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Engineering Manager or Tech Lead: Choosing Your Path

September 24, 2023

Engineering manager and tech lead sound like similar titles, but they are two very different roles. While they work together closely to reach shared goals, their roles and responsibilities have minimal overlap. Understanding the difference between the two is critical in deciding if an engineering management degree is right for your professional goals.

What exactly is the difference between the roles? While they are both focused on leadership, each one supports the team in a different capacity. An engineering manager is focused on maximizing performance and professional satisfaction for the engineering team. A tech lead establishes the vision and process for writing the code.
Engineering managers and tech leads work closely together because their combined vision drives successful projects. They may have different foci and skills, but they work towards a common goal.

If an engineering manager is the conductor, the tech lead is the composer. Team captain and star player. Director and a-list actor. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs. You get the picture.

Understanding the Role of a Tech Lead

Tech leads are coding experts. They understand the nitty-gritty of programming languages and have the experience to bring a project to life. Their passion lies within engineering and technology over management. Research and development is important to them in the continual pursuit of improving their skills.

The tech lead establishes the technical vision for the project. In doing so they determine how it will be built and the process to accomplish it. They are active participants in bringing the project to life, while also guiding the rest of the team’s involvement.

People who are passionate about coding lean towards this role. They often pursue a master’s as well, but without a focus in management. Tech leads have impeccable coding skills and use that expertise to build projects.

To be a leader, tech leads focus on technology-related skills and innovation. They are never finished learning in the pursuit of remaining up-to-date on current software trends. With this experience, the tech lead creates the blueprint for the project, which means their foundational knowledge must be impeccable.

A critical quality for tech leads, similar to engineering managers, is leadership. The tech lead is involved in setting milestones and ensuring the team meets them. Their experience guides the timeline they create.

No one person can carry an entire project, so tech leads have to know how to delegate work and be mindful of everyone’s performance and strengths. No amount of technical skill can compensate for a lack of unified vision and goals. The tech lead makes this happen.

The tech lead also has a specific set of responsibilities that differ from an engineering manager. While there is overlap between the two, each role also has their specific lanes. Those boundaries are important for hitting deadlines and sustaining a healthy team dynamic.

First and foremost, tech leads set the standard for coding and implementing best practices. As the leader in technical matters, the actual process is their domain. Clear direction unifies the team in how they approach the project and complete work independently.

The tech lead also determines how the team is going to complete the project. If this were a movie, the tech lead would be the director guiding the other departments towards a singular goal, while the engineering manager usually working on more than one project at a time, acts as the producer overseeing the entire production process and ensuring the project’s success.The tech lead’s expertise in programming and project management allows them to best plot the course to complete the project.

As the tech lead, a person in this role is also ultimately responsible for making sure the code works. They have to understand the big picture of how everything comes together. At the same time, they know what each individual is working on so they can problem solve granular issues as well.

Getting to Know the Role of an Engineering Manager
As the complementary role, an engineering manager operates with similar goals, but they impact the team in a much different manner. While the tech lead develops the plan for completing engineering projects, the engineering manager works with the team to make it happen. For code to be written, the people behind it also need to be cared for and managed.

One difference between the roles is that an engineering manager will often work on more than one project at once. While a tech lead is focused on coding a single project, a manager has the bandwidth to support multiple teams. This is why people in these leadership roles must be passionate about human capital and have excellent organizational skills.

However, an engineering manager must be sound in their technical proficiencies. Without an understanding of what people are working on, an engineering manager would not be able to serve the team.

Another role an engineering manager must play is negotiator. It’s an art to strike the right balance between meeting client expectations and sustaining the team’s wellbeing. The engineering manager is able to work with both parties to set expectations that are reasonable while ensuring both sides are heard.

It takes a specific set of skills and traits to make this balancing act a reality. Managing people is one of the most important. While coding is an incredibly scientific process, it would be incorrect to think there isn’t a human element to it. To fairly understand direct reports, an engineering manager must have a technical background to know what they face on a day to day basis.

This also becomes important when developing the project road map and deciding on milestones with the client. Familiarity with the process helps prevent overpromising and keeps the schedule fair to the team.

Lastly, an engineering manager needs to understand the keys to team happiness and a healthy company culture. Dissatisfaction among team members is more detrimental than running into skill gaps. Bringing in a ping pong table is not culture. Putting systems in place that prioritize employee health and satisfaction is.

Day to day, people in the role of an ‘engineering manager’ have several responsibilities. Employee performance and career planning are important. Every person at your company is an asset. It’s important to understand how to get the best work out of them and what investments will make them even more valuable.

Setting benchmarks and project schedules is also critical. It’s a skill to meet client expectations without burning out your team. A knowledgeable engineering manager can thread that needle based on their training and experience.

They also weigh in on project roadmaps and figuring out the plan moving forward. Whether it’s a solution to a roadblock or implementing new innovations, the engineering manager plays a critical role in evaluating the risks and rewards of every decision.

How Tech Leads & Engineering Managers Work as a Team
Tech leads and engineering managers have different focuses, but working together that brings the best out of everyone. Both roles consult with each in making big decisions that affect the team and the project. Schedules are created with input from both to ensure they are fair to everyone. Even more, there is an overlap in skills so each person can cover for the other.

So which role is right for you? It’s a big question, but being thoughtful and introspective will serve you best in the long run. Do you like coding or do you like managing people? Do you have a high EQ and communication skills or does problem solving technical problems bring you satisfaction?

Being truthful in answering these questions will put your career down the path that’s best for you whether it is engineering manager or tech lead. Decisions like that can be difficult, but being decisive when you reach a crossroads comes with greater rewards as well.

If you aren’t sure which direction is best for you, that’s okay too. You, and only you, get to set the timeline for your professional growth. If and when you attend graduate school is up to you.

If a tech lead aligns with your interests, a master’s in engineering management degree program may not be right. The good news, however, is Stevens Institute of Technology has a master’s in computer science that can help you step into that role.

If you want to bring out the best in each team and guide projects to success, a master’s in engineering management may be necessary to grow into your next role. The program is run out of the school of engineering, which ensures your technical proficiencies remain sharp while developing your managerial skills. Classes in project management and leadership development are complemented with courses that focus on data analysis and logistics.


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Advance Your Career as Engineering Manager with Stevens

Our award-winning, online program also offers flexibility so your coursework can fit in your busy schedule. It’s an approach that has worked well for engineering management graduates that have completed the program. So much so, Stevens is recognized as the number 13 top private school for best career placement by The Princeton Review (2022).

That recognition makes us just as proud as the fact that 100% of MEM graduates in the Class of 2021 accepted job offers within three months of graduating. (Based on data from 63% of spring 2021 graduates who attended full time.)

Deciding where to go with your career is never easy. In growing as a professional we sometimes have to make decisions about our expertise. Choosing tech lead or engineering manager is one of those instances. However, in making a choice, your career has the opportunity to flourish like never before.
When entering into a management position, an advanced degree can open doors. The engineering management program at Stevens is built to do just that. With coursework that blends technical proficiency with management development, higher education is a proven path that benefits you, your company and your team while you contribute significantly as an engineering manager.