Learn what tech leads are, what they do, and which skills you need to become one. Plus, discover the difference between tech leads and engineering managers.
Software development, with its multiple layers of coding, strategy, and problem-solving, demands leaders who can bridge the gap between technicalities and vision. Enter tech leads –– people at the helm of technology projects, ensuring both alignment and excellence.
In this guide, we'll learn what a tech lead is, highlighting their primary responsibilities. We'll also provide the steps to follow to become one and share the skills needed to perfectly fill the role.
What is a tech lead? 💻
A tech lead is a unique blend of a skilled software developer and an effective leader. They mentor their team but aren’t project managers in an official capacity. Think of them as the team captain, but that doesn't exclude them from participating in the work. In fact, tech leads often produce a large quantity of work given their experience, although this isn’t always the case.
Essentially, tech leads use their deep understanding of technology to aid in teaching and directing a team while still assisting with the project to ensure everything goes smoothly. They have managerial responsibilities, but they aren't managers in the traditional sense.
What are a tech lead’s main responsibilities? 📋
Beyond just being a proficient coder, a tech lead wears multiple hats, ensuring the technical aspects align seamlessly with the broader objectives. Here are a few primary tech lead responsibilities:
- Code reviews: Tech leads oversee and review the team's code, ensuring its quality and consistency and that people follow best practices.
- Mentoring and training: They mentor junior developers, sharing knowledge and fostering skill development.
- Communication: They act as the bridge between the development team and other stakeholders, translating technical details into understandable insights for non-technical members.
- Architectural design: A tech lead guides the software's architectural decisions, ensuring scalability, maintainability, and performance.
- Problem-solving: They troubleshoot and address technical challenges, ensuring smooth development processes.
- Project management: While not a replacement for a project manager, a tech lead often assists in setting timelines, allocating tasks, and ensuring deadlines are met.
5 tech lead skills 🔧
Being a tech lead is all-encompassing, and as you'd imagine, they'd need a balance of technical and leadership skills to perform this versatile role successfully. Here are five tech lead skills commonly required for this position:
- Time management: With multiple responsibilities at hand, prioritizing tasks and managing time effectively ensures projects remain on track.
- Continuous learning: The tech landscape is ever-evolving, and a commitment to ongoing learning ensures tech leads stay updated with the latest trends and technologies.
- Technical expertise: As the name suggests, tech leaders need the technical skills of a developer (writing code, reviewing code, working with tech stacks, etc.) to contribute to a project needs, whether helping with UX design or fixing bugs.
- Project know-how: Tech leads must organize, plan, and oversee tasks. They also need to delegate work and handle resources, making project management crucial.
- Decision-making: A tech lead’s decisions impact the project and their team. Being decisive and making the best possible decisions for the group is a must.
Tech lead salary 💸
A tech lead’s average salary is around $180,000 yearly (at the time of writing), but the figures can change quite drastically depending on the experience level. They make about $138,000 annually on the lower end and around $239,000 yearly on the upper end. Their income also depends on geographic location.
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How to become a tech lead 🤔
Transitioning from a software developer to a tech lead is challenging but rewarding. It's about honing your technical skills and cultivating leadership qualities and a broader perspective on project management and team dynamics. And if you want to become a tech lead, here are the steps to follow:
1. Get educational and hands-on experience 📚
First, earn a degree in software engineering or computer science, which most businesses and employers require. Getting real-world experience during your studies by interning in a technical industry would also be advantageous.
2. Earn further relevant certifications 🖥️
Acquiring the necessary educational background is only a quarter of what’s needed. You must also gain relevant certifications. Remember, as a tech lead, you’ll operate in different roles, particularly that of a leader. You could opt for a project management professional, coaching skills for managers, or how to have critical conversations certificates. On the more technical side, having a quality assurance engineering certificate is also helpful.
3. Improve related skills 😎
Next, improve the relevant skills for the job, such as leadership, multitasking, and organization. There are many ways to do this, from further online courses to books. But the best way is to apply the skills practically. It's one thing to learn about being a good leader and another entirely taking on leading small projects. Freelancing sites for beginners are a great place to find work suited to your evolving skill set.
4. Learn more about the business side of things 💰
Remember, as a tech lead, your responsibilities include more than just the sole focus of the technical side. You’ll lead a team and convey updates and information to stakeholders and non-technical managers. You need to learn how what's happening with the project affects the broader business goals so your technical decisions align with business objectives. By knowing how to do all this, you’ll ace any tech lead-related interview questions.
Challenges of being a tech lead and how to overcome them 🤠
Now you know more about what it means to be a tech lead and how to become one, but it’s important to understand there are challenges, too. Here’s how you can overcome them:
- Not doing much coding: As mentioned, the typical tech lead job description encompasses many roles, and as such, you may find that you aren't coding as much as you were before. If coding is why you got into tech, this can be pretty frustrating. The best way to deal with this is to identify if you’re actually working as a tech lead or an untitled engineering manager. If you’re occasionally expected to lead the team, give yourself a break on how much you code and focus on helping them.
- Frequent interruptions: People constantly pull tech leads into meetings, so it’ll be challenging to concentrate on coding when you get to it, as you'll no doubt be dragged into another discussion or expected to solve another problem. To combat this, reframe your priorities to help open up time to allow your team to code and communicate with managers and stakeholders to reduce distractions for your team.
- Thinking like an individual coder: You became a tech lead because you love tech and coding, but being promoted to a tech lead means you'll have to adopt more roles and learn more skills. Rather than focusing on having to know and understand all related skills as soon as possible, slow it down and take your time learning the ins and outs, ask questions, and don't be afraid to make mistakes.
Engineering manager vs. tech lead: The key differences 🔑
Because of their similar job duties, people usually tend to confuse tech leads with engineering managers. But both are different. Tech leads primarily emphasize a project or team’s technical direction. They perform coding, ensure architectural consistency, and guide the technical vision. While they do have leadership responsibilities, their role is heavily rooted in hands-on technical expertise.
Engineering managers, however, ensure the engineering team is productive, cohesive, and aligned with broader company goals. They handle team dynamics, manage resources, and often have a say in hiring and performance reviews, focusing less on direct coding tasks.
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