What Does a Tech Lead Do in Software Engineering?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Manager's Path" by Camille Fournier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does a tech lead do? Within a software engineering team, what’s the role of a technical lead?

A tech lead does strategic planning and oversees engineering projects from start to finish. The role of a technical lead is to ensure that each person on the team knows their role and contributes meaningfully.

Learn more about technical lead roles and responsibilities in engineering.

What a Tech Lead Does

One step on the engineering management career track is tech lead. Much like mentorship, this is a set of responsibilities rather than a managerial position. You’re the official technical leader of a group, but the role doesn’t grant you a raise or advance your position in the company’s larger hierarchy—you still report to the same manager as the rest of your teammates. The role of a technical lead lets you practice managerial skills on a larger scale, holding more responsibility while still avoiding the pressure of an official managerial position.

(Shortform note: Being asked to fulfill managerial responsibilities without an official promotion or pay increase is called a dry promotion, some business experts say. While Fournier presents this as a good thing, letting you acclimate to extra responsibility with less pressure, these experts disagree. They describe dry promotions as under-compensation, as increased responsibilities should warrant a matching increase in salary and position in the company’s hierarchy. If you feel you’re being given an unfair level of responsibility for your salary and position, check how your responsibilities and pay compare to industry standards, and then ask for a true promotion.)

Technical lead roles and responsibilities include overseeing your team’s software projects in addition to your engineering duties. What a tech lead does is make a plan to complete the project, maintain communication between the team and manager, and supervise team members’ work to ensure the project is completed properly and on schedule.

(Shortform note: Other software engineers point out that tech leads won’t always be responsible for all the tasks Fournier describes. Often, some elements of your team’s project will be handled by co-leaders. For example, you may work with a team lead who provides feedback to team members and handles communication with people outside of the team, or a project manager who creates the overall plan for completing the project.)

Other Perspectives on What a Tech Lead Does

Some software engineers say that engineering leads aren’t managers. Instead, they describe this level as an engineering role with some added leadership tasks—a designation that makes it even more similar to tech lead. (Whether they’re managers or not, US averages show that engineering leads earn higher pay, making around $24,000 more than tech leads.)

Some engineers also say that helping with project selection isn’t what a tech lead does, instead giving that responsibility to technical product managers. Technical product managers work closely with engineering leads but focus more on schedules and planning, while the engineering leads deeply understand technology and how their teams can use it to complete projects.

While these software engineers disagree with Fournier on some points, they agree with her on others. For instance, they agree that engineering leads are responsible for hiring team members. This is an important responsibility, they add, as the hiring process requires time and effort that’ll be wasted if you pursue a bad candidate. Thus, they recommend only pursuing candidates who’ll quickly integrate into the team and become productive. They also agree that giving feedback is important, suggesting engineering leads hold one-on-one meetings every month, peer reviews every few months, and skill appraisals twice a year.

Planning Strategically as a Tech Lead

Once you become a tech lead, it’s important to recognize when tasks can be completed simultaneously (rather than consecutively). What a tech lead does is effectively divide tasks among your teammates so that you can complete projects faster. This may be difficult for you because you’re used to working independently as an engineer: As an individual, you can’t complete tasks simultaneously, so you’re used to completing tasks consecutively.

To recognize when tasks can be completed simultaneously, consider how much each task relies on other tasks. Some tasks must be completed in a linear order because the first task forms the base that later ones build on, Fournier says, but others don’t rely on each other and can be completed simultaneously.

For example, say you’ve broken a project into Tasks A, B, and C. Task A is coding the base functions of an app, Task B is creating visuals, and Task C is adding ad capabilities (which let you show ads within your app and earn money from advertisers). Task A must be completed first because the other elements are built around the app’s base functions. Thus, what a tech lead does is tell their team to finish Task A first. Tasks B and C can be completed simultaneously since your engineers don’t need completed visuals to start coding the ad capabilities and vice versa. Thus, once Task A is done, you have your team work on both Tasks B and C.

Technical Lead Roles and Responsibilities: Identifying and Tracking Task Reliance

While Fournier presents tasks that must be completed linearly and tasks that can be completed simultaneously as a dichotomy, project management experts add more nuance. They describe four degrees of task reliance and simultaneity:

1. Degree #1: Task A must be completed before work can start on Task B (as Fournier describes).
2. Degree #2: Work must start on Task A before work can start on Task B, but Task A doesn’t necessarily need to be completed first.
3. Degree #3: Task A must be completed before Task B can be completed, but work doesn’t necessarily need to start on Task A first.
4. Degree #4: Work must start on Task B before Task A can be completed.

In the latter three degrees, Tasks A and B can be worked on simultaneously, but in different ways than Founier lays out. These variations in reliance can make creating a strategic plan difficult for any manager, but especially for those who aren’t used to completing tasks simultaneously (such as tech leads who are new to directing teams). Methods like Gantt charts (horizontal bar charts showing project timelines) can make this process easier by providing a clear visual method of tracking your team’s progress. 
What Does a Tech Lead Do in Software Engineering?

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Becca King

Becca’s love for reading began with mysteries and historical fiction, and it grew into a love for nonfiction history and more. Becca studied journalism as a graduate student at Ohio University while getting their feet wet writing at local newspapers, and now enjoys blogging about all things nonfiction, from science to history to practical advice for daily living.

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