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What are the commonalities and differences between tech leads and engineering managers?

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Software Engineer at Series A Startupa year ago

My goal is to get to this level someday, so I would love to understand more. In particular, how does this dynamic play out at Big Tech/larger tech companies?

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  • 5
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    Meta, Pinterest, Kosei
    a year ago

    Both TLs and managers have a role in setting the direction for the team. The TL is more focused on technical innovation, while the eng manager is more focused on the people (resourcing projects effectively, and ensuring that they are impactful while also growing their career).

  • 8
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    Robinhood, Meta, Course Hero, PayPal
    a year ago

    Commonalities

    • Strong communication skills, particularly due to alignment needs
    • Able to work through and mentor others
    • Sharp project management ability
    • Feels a powerful sense of ownership and responsibility for the team's well-being. For staff-level TLs, this will be especially prominent and matching the EM more.
    • Great meeting skills, especially around driving them

    Differences

    • The core difference is in the name, for "Tech Lead" specifically. Tech leads should still be hands-on with the code.
    • Tech leads will write code, review code, design systems, and drive production issue resolution. The strongest EMs should still know how to "talk shop" when it comes to code, but they shouldn't be doing any of these things themselves.
    • Managers care a lot about hiring as it's their goal to expand their teams (this is how they get promoted as well). Tech leads won't care nearly as much (but they still will a good amount of course).
    • Managers will be representing their reports directly in performance review, while TLs will have a more mixed involvement there.

    Big Tech vs. Smaller Companies

    • From my experience working at Course Hero and Robinhood, the trend seems to be that TLs and EMs are more similar the smaller the company is.
    • This makes sense as smaller companies care more about the code as that's usually the highest leverage thing they can do: Add more features.
    • At Course Hero in particular, a lot of managers were quite hands-on with the code. I had a manager who reviewed a decent amount of diffs and wrote some code themselves.
    • Even at Meta while I was working at Portal, the managers wrote and reviewed some code while also participating in system design. This was back when I joined the org as it was very small back then (Portal was sort of like a "startup within Meta").

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