Giving my Technical Leadership Through the Underground Railroad keynote at QCon London.
Giving my Technical Leadership Through the Underground Railroad keynote at QCon London.


Technical leaders are often tasked with guiding teams through difficult times. The Underground Railroad provides insights into how to navigate challenging conditions and find success. The principles that Conductors on the Underground Railroad followed can be directly applied to the work of software engineering leadership.


Software development has regularly borrowed processes and terminology from outside technology to improve how code gets to customers. For example, Scrum comes from rugby, and sprints come from track and field. However, history has been an often neglected source of insight for software development. The Underground Railroad was a system of pathways and people that provided a way for African-American slaves to escape to non-slave states and countries such as Canada and Mexico. The network stretched from Boston to Austin and consisted of self-organizing teams operating in conditions of extreme uncertainty who were tasked with shipping the most important product of all: freedom.

The Underground Railroad provides insights that technical leaders can use to improve their teams, products, and customer relationships. This talk will share timeless lessons of courage and leadership from the men and women who risked everything for the success of their teams.


  • A Technical Leader in Trouble
  • The Underground Railroad
  • The Conductor Hero
  • Leadership Lesson 1: Prepare Your Incentives Before You Need Them
  • Leadership Lesson 2: Bold Actions Set the Tone
  • Leadership Lesson 3: Don’t Let Your Experience Bias You
  • Leadership Lesson 4: Embrace Continuous Solving
  • Leadership Lesson 5: You’re a Lead of Leaders
  • Leadership Traits from the Underground Railroad

Additional Videos

LeadDev Austin

Full Stack Toronto

True University, UC Berkeley

Back to My Talks