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Engineering Manager vs. Tech Lead: Everything You Need to Know

Can’t decide if you need an engineering manager or a tech lead? Discover the differences between the two and which one you need.

By Kate Dagher  •   August 9, 2022  •   8 min read

Because the engineering manager and tech lead roles have some considerable overlap, many companies tend to mix them up. That said, the focus of these two positions is quite distinct: the engineering manager focuses on people and processes, whereas the tech lead focuses on system and software developer-related tasks. Because there are some similarities between the two positions, in some cases, the same person takes on both roles. That said, where this may work in a smaller company, as your organization sizes up, having one person handle both roles will become increasingly difficult. 

Since these positions are often confused, this article will cover exactly what each position does in terms of the roles and skills that are required. It will also shed light on how to determine if you need to hire an engineering manager or a tech lead, depending on the needs of your organization. 

Engineering manager vs. tech lead

It’s important to note that the roles and responsibilities listed here are not mutually exclusive, so there are a few points that are important for both engineer managers and tech leads. Both positions need to have a good understanding of technical challenges and of the leadership side of engineering as well. This overlap is why there is such a great opportunity for collaboration between both roles. 

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1The roles and responsibilities of an engineering manager 

An engineering manager is responsible for the people management of the team. This means that in this position, you’re in charge of coaching and mentoring individuals to make them as impactful as possible. The person in this role also takes on the responsibility of running projects from initiation until execution, as well as managing the team’s processes and progress. There is a focus on continuous improvement both in terms of project quality and of team members’ personal career growth. An engineering manager is responsible for: 

  • Administration
    • Headcount planning and hiring
    • Team planning and delivery
    • Facilitating team-building activities and promoting a positive workplace culture​
  • Technical Tasks
    • Participating in technical decisions
    • Hands-on coding 0% to 30% of the time
    • Identifying and executing the development process (responsibility shared with tech lead)​
    • Actively participating and fostering involvement throughout the team in the system roadmap (responsibility shared with tech lead)​
    • Ensuring team visibility and recognition (responsibility shared with tech lead)​
  • Coaching & Management
    • Providing objectives, performance, and feedback
    • Hosting one-on-one meetings
    • Cascading communications​
    • Ensuring team protection and happiness​
    • Ensuring team productivity and metrics​
    • Maintaining alignment with other dev managers​
    • Acting as tech lead when required
    • Career planning, promotions, and coaching

To be an engineering manager, you need to enjoy leadership and people management because your focus is the team members, the projects, and the processes that help you achieve success. To be in any kind of management position, you need to be open-minded, empathetic, and patient, and you need to be willing to adopt a growth mindset. Beyond this though, the engineering manager needs to have a strong understanding of the technical work being done so they can oversee the quality of the team’s work and guide team members to improve their technical thinking abilities. 

2The roles and responsibilities of a tech lead 

A tech lead is not a formal title that is typically given. It’s the actual role that an engineer is playing within the team. This role may be specific to a particular project, but not necessarily for each project that comes through the pipeline. Tech leads have very different scopes: they may be the tech lead of an area within the team, of the entire scope of the team, or of the entire organization’s scope. A tech lead is responsible for: 

  • Promoting and exemplifying technical excellence and innovation
  • Integrating architecture and systems
  • Leading tech mentoring, adoption, and alignment
  • Monitoring technical spikes and experiments​
  • Providing code reviews and feedback
  • Presenting system design
  • Planning technical capacity
  • Escalating production issues
  • Completing system service level agreements, tracking metrics, and monitoring​ progress
  • Directing platforms, patterns, and practices
  • Maintaining alignment with other tech leads​
  • Hands-on coding 30% to 70% of the time
  • Actively participating and fostering involvement throughout the team in the system roadmap (responsibility shared with engineering manager)​
  • Identifying and executing the development process (responsibility shared with engineering manager)​
  • Ensuring team visibility and recognition (responsibility shared with engineering manager)
  • Acting as engineering manager when required

Tech leads aren’t expected to have the same code contributions as others in the team while they’re playing this role because they’re spending a lot of their time tending to other responsibilities. If you’re interested in becoming a tech lead, bear in mind that you’ll need to have strong coding abilities, create technical designs that support the business, have the desire to help the success of a project, and also understand the broader team, business context, and how your project relates to the bigger picture. 

The main difference between an engineering manager and a tech lead

The main difference between an engineering manager and a tech lead is that an engineering manager is in charge of people and processes, whereas tech leads are more in charge of systems and hands-on coding. Both positions need to have a strong technical and coding background, but when challenges or issues arise, it’s the tech lead who will typically handle the situation and guide the team through the technical solution needed. If you like doing the work behind the scenes and being more hands-on, a tech lead role will likely be more appealing to you. That said, if you’re interested in leadership, coaching, and mentoring, an engineering manager position will be of greater interest as your focus becomes more on people and less on systems and code. 

Required skills for an engineering manager 

Here are the most commonly required skills for an engineering manager: 

  • 5+ years of relevant professional experience
  • Experience working in agile environments
  • Understanding of software development principles and best practices
  • Moderate command of one or several following areas: JS (JavaScript), SQL (Structured Query Language), Salesforce, AWS (Amazon Web Services)
  • Strong experience coaching and mentoring other employees
  • Excellent ability and willingness to conduct one-on-one meetings with employees
  • Excellent communication, presentation, and problem-solving skills
  • Eagerness to collaborate, the understanding of how to lead a team, and a desire to strive in a collaborative environment
  • Ability to stay informed on top tech news and trends

One of the most important skills of an engineering manager is the ability to facilitate meetings that are effective. To facilitate effective meetings, it’s important that managers use meeting agendas so they can remain on-topic, on track, and on time. This makes meetings more collaborative and more effective. It’s equally important for the manager to track action items and issue items that they can follow up on in the next team meeting, so tasks are being completed on time and obstacles are being tackled before they lead to any further complications. 

Required skills for a tech lead 

Here are the most commonly required skills for a tech lead: 

  • 7+ years of experience in software development
  • An understanding of how the components of tech infrastructures are used to build complex systems
  • Advanced knowledge of computer science, including object-oriented programming and data handling
  • Hands-on experience in algorithm design
  • Well-developed problem-solving skills
  • Ability to adapt to changing technical environments
  • Ability to operate in a fast-paced environment
  • Advanced knowledge of Git and version control

One of the most important qualities of a tech lead is the passion for technology, systems improvement, and coding techniques. As a tech lead, an individual does need to have some leadership skills and strong communication skills to guide the team through the technical side of projects. An ability to teach and guide others will make a tech lead successful in their position. 

Which should you hire? 

Whether you should hire an engineering manager vs. tech lead hugely depends on your company’s specific project needs. You should hire an engineering manager if you find that the productivity of your team is lower than expected and your existing tech lead’s efforts to improve productivity don’t seem to be working. You should also consider hiring an engineering manager if recruiting talent is taking up valuable working time and you would rather it be handled by someone who can focus on talent sourcing specifically. Lastly, if developers on your team seem to lack interpersonal interactions and your turnover rate concerns you, an engineering manager could be exactly what you and the team need. 

Consider hiring a tech lead if you’ve been noticing quite a few mistakes, bugs, and frustration among the team; this means that you may need a tech lead to help the team review their code to ensure a higher standard. You may also be interested in hiring a tech lead if you’re looking for someone who has the ability to align business goals with tech specs and can explain this important link to developers. If you don’t have a well-established technical architecture, you likely need a tech lead who has the skills to build one. Finally, if you need someone from the tech team to step it up in business meetings and provide important updates, this may be your sign to hire a tech lead. 

Parting advice 

Determining if your organization will benefit more from an engineering manager vs. tech lead can be a little tricky, especially considering they do have many similarities (which is why they aren’t found in different departments). The engineering manager role is a leadership position where the focus is on people. Contrarily, the tech lead role is a systems-focused position, where the principal responsibilities are centered on the hands-on technical work and the success of each project. We hope that this article has been helpful in outlining the differences between an engineering manager vs. tech lead. If you found this article insightful, be sure to pass it along to a friend or a colleague! 

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