Being a Tech Lead-Manager is Hard

Photo by Megan Markham on Unsplash —Wear all the hats!

When I first dipped my toes into management, my company and I worked out an arrangement where I was effectively both a tech lead and a manager. (This is also known as a “TLM”). It was a great way to transition myself into a new management role. In hindsight, I stayed in this dual role for too long (years), would not recommend it for first-timers. I now believe that with proper coaching and guidance, the transition period for new managers should be no longer than 2 quarters.

Taking on new roles demands a great deal of attention to identify the differences between the old and the new. There was a period of trial and error, during which I identified new skills I needed to practice, sought feedback on my performance, and teased out expectations of a rising engineering manager. Doing this within a fast-growing startup, while working with the same colleagues and holding on to my former title, doubled the difficulty. Tackling the challenges of these two jobs simultaneously blurred the line between a tech lead and a manager.

Moreover, having the same individual play both roles of a tech lead and manager yielded little benefit to the team. Granted, it was efficient to have all the context concentrated in one person. However, this also led to a habit of expecting the TLMs to make all the hard decisions. The responsibilities of the two roles are often contradictory, which made it counterproductive to try to succeed at both.

For instance, I was reluctant to give up the technical influence I had over the company’s infrastructure. I remained enamored with the hands-on experience of tackling hard technical challenges and seeing the immediate results of my labor. Any seasoned manager will tell you that these are textbook examples of interfering which is detrimental to everybody else’s job satisfaction. Instead, strong teams are built by distributing responsibilities, protecting autonomy, and pushing decision-making as close to the action as possible.

Building a company on TLMs also creates false role models for other aspiring individuals in the company. A good TL does not have to be a good manager to succeed and vice versa. When crafting career paths, it is important to have visible and obvious examples of successful individuals at the company at whom we can point. Otherwise, textual descriptions of the nuanced expectations for various forms of leadership will be fuzzy and uninspiring.

Nonetheless, for TLs who are considering a career in management, it remains useful to have a transition period of three to six months, but no more. They will have the opportunity to go through a few cycles of quarterly planning, performance reviews, and compensation reviews. In boom times, they may even have the opportunity to make a few hiring decisions. A few mentees found this to be a safe way for them to “intern” in the role that they think they want. It also provides a risk-free off-ramp should they change their minds.

If you are a TL considering a switch to management, my advice is: find good mentors, set up feedback channels, jump in, and get ready to make lots of mistakes.

Many thanks to Cassandra Rommel for reviewing an early draft of this post.