Joseph Perla, Engineering Manager at Lyft and Plato mentor, offered advice on how to choose between tech lead and engineering manager positions during a Plato event hosted on August 9, 2017, in San Francisco.
At some point in your career as an engineer, you will probably choose between a role as a tech lead and engineering manager. Joseph Perla explained the core differences between each of these positions and offered advice on how to decide which one is best for you. Joseph is currently the engineering manager of Passenger Acquisition at Lyft, and previously worked as a tech lead for Facebook.
Tech lead vs. engineering manager: What’s the difference?
At first sight, the tech lead role seems like it would give you much broader opportunities to learn pure technology functions, have a better command of the programming language, acquire new languages and frameworks, and learn other useful skills.
Indeed, one of the main functions of a tech lead is staying up to date with the latest technology trends closely related to the team’s scope of work. Tech leads also introduce and guide their team members through all technical challenges and issues.
An engineering manager, on the other hand, has to be focused on people. He or she can and should learn new things in technology, but not beyond what is required for the role. As an engineering manager, you won’t have much chance to improve your coding skills, though, as Joseph said, there can be many nuances in it.
These nuances become very bold in some circumstances. A good example from Joseph’s own experience is when the team consists mainly of junior employees. In this case, an engineering manager needs to fulfill most or all of the tech lead roles and guide the team through new tech processes along with carrying out managerial roles.
One of the reasons behind why engineering managers need to have an engineering background instead of just a managerial one is the need to serve as a tech lead when the situation arises — not just with teams of juniors, but also when other tech leads or other key people are on vacation or absent.
Making the transition from tech lead to engineering manager
As there are many shared duties and technical things you will be able to do as an engineering manager, you can overcome lack of people management experience with one-on-ones. Having frequent one-on-ones with each direct report lets you unleash all your technological knowledge and managerial skills in a way that benefits you, your direct reports, the team, and the whole organization.
You can also carry out anonymous surveys and make meeting assessments using your technical knowledge. It’s what most engineering managers simply aren’t doing. While classical management duties focus on the team, this approach respects both the team and each individual member. One-on-ones enable an engineering manager to build a better relationship with each direct report on a personal level, learn more about his or her technical and other skills, and look at where each person is excelling, along with areas of improvement. These meetings will let you get to know your direct reports better, and learn more about their personal interests outside of the office.
One-on-ones, along with social gatherings, such as barbecues where the team members get to know each other even better, take team building to a higher level. This is particularly important if your direct reports are coming from different nations and cultures.
A successful company needs to have teams that work well together and have a strong engineering manager and tech lead. While the engineering manager focuses on building personal connections with team members and other departments, the tech leads are in charge of successfully developing code. Together, they lead the team of engineers to success.
If you switched from a tech leadership role to management but you still want to develop your coding skills further, consider taking a course on a trending programming skill that interests you, such as machine learning. As a manager, you can also upgrade your coding knowledge through communication with direct reports.
“The EM and the tech lead build something from nothing, and together lead a team of engineers to a success.”
Watch Joseph’s full presentation below, and be sure to check out our YouTube channel for the rest of the videos from the event!