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Everything You Need to Know About Engineering Leadership Positions

Creating a successful software engineering organisation requires a lot more than a group of highly skilled designers, architects, product owners, and developers. An engineering leadership team is required to drive the product development process forward and execute the strategic product roadmap. This often leads to the positions of Technical Lead, Team Lead, and Engineering Manager being confused, as the differences between them aren’t always obvious. 

They are often terms that are used interchangeably and even though they share key similarities, the differences in responsibilities make these roles unique.

In this blog, we have looked at what some of the varying software engineering leadership positions require on a day-to-day basis, and the options available to those wanting to pursue a similar role. 

The Skills Needed to Become an Engineering Leader

There is no linear path to becoming an engineering leader, and this career trajectory is more about the fundamental skills that are developed based on the needs of the business. In fact, as an engineering leader, you will likely be required to tailor your skills depending on the task in front of you.

Leaders need to focus on the people, culture, and environment, and invest time in helping the team thrive which will gain compounding results compared to someone who manages the work of a team. Regardless of a title when you are responsible for leading a development team, you are wearing a variety of different hats.

To be an excellent technology leader you need to be a coach, helping to mentor the team. You need to assist individuals in improving and growing to allow them to overcome development obstacles. You should be able to foster team environments that are cohesive, productive, and synchronised. These skills come naturally to some people, but work is still required to develop them for a professional environment.

To be a good leader, you must have excellent communication skills. You must know how to convey a vision, a product strategy, or an idea to others, and then convey expectations in a way that can be easily understood.

It’s also important to be able to drive decision-making. A tech leader needs to be a steward of progress and clarity within the organisation, be able to unthread the technological challenges, and set a direction whilst soliciting feedback to align people around the decision.

Engineering leaders must be confident in their ability to make timely decisions quickly, under pressure.

The Differences Between Tech Leads and Engineering Managers

A “Tech Lead,” works in both a software technical capacity and a leadership position, overseeing the technical aspects of the software development team by making an architectural roadmap, and design decisions, and guiding team members in all technical aspects. Key responsibilities include:

  • Establishing project specifications, architecture, and technical and systems direction and approach
  • Creating a framework of technical standards and procedures 
  • Overseeing software quality and system modifications
  • Guiding team members with troubleshooting technical issues

A tech lead sets the technical direction of the project and clears the way for any software coding issues that may arise, whether it be closing knowledge gaps, or streamlining existing processes and operations.

Whereas Software Engineering Managers are more often responsible for overseeing and coordinating the people, resources, and processes required to deliver new software or upgrade existing products. In smaller companies, software managers may take a hands-on role in software development. However, their primary role is centred around project management, overall technical leadership, and coordinating the work of other software professionals, while also focusing on the people aspects. A tech lead spends a lot of time working with the engineering team and ‘down on the ground’ whilst delegating tasks. They use their abilities to share resources and solve problems or to help determine which business strategy works best. A Tech Lead is also likely to evaluate technical debt, create a technical roadmap, provide design oversight, help with debugging, and evaluate test metrics.

Though there are some similarities between Tech Leads and Engineering Managers, the latter has more to do with stakeholders, including the product team and parties from different organisations, team structure, and the planning and monitoring of the complete outcome. They also handle hiring, recruitment and promotions, team culture, and finding ways to ensure productivity across the board.

Software Manager responsibilities include:

  • Overseeing the development and implementation of software
  • Coordinating work between departments and teams
  • Managing software development projects
  • Hiring, training, and supervising software developers and engineers
  • Monitoring industry trends and keeping up to date with new technologies
  • Working with clients or customers to understand their needs and requirements

The Differences Between Team Leads and Engineering Managers

Being a Team Lead is centred around guiding the technical team towards success, making sure that projects run smoothly, and prioritising tasks. Simply, a Team Lead is the individual who leads an engineering team through projects.

The team lead is responsible for project execution and for making sure a specific goal or project is completed on schedule and without any delays. The team lead’s responsibilities include making sure each member of the team under their supervision is accomplishing their assigned tasks, staying ahead of the project timeline, and adapting to any changes in plans or circumstances. For example, a team lead in the systems control field might manage the design and launch of a new security system. Their responsibilities would include overseeing the software development as well as coordinating how the system will be rolled out, ensuring that the project runs smoothly. An important distinction between Team Leads and Engineering Managers is that the former doesn’t necessarily need hands-on technical experience and is instead concerned with how individuals in a team — are progressing.

Whereas a Team Lead works closely with a single team, an Engineering Manager works alongside several stakeholders and looks at the bigger picture. Some smaller engineering organisations might not need an Engineering Manager, especially if only one or two teams need to work together. Though Team Leads and Engineering Managers manage people, Team Leads tend to stay within their own team, whereas Engineering Managers work with multiple teams. While the Team lead keeps their focus on timelines and quality control, the engineering manager holds a somewhat more traditional managerial function. Engineering Managers work with their direct reports to understand their career goals and help find professional growth opportunities. They also step in when conflicts arise between employees and can act as a go-between, building relationships with clients. They’re responsible for translating the key technical decisions to various stakeholders, allowing those who are working hands-on with the project to focus on the task itself.

Tech Leads, Team Leads, and Engineering Managers are all key parts of driving a software team toward success, but they are different roles that shouldn’t be confused with one another.

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