[QCon 2019] Light the fire – how managers can spark new leaders

Nick Cadwell – Chief Product Officer at Looker (acquired by Google) previously Reedit, and Microsoft

For other QCon blog posts, see QCon live blog table of contents

Tech leads vs managers

  • Weren’t any managers
  • Lots of people called “tech leads” – nebulous job titles,
  • Split tech leads into managers and architects
  • Asked questions to determine if emphasis is people or tech. One question was about deadlines. That should be important to both.


  • When growing, solving problems by hiring more people
  • Need more specialization and focus
  • Makes harder for people to switch
  • Creates politics/boundaries
  • Decreases ownership at individual level
  • People don’t feel empowered
  • Reduces productivity/retention/development/delegation. Recipe for burnout

Leadership vs Management

  • Management – stability, short team, plans around constraints
  • Leader- change, long term, sets/leads direction, long term
  • “Leadership is working with goals and vision. Management is working with objectives”
  • Position leadership doesn’t scale – don’t have to be a manager to lead.
  • Everyone is potentially a leader
  • People want opportunities to lead; not just positions.
  • Opportunity to lead outperforms financial incentives on retention surveys

Management tool: Leadership breadcrumbs

  • Provide visibility into problems that working on but don’t have capacity to fix
  • Invite discussions – solutions only, no complaining
  • Wait and repeat. Eventually someone will take the bait
  • Provide support and reward for stepping up
  • Don’t need to support every idea financial. Can just discuss further. The idea of taking it seriously matters

Individual tool: The Golden Question

  • Ask yourself or others what you would do if you had another pair of hands
  • These are opportunities for leadership


  • Top leadership traits said to be: vision, empathy, empowerment, charisma and expertise
  • But there are counter examples
  • Steve Jobs wasn’t empowering
  • Jeff Bezos isn’t known for empathy
  • Elon Musk – burn out? should delegate more
  • Mark Zuckerberg not known for charisma
  • Passion is leadership fuel
  • Survey: Most millionaires started with goal of passion not money

Manager tool: Blue Flame Chart

  • Align individual passion and organizational needs
  • Intersect intrinsic/extrinsic motivators with org goals
  • Add team member feedback. Most individuals don’t see themselves clearly. Ask someone else what good at

Sparking leadership

  • First rule of leadership: everything is your fault
  • Biggest reason for not stepping up is fear of being blamed/help responsible
  • Switch mentality from contributor to leader
  • Leaders take responsiblity for what happens next

Mentor vs sponsor

  • Mentor – gives advice, makes suggestions, discusses
  • Sponsor – opens doors, shares hard feedback, pushes to strive for more, creates opportunities, advocates for you
  • [I think there is some overlap. Mentoring doesn’t just have to be about the positive. You can share hard feedback too..]

Code is a deprecicating asset, your network is an appreciating asset

My impressions

This was great. He has excellent passion and a clear relatable message. I suspect there are a lot of people in the room like me (who want to be leaders but not managers.) I was tired when I sat down and I’m not anymore. This keynote definitely woke up my brain!

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