Engineering Manager vs. Tech Lead: Qualifications, Responsibilities & Career Path

9 min read
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Do you feel that your engineering career has reached a crossroads? If you’re looking for new opportunities or find yourself gravitating toward more leadership or management positions, then there’s a few different higher-level positions you can consider.

In particular, there are two popular careers that often get conflated: engineering manager and tech lead. The roles of each position can overlap, because every company breaks up its leadership and management responsibilities in different ways. However, while the tech lead and engineering manager roles both oversee engineering teams, it’s important to understand how their focus differs.

This post will explore the specifics of each position and then compare an engineer manager position vs. a tech lead to see which might be the right fit for your professional skills and career goals.

Engineering Manager Vs. Tech Lead

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Responsible for ensuring the engineering team is working efficiently and effectivelyHands-on senior engineers who oversee the quality of a team’s programming
Oversees an engineering or IT team to ensure everyone has what they need to succeed Must be up-to-date on industry-specific knowledge and familiar with company-specific applications, processes and software Position requires effective communication, critical thinking skills and the capacity to be flexible and adaptable Can transition into higher, executive-level roles like director of engineering and vice president of engineeringOversees a team’s technical work to ensure everything is well reasoned and future-proof Must be knowledgeable in multiple programming languages, system design and architecture Position requires the ability to make informed choices and effectively communicate with team members and stakeholders May advance to more advanced engineering positions, such as technical architect or chief technical officer.

What Is an Engineering Manager?

Engineering managers are experienced engineers who are expected to lead teams and projects. They combine their technical expertise with strong leadership and management skills to direct and coordinate a full range of manufacturing and development activities, including production, operations, quality assurance, testing and maintenance.

Though they are technically skilled and are often required to stay on top of industry developments, they are not hands-on engineers or active contributors to projects. Their main priority is to manage the people, processes and systems by setting goals, developing production schedules and executing strategies.

Engineering managers are often part of an engineering or IT team and will usually report to a director of engineering within a company.

What do engineering managers do?

Generally, an engineering manager oversees a team that’s fit for the task at hand, ensures that each team member has everything they need to do their job, tracks their progress and maintains a steady course toward specific outcomes.

Their ultimate responsibility is to achieve established objectives while keeping projects on schedule and on budget. Specific responsibilities can include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • Analyzing, proposing and managing project resources and budgets
  • Collaborating with other team members, managers, stakeholders and contractors
  • Delegating and supervising tasks and deliverables
  • Evaluating team members’ performance
  • Hiring and employee development
  • Creating technical documentation and project roadmaps
  • Handling certain administrative duties (e.g. tracking performance metrics, preparing reports and performance reviews, improving processes, etc.)

For a more detailed look at an engineering manager’s responsibilities and skills, see our related blog post: 11 Skills All Engineering Managers Need in 2023 >>

What are engineering manager job requirements?

There’s no one set path toward engineering management. Some managers work their way up to their position after graduating from a four-year undergraduate engineering program, others craft a more personalized experience by taking a mix of online courses, on-the-job training, certification programs and teaching themselves in their spare time.

No matter your educational background, to be an engineering manager you’ll need a few years of experience in leading teams or projects — around three to five depending on the position. Also, climbing to more advanced leadership positions will eventually require earning an advanced degree related to business management or leadership in engineering.

Exact skill requirements will vary depending on positions and industry, but successful engineering managers will need a set of technical skills, including:

  • Up-to-date, industry-specific knowledge and familiarity with company-specific applications, current practices, processes and software
  • Project management, which includes being able to budget, overseeing work and making sure the team is meeting deadlines
  • Specific technical knowledge, such as coding, programming languages and frameworks, to understand which platforms are best for your teams and projects
  • Effective time management skills to give your team the time they actually need to do the work

They also need a command of interpersonal or soft skills, including:

  • Being able to effectively communicate with team members and stakeholders
  • Critical thinking skills, including the ability to make judgment calls and delegate responsibilities
  • Flexibility and adaptability, which can require innovation and creativity
  • Delegating responsibilities by strategically distributing tasks and projects
  • Providing constructive feedback for the success of projects as well as their employees’ professional growth

Want to learn more about what’s needed to become a successful engineering manager?  See our related blog post, How to Become an Engineering Manager >>

How much does an engineering manager make?

While exact salary will depend on a variety of factors, including overall experience, industry and location, according to Salary.com you can expect a salary range of $132,479 to $163,717.

What Is a Tech Lead?

Tech leads, while they hold a senior position within a company, don’t have the same formal authority that managers do. That’s because “tech lead” isn’t actually a formal title. It more describes the role that an experienced engineer plays within a team.

Unlike managers, tech leads are active contributors who are expected to guide their teams through challenges and technical bottlenecks. In most cases, a tech lead will be more focused on technical leadership and less on managerial tasks.

However, because the position is so malleable, some organizations with a flatter structure may distribute leadership responsibilities, such as mentoring or project management, to tech leads.

What do tech leads do?

The exact role and responsibilities of a tech lead will vary from one organization to another and even from one project to another. A tech lead may be responsible for an area within the team, for the entire scope of the team or even oversee an organization’s entire scope.

The ultimate responsibility of the tech lead is to oversee the quality of their team’s technical work. They ensure the team’s technical plans are well-reasoned and future-proof and seek to promote technical excellence and innovation for the organization.

Specific responsibilities can include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • Integrating architecture and systems
  • Monitoring technical spikes and experiments​
  • Providing code reviews and feedback
  • Presenting system design
  • Planning technical capacity
  • Escalating production issues
  • Performing hands-on coding as needed

In agile development, a tech lead may also take on the role of Scrum Master or be a part of the Scrum team, making them responsible for agile project management.

What are tech lead job requirements?

To be a tech lead, you’ll need several years — five to seven — of professional experience in development as well as a bachelor’s degree in an applicable field, such as computer science or computer engineering. While it is possible to achieve a position as a tech lead with an associate’s degree, you’ll need to show a much greater body of work and experience.

Tech leads will also have certification, such as project management training or a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). Above all else, a tech lead needs to have excellent technical skills. However, they also need a larger understanding of product, customer and market dynamics to help inform their larger strategic decisions.

Successful tech leads should:

  • Be knowledgeable about multiple programming languages and highly skilled in at least one
  • Have a solid understanding of functional programming, including object-oriented programming and data handling
  • Be up-to-date in modern software development practices including cloud, serverless and DevSecOps
  • Possess solid knowledge of system design and architecture
  • Have hands-on experience in algorithm design

Similar to engineering managers, tech leads also need a solid set of interpersonal and soft skills, including:

  • The capability to make informed choices for the team, such as setting coding standards
  • Being able to effectively communicate with team members and stakeholders
  • Critical thinking skills, including the ability to make judgment calls and delegate responsibilities
  • Flexibility and adaptability, which can require innovation and creativity
  • The capacity to provide guidance and mentorship to junior developers

How much does a tech lead make?

While exact salary will depend on a variety of factors, including overall experience, industry and location, according to Salary.com you can expect a salary range of $124,240 to $153,181.

What Is the Difference Between an Engineering Manager vs. a Tech Lead?

The best way to think of the difference when comparing a tech lead vs. an engineering manager is to think of the difference between the quality of a team’s work vs. its efficiency. While they may share some responsibility in overseeing an engineering team, ultimately the engineering manager is in charge of people and processes, whereas the tech lead is directly in charge of hands-on coding and the work itself.

Tech leads primarily focus on technical leadership within a specific team and are the boots on the ground guiding a team toward developing a technical solution. Their major benefits to an organization are to:

  • Review code to eliminate mistakes and bugs and ensure a high standard of work
  • Explain business goals to developers and ensure they’re in alignment
  • Build and customize technical architecture
  • Communicate tech needs and updates with stakeholders in business meetings

Engineering Manager takes a broader perspective, overseeing larger team management, project coordination and strategic decision-making. Their major benefits to an organization are to:

  • Help to improve overall productivity
  • Reduce costs and increase efficiency
  • Search for and recruit talent
  • Manage interpersonal relations within the team

Engineering Manager vs. Tech Lead Overview

Engineering ManagerTech Lead
General Responsibilities– Oversees an engineering or IT team
– Ensures every team member has what they need
– Manages resources and budgets
– Maintains a course toward specific outcomes
– Makes personnel decisions and new hires
– Oversees the quality of a team’s technical work
– Ensures technical plans are well reasoned and future-proof
– Promotes and exemplifies technical excellence and innovation
– Does quality control and checks for errors and bugs
Required Technical Skills– Up-to-date, industry-specific knowledge
– Familiar with company-specific applications, processes and software
– Skilled in coding, programming languages and frameworks
– Skilled in multiple programming languages
– Solid understanding of functional programming
– Knowledgeable in system design and architecture
– Up-to-date in modern software development practices
Required Soft Skills– Effective communication with all stakeholders
– Critical thinking skills
– Flexibility and adaptability
– Can delegate responsibilities
– Able to provide constructive feedback
– Can make informed choices
– Effectively communicate with team members and stakeholders
– Critical thinking skills
– Flexibility and adaptability
– Can provide guidance and mentorship
EducationAt least a bachelor’s degreeAt least an associate’s degree
Experience3–5 years leading teams or projects5–7 years in development
Salary Range$132,479 to $163,717$124,240 to $153,181

What Is the Career Path for Each Position?

Whether you choose to become an engineering manager or a tech lead, you have additional room for growth and career advancement beyond those positions.

Engineering managers with several years of experience can transition into higher, executive-level roles like director of engineering and eventually vice president of engineering.

  • Director of Engineering or Senior Engineering Manager: Either of these roles will oversee and guide a company’s entire engineering department. They’re responsible for managing budgets and policies and play a more significant role in shaping the organization’s engineering strategy.
  • Vice President of Engineering: A VP of engineering is responsible for overseeing all engineering management for a company. They determine the overall technology strategy of the company, make high-level decisions about technology adoption and innovation and ensure that all departments involved follow a set plan.

Tech leads, if they have no interest in management positions, may advance to more advanced engineering positions, such as technical architect or even chief technical officer.

  • Technical Architect: A tech architect plays an essential role in a company’s IT strategy by evaluating their IT requirements and creating personalized solutions. They will supervise the process of selecting technology solutions, develop plans for IT architecture implementation and perform necessary risk assessments.
  • Chief Technology Officer (CTO): The CTO has less direct oversight of teams in place of larger responsibilities in investigating and implementing new forms of technology to benefit the business. They oversee the integration of the technology in departments and monitor existing system infrastructure with the goal of maintaining efficiency and increasing profitability.

How Should You Choose Which Is Right for You?

Over the course of your engineering career there will be times when you are faced with a decision on your future path. Will you continue to build your technical expertise and work mainly as a technical professional? Or will you transition into a leadership role and take on more varied responsibilities like project management or business development?

Choosing your career path will not only determine your responsibilities, but also what your professional growth will look like.

  • Following the technical path will require building on your existing knowledge by learning and mastering more programs, languages, platforms and applications. You’ll need to lead by example in handling production issues, ensuring your own work is flawless and mentoring others.
  • The managerial path requires taking on more leadership abilities and learning more about business management. You’ll need to be able to set goals and strategies for your organization’s performance and communicate the value of complex product or service offerings to a diverse audience.

Choosing the right path isn’t easy, which is why analyzing your options is so important. If you’re thinking about advancing your career as an engineering manager, we invite you to learn more about the University of San Diego’s Master’s of Science in Engineering Management and Leadership program.

Download our free Ultimate Online Master’s Evaluation Guide eBook to find answers to the most important questions you may have about online graduate programs.


FAQs

What is the difference between tech lead and engineering manager?

Though they have some overlapping responsibilities, the tech lead and engineering manager roles have their own distinct set of responsibilities and focus. Tech leads are hands-on senior engineers who oversee the quality of a team’s programming. The engineering manager oversees the engineering team and ensures that it is working efficiently and effectively.

Is engineering manager a technical role?

Though engineering managers are expected to have technical skills and experience, the role isn’t usually considered a technical one. Engineering managers will have to know the details of programming, different platforms and applications, but they are not hands-on engineers nor are they active contributors to projects.

What position is higher than technical lead?

Because technical lead isn’t really a formal position, an engineering manager can be considered a higher position. Technical leads who want to advance in their career without getting into management can work toward becoming a technical architect or a Chief Technical Officer.

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