What you will learn in this article
- As a Tech Lead, you will continue to code while assuming additional responsibilities in the eyes of your team and stakeholders.
- Being a Tech Lead is not just about technical proficiency, but also a passion for leading technical discussions and decisions
- The role of Tech Lead can vary among companies, with each having its own unique understanding of the position.
What is a Tech Lead’s role?
The Tech Lead ensures successful execution of the technical team's projects. They provide daily support and guidance to the team on decision-making and project progress. As a Tech Lead, you will be the go-to reference for all technical decisions within your scope.
1. Tech Lead: 4 key roles to guide the team
According to Damien Beaufils, to ensure successful project delivery and team progress, a Tech Lead must be involved in four main activities:
- Coaching: guiding the team towards technical and operational excellence.
- Expertise: communicating the technical vision of the product to the team and stakeholders.
- Training: helping your team to progress both technically and on a human level
- Support: facilitating communication between the developers and the teams around them.
For each of these components, Tech Leads must know how to identify which actions will be useful, or even necessary, to successfully carry out their mission:
2. The tech lead’s role depends on their environment
In practice, the role of a Tech Lead can differ from one company to another: "Tech Lead doesn't have a universal definition. Each company has its own understanding of the role," says Maxime Durand, Qonto's third employee and technical lead engineer.
At Qonto, Maxime holds a hybrid position between management and tech. In contrast, Paola Ducolin, Tech Lead at Datadog, holds a purely technical role as a Tech Lead: "Our main role is to manage cross-team projects on technical issues.”
It's worth noting that some companies use the title "Tech Lead" while others use it as a role description. This is what the StaffEng.com blog has observed: Tech Lead is one of the most prominent archetypes in the career path of an individual contributor, just like architects, solvers or right hand men/women.
Keep in mind: each company has its own understanding of a Tech Lead, but the role is typically closer to that of a senior individual contributor rather than a team leader. Make sure you understand the specific expectations and responsibilities associated with the role in your organisation.
What does a Tech Lead's daily work involve?
The day-to-day work of a Tech Lead is generally divided into 3 main tasks:
- Guiding the team in their technical decisions
- Explaining decisions to other teams
1. Tech Leads still code
If you want to become a Tech Lead, be aware that you will still be coding. "When you're a young Tech Lead, you might still spend 60% of your time coding. For me, it represents a third of my weeks on average," says Maxime, who has ten years of experience in France and San Francisco.
You might work on small pieces of code, in runtime, so as not to disturb the team, which is already focused on a feature. Or you might focus on more important technical tasks at the intersection of several teams. "The important thing is to avoid blocking others, given your lower bandwidth," says Paola.
“It is not about making the technical decision that will please everyone but rather about making the decision that will not upset anyone.”
2. Tech Leads are responsible for technical decisions
What is the difference between Tech Lead and Software engineer? Responsibility! If you're wondering what will change in your day-to-day life if you're promoted to Tech Lead, keep in mind that, from now on, you'll have to defend the technical choices made within your team.
According to Paola: "For me, a Tech Lead is a contributor-influencer. On the one hand, you have to organise the decision-making process and then get the team on board with the choice that is made.”
At Datadog, the technical decision-making process is quite structured. Several solutions are put on the table and each one is analysed over half a day with thorough documentation of the advantages and disadvantages. The team therefore makes an informed assessment and then discusses everything openly before arriving at a technical decision. If there is no consensus, the tech lead has the final say.
"At first, I wanted to please everyone. But you have to accept that some people will disagree. It is not about making the technical decision that will please everyone but rather about making the decision that will not upset anyone,” says Paola
3. Tech Leads are technical consultants and spokespersons to stakeholders
As a Tech Lead, you also play a role outside of your development team. "At Qonto, when you're promoted to Tech Lead, the most noticeable change in your day-to-day work is that you're involved at a much earlier stage in defining the product roadmap," says Maxime Durand.
In other words, you'll be talking directly to the Product Managers who will ask you about the feasibility or the technical aspects of what is about to be designed to meet the customers' needs.
You are not going to be asked to commit to an estimate of the duration or complexity of a development. Rather, the idea is that you can help define the best solution, like a technical consultant.
“Becoming a Tech Lead is a developer's coming-of-age.”
Becoming a Tech Lead therefore requires communication and outreach skills. You will also need to broaden your knowledge to include product or business issues! In Paola’s words: "I often say that becoming a Tech Lead is a developer’s coming-of-age."
Let's explain: as a teenager, you are usually driven by your passions and your desire to explore or experiment. When you become an adult, you become accountable for your choices and realise that they have an impact on other teams. For example, you will be less inclined towards trendy technologies and more inclined to choose those that best serve your business.
Paola shares a recent experience: "We had to choose between Golang and Python for a project. The latter is less complex and more widely used. But our future users were already familiar with Golang and it covered our needs. So we went with that.”
Remember: As a Tech Lead, you gradually stretch beyond your role as a developer to make your team's work more fluid and to carry its voice beyond the purely technical sphere.
How to become a Tech Lead in 4 tips
Now that you understand a little more about the daily life of a Tech Lead, here are some tips on how to successfully take on this role in your company.
1. If you want to become a Tech Lead, just say so!
It may sound silly, but becoming a Tech Lead is not just about know-how, it's also about communicating your skills. Paola talks about Prince Charming syndrome: "I used to put my heart into my work and wait for the promotion to come. Except that it won't come if you don't discuss your career path with your manager.”
"One of the biggest misconceptions about being a Tech Lead is that you're going to be able to work independently, without anyone bothering you."
2. Get involved in technical discussions now
You don't become a Tech Lead just because it looks good on your CV. You have to really want it, and for the right reasons.
"One of the biggest misconceptions about being a Tech Lead is that you're going to be able to work independently, without anyone bothering you. This is not true! You need soft skills to be able to communicate effectively, lead open discussions between developers and adapt your level of language to the person you are talking to," confirms Maxime.
We suggest that you start doing one thing right now: every time you make a technical decision in your team, try to understand the reasons behind the final decision, so that you can put yourself in the position of Tech Lead straight away. That way, when you become one for real, which we hope you will, you will already have the right reflexes.
3. Don't wait to become the company's top developer
If you want to become a Tech Lead, you don't have to work solely on your technical skills. This is a major misconception about Tech Leads. "It slowed me down in my career because I didn't feel I was up to the task until I knew all the tech by heart," Paola laughs. In fact, she is one of the least experienced developers of her current team!
Technical skills are only one part of the equation requred to become a Tech Lead. As Alicia Chen, developer and co-founder of Pavilion, explains in this article: "Engineers don't automatically become Tech Leads by being the most senior, having the most domain expertise, or producing the most code.”
Being a Tech Lead is about cultivating your network and knowing what internal resources are available. You can't know everything about everything. However, you can know your internal organisation precisely so that you can find out who your colleagues are, who the biggest experts on a particular subject are, and connect them with the right people.
4. Be patient: nothing can replace time and experience!
Beware, Tech Lead is not a role for everyone.
Maxime, who is also a professor at the Hetic web school, recommends that his students don't try to go too fast: "Nothing can replace experience and time, which is by nature incompressible!"
Nevertheless, here are some potential accelerators: work in companies with complex technical challenges and an organisation that encourages learning. Ingest a lot of content, whether technical or managerial. During our discussion, Maxime spontaneously pulled The Manager's Path off his desk. The book was still overflowing with post-it notes. "Management is like coding, you have to learn it," he concludes.
Remember: being a Tech Lead requires loving to talk about technology without necessarily being the best in your field!
What comes after Tech Lead?
You now know a lot more about the role of Tech Lead, but there is one question that we haven't yet addressed: what are the career paths afterwards? As you might have guessed, this depends on the company’s career path and on the managerial component the company associates with the role of Tech Lead.
Generally speaking, Tech Lead remains a good gateway to the individual contributor route (Staff Engineer then Principal Engineer). Although, according to Paola, this does not necessarily shut off the track manager path to the VP of Engineering role. As the famous article The Engineer/Manager pendulum points out, these two tracks intertwine and contribute to each other during a career.