There are many names for leadership roles in software development such as Senior Developer, Architect, Technical Lead, Team Lead, and Engineering Manager. These are just a few. To me, the Technical Leader (Tech Lead) plays an unique and essential role that others cannot.
The Short: A Tech Lead is a software engineer, responsible for leading a development team, and responsible for the quality of its technical deliverables.
The Long: Leading a development team is no easy task. An effective Tech Lead establishes a technical vision with the development team and works with developers to turn it into reality. Along the way, a Tech Lead takes on traits that other roles may have, such as a Team Lead, Architect or Software Engineering Manager but they remain hands-on with code.
To make the most effective choices and to maintain trust and empathy with developers, a Tech Lead must code. In “The Geek’s Guide to Leading Teams” presentation, I talked about an ideal minimum time of about 30%.
An extract from the The Geek’s Guide to Leading Teams presentation
Not just a Team Lead
Early in my career, I worked on a team that had both a Tech Lead and a Team Lead. The Team Lead didn’t have much of a technical background and had a strong focus on the people side and tracking of tasks. They would have 1-to-1s with people on the team, and co-ordinate with outside stakeholders to schedule meetings that didn’t interrupt development time where possible.
While the Team Lead focused on general team issues, the Tech Lead focused on technical matters that affected more than just one developer. They stepped in on heated technical debates, and worked with outside stakeholders to define technical options and agree on solutions for future streams of work. They wrote code with the other developers and sometimes called for development “huddles” to agree on a direction.
More hands-on than an Engineering Manager
You manage things, you lead people – Grace Hopper
Any reasonably-sized IT organisation has an Engineering Manager. They are responsible for more than one development, and have tasks that include:
- Maintaining a productive working environment for development teams.
- Acquiring appropriate budget for development to support business goals.
- Representing the technology perspective on a management or board level.
- Establishes and/or co-ordinates programmes of work (delivered through development).
- Responsible for overall IT headcount.
Depending on the size of an organisation, an Engineering Manager may also be called a Chief Technical Officer (CTO) or Chief Information Officer (CIO) or Head of Software Development.
Although an Engineering Manager represents technology, they are often very far-removed from a development team and rarely code. In contrast, a Tech Lead sits with developers, very much focused on moving them towards their goal. They work to resolve technical disputes, and are watchful of technical decisions that have long-term consequences. A Tech Lead works closely with the Engineering Manager to build an ideal work environment.
A good Architect looks like a Tech Lead
The Architect role ensures overall application architecture suitably fits the business problem, for now and for the future. In some organisations, Architects work with the team to establish and validate their understanding of architecture. A suitable amount of standardisation helps productivity. Too much standardisation kills innovation.
Some organisations have the “Ivory Tower Architect” who swoops in to consult, standardise and document. They float from team-to-team, start new software projects, and rarely follow up to see the result of their initial architectural vision.
An effective Architect looks like a good Tech Lead. They establish a common understanding of what the team is aiming for, and make adjustments as the team learns more about the problem and the technology chosen to solve it.
What is a Tech Lead responsible for?
You may ask yourselves, what exactly does a Tech Lead do, or what are they accountable and responsible for? I’ve actually already addressed that in this article about the Tech Lead’s Circles of Responsibilities.
What is a Tech lead again?
A successful Tech Lead takes on responsibilities that sit with roles such as the Team Lead, the Architect and the Engineering Manager. They bring a unique blend of leadership and management skills applied in a technical context with a team of developers. The Tech Lead steers a team towards a common technical vision, writing code at least 30% of the time.
If you liked this article exploring the Tech Lead role, you will be interested in “Talking with Tech Leads,” a book that shares real life experiences from over 35 Tech Leads around the world. Now available on Leanpub.
Update from Sep 2018: Short definition from “A Tech Lead is a developer who is responsible for leading a development team” to “A Tech Lead is a software engineer, responsible for leading a development team, and responsible for the quality of its technical deliverables.”