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Tech Lead vs Engineering Manager

It is very common for companies to mix the Tech Lead and Engineering Manager roles. Although both roles have some overlap, their focus is different: the Tech Lead is in charge of the System while the Engineering Manager is in charge of the People.

If the team is small and/or the leader has a lot of experience as Engineering Manager and Tech Lead, the same person might perform both roles. But as the system and team grow in size and complexity, there might be an opportunity to have different people for each role.

The following is a non-exhaustive list that exemplifies some of the different responsibilities of each role:

Tech Lead (System) Engineering Manager (People)
Technical Excellence and Innovation Career Planning, Promotions and Coaching
Architecture and System Integration Headcount Planning and Hiring
Tech Mentoring, Adoption and Alignment Team Planning and Delivery
Technical Spikes and Experiments​ Objectives, Performance and Feedback
Code Reviews and Feedback One on Ones
System Design Presentations​ Participation in Technical Decisions
Technical Capacity Planning​ Cascading Communications​
Production Issues Escalation​ Team Building Activities and Culture​
System SLAs, Metrics & Monitoring​ Team Protection and Happiness​
Platform Direction, Patterns and Practices Team Productivity and Metrics​
Alignment with other Tech Leads​ Alignment with other Dev Managers​
Hands-On Coding 30% to 70% of the Time Hands-On Coding 0% to 30% of the Time
System Roadmap (shared)​ System Roadmap (shared)​
Development Process (shared)​ Development Process (shared)​
Team Visibility and Recognition (shared) Team Visibility and Recognition (shared)​
Ability to Act as Engineering Manager when Required Ability to Act as Tech Lead when Required

The last point on each role highlights the fact that the lists are not mutually exclusive, and therefore many of the points from one side are also important on the other side too. An Engineering Manager that can’t understand the technical challenges that the team is facing won’t be successful at the role, the same is true for a Tech Lead that doesn’t understand the career paths of the engineers in the team.

Having said that, although it is important for an Engineering Manager to be able act as a Tech Lead and vice versa, it also critical for them to focus and excel at the right things. Although there is a clear overlap and an opportunity for collaboration, both positions must know well who is responsible for what to avoid conflicts and misunderstandings.

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