Becoming a Tech Lead at Google
...with Irina Stanescu, ex-Google/Uber Tech Lead.
In this issue, we discuss a path to becoming a tech lead in Big Tech with Irina Stanescu, ex-Google/Uber Tech Lead. We will discover what skills you need, how to overcome obstacles, handle conflicts, find the right mentors, and be a successful team lead.
So, let's dive in.
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1. Who is Irina?
Hi! I’m Irina, an Engineering Leader and coach. Born and raised in Bucharest, Romania, I graduated with a Computer Engineering degree from the Polytechnic University Of Bucharest. However, life brought me to San Francisco, California, where I reside.
Over the last 14 years in Tech, I worked for Big Tech companies such as Google and Uber and an early-stage startup called Mnemonic. I did everything from being a Staff Software Engineer, Tech Lead, and Manager.
I’m also the author of “The Caring Techie Newsletter” here on substack and, most recently, a Maven course instructor. My course “Impact through Influence: How to Influence without authority in engineering teams” is open for enrollment. I’m offering 20% off for a limited time only using the code CARINGTECHIE or this link.
2. How did you become a Tech Lead, and why?
It’s a funny story. I tell people I became a Tech Lead in my head and later, in reality.
As a Software Engineer III (L3) at Google, I was sent to leadership training for engineers. There, I understood the power of good leadership, which is not about your role but about the ability to inspire and empower people, put things into motion towards a shared vision, and make things happen as a team.
I came back so inspired that I told my manager I wanted to help them build and lead the team when the opportunity showed up and the time was right. From that moment on, I started acting as the tech lead of the team of 1: myself. I started embodying the leadership qualities I learned in that training —proactive communication, taking initiative, and wanting to make other people better— and soon, I got the role.
3. What is the Tech Lead Role in companies like Google and Uber? What does the Tech Lead do?
The role of a Tech Lead (TL) is not easy to understand for several reasons.
First, Tech Lead isn't a standardized role, so every organization approaches it differently. Some companies either don’t have TLs, or if they do, there’s usually no specific job description, and TLs stay on the individual contributor (IC) track.
Second, the TL role is a hybrid one—not quite a manager and not quite an individual contributor either. It is, however, a leadership-focused role.
Ultimately, the main job of a Tech Lead is to lead a team of engineers to execute and deliver projects successfully.
At Google, being a Tech Lead involves wearing multiple hats and switching between them as needed. You are expected to be an architect, project manager, team leader, individual contributor, mentor, and the person who manages stakeholder relationships.
Having to do all these things means your schedule gets fragmented, and you’re often bombarded with requests. You have to be very disciplined with your calendar and how you plan everything to save time to do deep work.
The other challenge is that you have to keep the big picture in mind and anticipate potential issues that might come along the way. This is not easy when you also want to be heads down implementing things.
When I joined Uber, the company was still in a “growing up” phase / teenage years, so the Tech Lead role wasn’t well established. It took some teaching and setting expectations to align everyone, but ultimately, I could do it. Because the role was still new, I operated like I did at Google, and it worked!
There is quite a lot of pressure that comes with the role, but when you and your team deliver a big project, the satisfaction is priceless.
4. How technical should you be in this role?
To be effective as a TL, you need to be very technical. You’re usually the principal architect for the project; you are still expected to code and do code reviews. You’re also involved in reviewing all the technical proposals you delegate to your team members and ensuring that the final solution meets the desired quality standards.
It doesn’t mean you have to be the expert in everything, but you need to build significant domain expertise since you are the go-to person for that project. Engineering Managers, Product Managers, Designers, and other Tech Leads will come to you first when they have questions about the project.
The Tech Lead is expected to have only some of the answers. Instead, they must be resourceful and get the answers by empowering and leveraging the team's expertise.
5. How important is the role of soft skills in such a role?
Soft skills are crucial for Tech Leads. That’s one of the reasons I love being a Tech Lead. I love working with people, coaching, and mentoring. And it requires such a complex set of both technical and non-technical skills.
The most significant mindset shift for Tech Leads is realizing it’s not about you anymore; it’s about the team. So, it would be best to start putting your team first, formed by different people with different backgrounds, skills, and personalities. A good TL understands what makes people different and how to effectively tailor their approach to communicate and motivate everyone. It’s essential to approach leading with curiosity and, instead of passing top-down directions, invite people to express their ideas and feel like they’re part of the solution rather than just executing the TL's ideas. What I personally always do is set up 1:1s with my team to get a better sense of their career aspirations and how I can help them get to where they want.
Yet, we can see that some people are forced to step into such a role. MoIt'sving technically strong people into the TL role is very damaging if they don’t have soft skills. It leads to various dysfunctions: miscommunications, conflicts, lack of trust, and people feeling unheard or unappreciated. Sadly, I’ve seen that more than I’d like, and what ends up happening is people started leaving those teams because they feel miserable and deadlines get missed.
6. How do you make decisions and resolve conflicts in the team?
I am the type of TL who always invites open discussions about anything. I greatly care about creating a psychologically safe environment for my team, so disagreements are welcome. To make such an environment, I start by modeling the behaviors I want to see from my team: being vulnerable and admitting when I’m wrong or I don’t know something, praising people for having the courage to speak up even if they disagree, and never blaming or punishing when mistakes unavoidably do happen.
Another thing that I focus on is reframing challenges as learning opportunities. This makes work less about winning or failing and more about learning. Removing failure from the equation de-risks speaking up and promotes psychological safety.
As a TL, I wear the facilitator hat as much as possible to ensure the discussions are productive and keep things moving. I realized with time that I need to be decisive if we’re in analysis paralysis and make sure we don’t pass the point of diminishing returns.
When it comes to conflicts, I make sure I reorient the discussion between a conflict of people and ideas. I remind people we’re all in it together to solve a problem and make sure I emphasize what we do agree on. Starting there always leads to more productive conversations.
Conflicts are ultimately not about winning or losing; they’re about genuinely understanding each other and collaborating to find the best solution.
7. What are some essential traits of a great Tech Lead?
Great Tech Leads are, first and foremost, adaptable. Besides juggling the hats I mentioned, a good TL can solve unexpected issues. No matter how much you plan, surprises always happen! Great TLs are ready to fill in the gaps and do the glue work necessary for the projects to be successful – think spreadsheets, emails, diagrams, and meetings.
TLs are master communicators and can explain complex topics in simple terms. For example, it’s the TL's role to manage the delivery timeline, so often, I’d have to explain to Product counterparts why things take as long as they do. For them to believe me, I’d walk them through the logic of the architecture without going into too much detail or using a lot of technical jargon. I usually draw simple diagrams with boxes that keep the level of abstraction high but still make the other people feel like they understand the flow of things. It’s more of an art than a science 🙂.
Lastly, even if it’s highly technical, TL-ing is still a people-oriented role, so soft skills and empathy should be at the core of everything they do.
8. Advice for engineer to prepare to lead
First, folks need to understand why they want to be a lead. If it’s just about their career advancement and not caring about the benefit of others, they’re setting themselves up for failure. You can’t lead effectively with an individualistic mindset.
Second, start practicing self-leadership: manage your deliverables and timelines and communicate proactively. Show you are reliable and can be trusted with bigger and bigger responsibilities. Now it’s the time to build these skills; don’t wait until you get the role.
Third, start investing in building relationships. Get curious and ask questions. Practice listening to understand, not to respond. This will take you very far.
Lastly, start looking for opportunities to solve problems for the entire team. Are there joint pains that everyone is complaining about? Do you have ideas of how something can be done better? Show initiative and ownership, and your team and manager will appreciate it.
9. How do you build trust in a team?
Building trust is a process that takes time, and there is no shortcut to it.
What worked for me was showing people I’m a trustworthy person. That means acting with integrity and consistency, following through, listening, and trying to understand people. I also try to avoid being judgmental and always keep confidentiality if people share more sensitive things with me.
I always look to Brene Brown’s work regarding trust, and I highly recommend watching her “Anatomy of Trust” video.
10. What do you look for when hiring new engineers for your team?
Strong technical foundations are critical, but more than that, I look for certain behavioral traits that are the best signals that the candidates will be great team players.
For example, I want to see if they can make the interview process a collaboration between them and me and if we can bounce ideas. I want to know that they are humble and don’t try to BS about things they don’t fully understand. I appreciate an “I don’t have experience with this” answer so much more than them inventing something completely incorrect.
Another thing I appreciate is when candidates are competent but not arrogant. Arrogance is a huge red flag because it shows they’ll most likely struggle to work with the rest of the team.
Lastly, I like a good attitude. Wanting to learn and make a difference can go a long way, even if you don’t nail the technical part.
11. Do you consider mentors an essential part of your career?
Absolutely! My first mentor at Google played a huge part in becoming the leader I am today. I learned so much about what leadership is and what isn’t.
I found my first mentor by accident. I was at a crossroads, having to choose between two new teams, and he was the TL of the team I was transferring out of. I scheduled a meeting to ask him for advice on my decision since we had already worked together, and I trusted his opinion. He asked if I’d like to have those meetings more regularly; the rest is history. Remember that I was on the East Coast, and he was on the West Coast.
He was excellent at asking questions and helping me figure out what I had to do. He also pushed me to do things I feared (like applying for promotion from Software Engineer III - L4 to Senior Software Engineer - L5). And after one year, I begrudgingly followed his advice and got promoted. Since he was a Staff Software Engineer (L6) and I was only a Software Engineer III (L4), it was great to learn how to look at things from the perspective of a staff engineer, see the big picture, and care about business goals.
Look around them, find people they admire and trust, and be candid about wanting their mentorship. Asking something like: “Hey, I truly admire your work, and I think I have a lot to learn from you, so I was wondering if you’d be open to being my mentor. We could meet at whatever cadence works best for you. It would be tremendously beneficial for my growth. We try it out for a few months and see how it goes”. I guarantee they’ll feel flattered and want to help, and if they’re too busy, they might suggest another way or person.
Mentors can accelerate your career, so I recommend finding them within your company or externally.
12. Why did you decide to pursue a career as a leadership coach?
Back in 2019, I had a huge a-ha moment: I realized that what I loved the most about my role as a TL was being a coach. I only started coaching as a side passion in late 2020, when I took a career break to recover from burnout.
This year, in July, I left my job to focus exclusively on writing and coaching.
As a coach, I help engineers and engineering leaders enhance their leadership skills and reach their full potential as influential leaders in their organizations. We cover various topics such as effective communication, giving and receiving feedback, conflict resolution, decision-making, strategic thinking, change management, fostering innovation, managing technical teams, and personal branding.
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