career progression

An Interesting Observation About Tech Leads

If you observe the career progression of tech leads in big techs and high-growth startups, you’ll notice something intriguing.

Many leadership roles in these organizations begin to utilize overlapping skill sets after a while.

Everyone working in engineering or product has a solid grasp of programming and computer-related concepts, and most have written code at some point in their careers.

At first glance, the roles of a tech lead, engineering manager, and product manager might seem distinct.

However, upon closer inspection, you’ll discover that these roles share a common thread – they all require a combination of technical understanding, leadership skills, and strategic thinking.

Let’s take a deeper dive into each of these roles and examine how they compare and contrast.

A Mental Model for Understanding Engineering Leadership Roles

To better understand the nuances of each role, let’s consider a mental model that splits day-to-day activities into three buckets:

  1. Strategy and Alignment: Developing and communicating the group’s vision, mission, and strategy. Ensuring alignment across teams, managing dependencies, and collaborating at a team level.
  2. People Management: Fostering a healthy team environment, supporting professional growth, and ensuring efficient execution.
  3. Building Software: All activities related to producing code that powers products, including planning, architecture, code structure, writing code, code reviews, deployments, and monitoring rollouts.

Visualizing These Roles

Now, let’s visualize how each role spends its time across these three buckets.

Keep in mind that these are rough estimates and may vary depending on the organization and specific role:

RoleStrategy & AlignmentPeople ManagementBuilding Software
Engineering Manager30%50%20%
Product Manager80%10%10%
Tech lead30%10%60%
tech roles visualized by responsibility

Where does that leave the tech lead role?

Based on the table comparison, the Tech Lead role remains a hands-on role, with a primary focus on building software (60%), but also shares responsibilities for strategy and people management through influence rather than authority.

This means that while the Tech Lead is still responsible for writing code and contributing to the technical aspects of the project, they are also expected to play a larger role in shaping the direction of the project and managing the team.

However, unlike the Engineering Manager, they do not have formal authority over the team members. Instead, they must rely on their influence and soft skills to drive collaboration and achieve consensus among the team.

Therefore, the Tech Lead role requires a balance of technical expertise, leadership ability, and interpersonal skills.

They must be able to work effectively with both technical and non-technical stakeholders, communicate their vision and goals clearly, and motivate the team to achieve them.

Specific Responsibilities of a Tech Lead

Let’s bring this down a level and talk about specifics.

As a Tech Lead, you’ll be expected to engage in various high-level areas, including strategy and alignment, people management, and building software.

Here are some specific responsibilities that fall under each of these categories:

Strategy & Alignment

  • Setting the standard for coding and implementing best practices: As a Tech Lead, you’ll be responsible for ensuring that your team adheres to industry-wide best practices and standards for coding, testing, and software development. You’ll also be tasked with identifying areas where new technologies or approaches could improve the team’s workflow and championing those changes.
  • Providing guidance and technical decision-making support to team members: When team members encounter technical roadblocks or have questions about the best approach to a problem, they’ll look to you for guidance and support. You’ll need to be able to provide informed recommendations and help your team make sound technical decisions.
  • Ensuring the successful implementation of projects: As a Tech Lead, you’ll be responsible for overseeing the progress of projects and ensuring that they’re completed on time, within budget, and to the satisfaction of stakeholders. This includes monitoring project timelines, identifying potential risks or bottlenecks, and working with your team to mitigate any issues that arise.
  • Alignment of Work to Initiatives: Tech Leads need to understand how their work fits into the broader strategy and initiatives of the organization. This means being aware of the company’s goals, values, and priorities, and ensuring that the work of the tech team aligns with these objectives.
  • Understanding the “Why”: It’s also important for Tech Leads to understand the “why” behind the work. This means going beyond just implementing best practices and standards, and instead, understanding the underlying reasons for doing so. For example, when implementing a new technology or approach, Tech Leads should consider not just the technical benefits, but also how it will impact the business and its customers. They should be able to articulate the value proposition of the technology and how it supports the company’s goals and objectives. By understanding the “why” behind the work, Tech Leads can help their team members see the bigger picture and feel more connected to the organization’s mission.

People Management

  • Possessing deep technical expertise and staying current with industry trends: As a Tech Lead, you’ll be expected to possess a deep understanding of the latest technologies, tools, and methodologies in your field. You’ll also need to stay up-to-date with emerging trends and be able to identify opportunities for your team to leverage new technologies or approaches.
  • Collaborating with cross-functional teams to drive innovation and excellence: As a Tech Lead, you’ll work closely with other departments, such as product management, design, and sales, to ensure that your team’s efforts align with the company’s overall goals and objectives. You’ll need to be able to communicate effectively with stakeholders, understand their needs, and translate them into technical requirements for your team.
  • Communicating effectively with stakeholders, including project managers, designers, and customers: Clear communication is crucial to the success of any project. As a Tech Lead, you’ll need to be able to explain complex technical concepts to non-technical stakeholders, provide regular updates on project progress, and address any concerns or issues that arise.
  • Mentoring and coaching team members to enhance their technical skills and knowledge: As a Tech Lead, you’ll be responsible for helping your team grow and develop their technical skills. This includes mentoring and coaching team members, providing feedback and guidance, and identifying opportunities for training or upskilling.

Building Software

  • Identifying opportunities for process improvement and advocating for changes that benefit the team or organization: As a Tech Lead, you’ll be responsible for continuously assessing your team’s workflows and processes, identifying areas for improvement, and advocating for changes that will increase efficiency, productivity, or quality.
  • Establishing and maintaining technical documentation and standards: Your team’s technical documentation and standards are critical to ensuring consistency, repeatability, and scalability in your software development processes. As a Tech Lead, you’ll be responsible for establishing and maintaining these documents, ensuring that they remain up-to-date and relevant to your team’s needs.
  • Participating in recruitment and interview processes to ensure the team is staffed with top talent: As a Tech Lead, you’ll be involved in the recruitment and hiring process, helping to identify top talent and ensure that your team is staffed with the right people. This includes reviewing resumes, conducting interviews, and providing input on candidate selection.

While the above is not exhaustive, it should help guide you in finding the foundational responsibilities for the Tech Lead role.

By fulfilling these specific responsibilities, a Tech Lead plays a critical role in ensuring the success of their team and the company as a whole.

They serve as a leader, mentors, and technical expert, helping to guide their team toward achieving their goals and delivering high-quality software solutions.

Career Progression for Tech Leads

Becoming a Tech Lead is a significant milestone in any software developer’s career.

It represents a recognition of their technical expertise, leadership abilities, and dedication to their craft.

However, for many Tech Leads, this role is not the end goal, but rather a stepping stone towards even greater opportunities.

Let’s explore two common career paths that Tech Leads can pursue: management and product management.

Management Path

One natural career progression for Tech Leads is moving into management.

As a Tech Lead, you’ve already demonstrated your ability to lead a team and manage projects.

The next step is to expand your scope and take on more responsibility.

Management roles for Tech Leads can include:

  • Engineering Manager: An Engineering Manager is responsible for leading a team of software engineers and overseeing the technical direction of a project or product. This role requires a deep understanding of software development principles and methodologies, as well as strong leadership and communication skills.
  • Director of Engineering: A Director of Engineering is responsible for overseeing the entire engineering organization, including multiple teams and projects. This role requires a broad technical background, as well as strong leadership, strategic thinking, and organizational skills.

Product Management Path

Another career path that Tech Leads can pursue is product management.

As a Tech Lead, you’ve worked closely with product managers and have a deep understanding of the product development process.

This makes you uniquely qualified to transition into a product management role.

Product management roles for Tech Leads can include:

  • Product Manager: A Product Manager is responsible for defining and executing the product roadmap, working closely with cross-functional teams to bring new features and products to market. This role requires a deep understanding of customer needs, market trends, and competitive analysis, as well as strong communication and project management skills.
  • Head of Product: A Head of Product is responsible for overseeing the entire product organization, including multiple product lines and teams. This role requires a broad understanding of the product portfolio, as well as strong leadership, strategic thinking, and decision-making skills.

Skills Required for Career Progression

Regardless of whether you choose to pursue a management or product management path, there are several key skills that you’ll need to develop to succeed:

  • Communication: Strong communication skills are essential for any leadership role. You’ll need to be able to articulate your vision, goals, and priorities to your team, stakeholders, and executives.
  • Strategic Thinking: As a leader, you’ll need to think strategically, making decisions that align with the company’s long-term goals. This requires a deep understanding of the business, market trends, and competition.
  • Influence: Influence is critical for leaders who want to drive change and achieve their goals. You’ll need to be able to build relationships, negotiate, and persuade others to follow your vision.
  • Decision-Making: Good decision-making is critical for leaders. You’ll need to be able to analyze data, evaluate options, and make informed decisions quickly and confidently.


Becoming a Tech Lead is a significant achievement, but it’s not the end of the road.

There are many opportunities for career progression, whether you choose to pursue a management or product management path.

By developing key skills such as communication, strategic thinking, influence, and decision-making, you can unlock new opportunities and continue to grow and succeed in your career.