve efficiency and lower costs. As government embraces these trends and changes and welcomes more technologists into the public sector, managers and leaders can take steps to create technology teams that can thrive.

1. Start from a place of understanding

Technology is important in government, but it is often seen as the ultimate solution, causing teams to lose sight of the end result and outcomes that should be delivered. Especially in government, technology is a facilitator. People interact with tech tools only to receive a benefit or engage in a service. Work with your team to identify the outcomes technology will enable and focus on those outcomes as a team.

2. Develop a vision and be decisive

Technology moves fast and software requirements can feel like they’re always changing. To guide your team through the noise, spend time understanding the space, asking for others’ insights (especially from your users and customers) and getting input from your team. With these takeaways, chart a path for your team, and make sure to communicate how you got there. The sooner you’re able to create structure from the chaos, the quicker your team will be productive. Don’t be afraid to stake a pole in the ground because you can always pivot and change if you need to. As a leader, you will not know everything but it is your job to make a decision and be accountable for the team. Changing the team’s direction when additional information is revealed should be embraced.

3. Create an inclusive culture

It is largely known that the tech industry is predominately white and male. There is also a lot of privilege that exists for tech workers. This means that leaders have to work even harder to create a culture that is inclusive of all backgrounds and experiences. You can start small and set a precedence for inclusivity and authenticity. Seek input and opinions from people with different backgrounds and experiences than yours. Raise up the voices of others and show that you value everyone’s feedback. Lead by example and bring your full self to work to help others do the same. Being a leader also means recognizing the power that you have in the role. It is especially important to make yourself approachable and reach across the aisle so your team can trust you.

Lastly, expand the definition of a “technologist.” They aren’t just software engineers, but product managers, user experience researchers, interaction designers, data scientists, program analysts and so forth. The #MoreThanCode report found that less than half of the people they interviewed identified as a technologist, resulting in recommendations around how to recognize different roles and expertise in tech work. When you create an inclusive culture and people feel included and are able to be authentic at work, they are more likely to be engaged in their jobs.

4. Communicate early and often

Communication and transparency are key to keeping teams aligned and engaged. Especially given that more teams are working remotely, communication is essential to ensuring everyone feels like they are a part of the organization. When a decision is made or changes are being considered, communicate the rationale and the decision-making process to the team.

One way to do this is to hold standing team meetings where everyone can get together and hear organizational updates. Team members can then opt-in as their interests and schedules allow.

It’s also important to communicate even when decisions are still in progress. For example, if you’re looking to form a team for a new project, define the selection criteria upfront and communicate that to the team. Once the team has formed, tell everyone the outcome of that decision. This type of communication and transparency in the organization helps teams build trust with the organization’s leadership.

5. Reframe failures as learning opportunities

In addition to creating an inclusive culture, aim to create a culture where failing fast and early is reframed as learning opportunities. This helps the team be open and honest with each other and can lead to greater success down the road. The ethos behind failing fast and early is to move from blaming to understanding. The team should understand what happened, learn from it and iterate. The intention is to learn from mistakes, make adjustments and improve.

And, as a leader, you can lead by example by admitting when you’ve made mistakes and were wrong, and then talk about your lessons from those situations. Instituting a cadence of team retrospectives can cement this practice as part of the team culture, ensuring that the tech team thrives.

Interested in becoming a better leader? Start by understanding your leadership style and discovering your leadership philosophy.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected] And to read more from our Winter 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort.

Jenn Noinaj is a social impact strategist, researcher, and designer passionate about using design to solve society’s most pressing challenges. She’s currently leading the Public Interest Technology Field Building portfolio at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation where she works on creating solutions to make the public interest technology field more inclusive. Prior to this role, she worked in the federal government at the US Digital Service where she partnered with various agencies to transform digital services across government, building capacity in technology and design and championing a user-centric culture. You can find more about her on her website and can follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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Nicole Blake Johnson

I was trying to find a specific quote that resonates with me, but this entire article speaks to issues I am deeply passionate about as a person who does not consider herself a technologist. Inclusion, communication and setting a vision are so key. As someone who covers tech in government, this is a reminder I will carry every day: “People interact with tech tools only to receive a benefit or engage in a service. Work with your team to identify the outcomes technology will enable and focus on those outcomes as a team.”

Shane McDaniel

As someone that has worked in tech for going on 25 years, this article speaks to the evolution of technology and the transition of being thought of as a support only service versus the now executive positions tasked with charting the internal and external vision of the organization. Tech is so much more than resetting passwords and helping non tech staff with computer problems. Organizations should ensure their tech execs have a seat at the table for initiatives. Leaders in tech will have the background knowledge as to the private organizational architecture and how the proposed technology to be brought in would connect. They will understand licensing, system architecture, connectivity, address data flow and cybersecurity concerns, and potentially save the program money by leveraging proprietary knowledge of government technology procurement. Conversely, tech leaders are required to possess the professional attributes necessary to bring out the best in assigned staff, the inclusion, communication, and compassion referenced in your article. Great read Jenn, I look forward to the next one!