Tech leads and engineering managers are instrumental in engineering organizations. Why are they necessary? What is the difference between these two roles?
Both tech lead and engineer manager are responsible for the outcome of a team, but just themselves. And team outcome centers on project and people - projects are done on time, and with quality, people enjoy what they work on and whom they work with. Successful tech leads and engineer managers orient their actions based on these two aspects.
What’s different for these two roles is the capacity spent on projects and people. Tech lead spends 80% capacity on projects and 20% on people, whereas engineering manager spends 80% capacity on people and 20% on projects.
Role of tech lead
Tech leads are primarily responsible for delivering great products as a team, so their attentions are mostly on projects. However, delivering a project requires a team effort and cannot be done in silos. In addition, engineers on the team have different levels of experience, which requires different levels of mentorship. To lead a project also means to communicate well with non-engineers and be effective at project management. Tech leads are effective when they can engage well with other people, where 20% of people come in.
Camile Fournier wrote well about tech leads in her book “The Manager’s Path”:
Tech leads are in the position to act as strong technical project leaders and to use their expertise at a larger scale so that their whole team gets better. They can make independent decisions, and they play a big role in coordinating with other non-engineering partners that their team might have.
The main roles of a tech lead - your highest priority as a tech lead is taking a wide view of the work so that you keep the project moving.
Focus of tech lead
- keep the project moving, as a team
- communicate and coordinate with non-engineering partners
- provide mentorship to junior engineers (e.g. pair programming)
Role of engineering manager
Engineering managers are primarily responsible for the whole performance of the engineering team. By performance, not only do I mean project delivery, but also the well-being of individuals on the team. Projects can only be successful because of great people, and great engineering managers know that by taking well care of their people, the projects have a larger chance to succeed.
Engineering managers are people managers, and one core responsibility of any people manager is to set expectations. Unlike tech lead, the engineering manager’s approach to people is more contextual and calls for more listening. Being efficient in this role requires a higher level of empathy because everyone has different work and life needs. It also requires a higher level of patience because being in sync with people takes time. By taking care of people, engineering managers also set the foundation of culture - how people work with each other and what core values the team practices daily.
Because project delivery is a key part of measuring team performance, engineering managers are also responsible for project delivery and making team decisions (e.g., deciding timelines) and thus working closely with tech leads and other non-engineering partners. In addition, engineer managers represent their team. For the company, engineering managers are often considered the de facto responsible individual for the team.
I found inspiring when reading about Julie Zhuo’s book “The making of a manager”:
Your job, as a manager, is to get better outcomes from a group of people working together.
Focus of engineering manager
- take care of individuals: unblock them and help them grow
- set foundation of culture and lead by examples
- make team decisions and collaborate with tech leads
- defacto responsible individual of the team for people outside of the team
Tech lead and engineer manager are essential roles in engineering organizations. Both roles center around projects and people with different emphases.