DEV Community

Cover image for Lessons from a Tech Lead: Roles, responsibilities, and words of advice
Tyler Hawkins
Tyler Hawkins

Posted on • Updated on • Originally published at betterprogramming.pub

Lessons from a Tech Lead: Roles, responsibilities, and words of advice

I’ve been a tech lead for several years at a few different companies. Each role has been somewhat unique, and yet there have been commonalities between each experience. In this article I’d like to share with you what a tech lead is, what they do, and some lessons that I’ve learned along the way.


What is a Tech Lead

The first thing to know is that a tech lead is not a manager. A tech lead is still an individual contributor and is expected to be a high producer of work while also helping the team. The tech lead is usually a more senior member of the team, but they don’t always have to be. Since the tech lead doesn’t have any direct reports, they don’t have 1on1s with their team members or do performance reviews. They do, however, help mentor their teammates.


Responsibilities of a Tech Lead

Tech leads wear many hats. They play the role of architect, project manager, software engineer, mentor, and teammate all at once.

Tech leads are responsible for helping drive the high-level architectural discussions regarding the work that the team is doing. They lead design meetings and tech breakdowns. They ask questions and try to poke holes in ideas to ensure that edge cases are covered.

Tech leads help organize the work by breaking down feature epics into stories and tasks. They may do this individually or with the rest of their team, depending on the company. They help prioritize the work and ensure that the right things get done at the right time.

Tech leads help remove blockers. This may involve chasing down answers to questions for the product owner, UX designer, or engineers from other teams. It may also involve working with a teammate to clarify some acceptance criteria on a ticket. It always involves doing code reviews on a daily basis and making sure pull requests don’t sit for too long without receiving attention.

Tech leads also help mentor their teammates and are responsible for helping level up the team. They ensure that best practices are implemented and followed. They teach through pair programming and through code reviews. They frequently share articles, advice, and ideas.

In short, being a tech lead is an exercise in influencing without direct authority.


Lessons Learned

Now that we have a solid foundation for what a tech lead is and what they do, let’s look at some of the lessons I’ve learned throughout my experience.


Prioritize the Needs of the Team

As a tech lead, you are no longer interested in only your own success. You’re invested in the success of the team as a whole. This means that the needs of the team outweigh the needs of the individual.

I usually spend the first 1–3 hours of my day reviewing all open pull requests, answering questions over Slack, and triaging new bugs. In short, I try to do everything I can to unblock my team members from anything they are waiting on. Only after all that is done do I start on my own work for the day. I’ll check Slack or do code reviews throughout the rest of the day as well, but only at natural stopping points so as not to interrupt my flow.


Time Management

It’s very difficult to balance your time between your own work and the work of the team. Some days you’ll be on a “maker’s schedule” where you are heads down coding for large blocks of time. Other days you’ll be on a “manager’s schedule” where you have many meetings and interruptions without time for deep work. Most days will be a mix of both.

If you are always doing code reviews or answering questions from your teammates, you’ll have very little time to write code yourself. Learn to set boundaries and block off time on your calendar for interruption-free hours to focus on your own work. Find ways to make your team more self-reliant, and help them find answers to their own questions. Identify tasks that you can delegate.


Delegation

It’s a mistake to try to do everything by yourself. The whole point of having a team is to share the load and to accomplish more together than any one individual could do on their own. If you try to bear that burden alone, you’ll surely burn out.

The tricky part is knowing when to do something yourself and when to delegate it.


Process Improvement

If you find yourself constantly putting out fires for your team, take a minute to reflect on the root cause of those problems.

For example, are your team members asking the same questions repeatedly? Use this as an opportunity to document your processes so that you can point people to your wiki page the next time the same question comes up.

Do you find that you have to review every pull request on your team? Why is that? Take the time to set expectations as a team that every team member is responsible for reviewing code. Teach them what to look for, and walk them through your thought process. Document these code review best practices and guidelines as well. Offloading even a few code reviews will save you hours each week.

Are you the one that always gets pulled in to solve the hard problems when something goes wrong? Use these as teaching moments. Have a team member shadow you or pair program with you as you diagnose the problem and troubleshoot. Now, the next time this happens, you’ll have a second person on your team who is equipped to help.


Optimize the Developer Experience

Look for things to optimize to make the development process easier and help your team become more productive.

Is there documentation missing? Create it.

Do people know how to run the app locally for any given repo? Document the steps in the README.

Are tests missing in an area that frequently breaks? Write those tests.

Is a CI pipeline slow? See if there are steps in the pipeline you can run in parallel, test suites with duplicate tests you can trim down, or other things you can do to speed it up.

Are there opportunities for training to level up your team? Work with each team member individually to identify gaps in their skill set and come up with a plan to help them fill in those gaps.


Learn to Give Hard Feedback

One of the hardest parts of being a leader is giving negative feedback. Learn to have hard conversations. As Kim Scott says in her book Radical Candor, you should care personally and challenge directly.

Ask good questions. Challenge your team members in a way that encourages them to grow.

If someone isn’t pulling their weight, work with them to identify the root cause and brainstorm solutions together. Is the problem a motivation issue or a skills issue? If it’s a skills issue, are there other tasks or projects they could work on that would be better suited for their skill set?

The line between tech lead and manager becomes a little blurred here, so it’s important to work closely with your manager in these situations. As a tech lead, you are not responsible for having performance conversations or for making firing decisions, but your input does have a significant impact. Do everything you can to help your team members be successful. Sometimes though, the kindest thing to do is to help someone move on.


Make Good Judgment Calls

Your teammates will often look to you to offer advice or provide direction when the path forward is uncertain. Software engineering is full of tradeoffs as you weigh short-term and long-term consequences of technical decisions.

For example, should we write tests for this piece of functionality? In general, the answer is nearly always yes. But what if the code repo is legacy code that hasn’t been touched for five years, is using an outdated tech stack, and doesn’t have an existing test suite? Do you spend the time to set up test infrastructure for this code in addition to writing your specific tests, or do you skip writing tests in this situation?

Or, consider the following scenario: You’re about to release a new feature, but a bug is discovered right before the release cut-off. Do you delay the release of the code so that you can fix the bug? Or do you allow the bug to go to production? The answer will depend on things like the severity of the bug, how frequently you release code, and how quickly you think you can fix the bug.

The takeaway here is that you’ll frequently need to make hard decisions where there is not a 100% correct solution. Learn to use good judgment, make decisions with limited information, and stand by your decisions. When things go wrong, own your mistakes and find ways to learn from them.


Always Keep Learning

Finally, don’t become complacent. You need to keep learning in order to continue to help your team level up. By setting an example of continuous improvement, you can create a culture of learning. Be sure to share the interesting articles and books you’re reading or the side projects you’re working on. These will provide a wealth of ideas for you to share with your team.


Conclusion

The role of tech lead is a demanding one but one filled with opportunities for growth. To summarize, your job will go a lot more smoothly if you:

  1. Prioritize the needs of the team over the needs of the individual

  2. Manage your time wisely

  3. Learn to delegate

  4. Look for ways to improve your processes and documentation

  5. Look for ways you can optimize the developer experience

  6. Learn how to give hard feedback and how to have hard conversations

  7. Trust yourself to make good judgment calls

  8. Always keep learning

Thanks for reading!

Discussion (40)

Collapse
jankapunkt profile image
Jan Küster

Note on the questions regarding writing tests for the legacy project - do it. Even if it involves a super old tech stack. Once the tests are good, coverage is sufficient and integration is running you can refactor with confidence or even make breaking changes it just gives you muchore opportunities than without the tests since you never know without tests WHERE (not if) regression is introduced.

And in the process the test suite and tech stack can be updated step by step. This expensive but cheaper than keeping it legacy

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

In general I agree with you. And you're right that the main benefit of tests is that they allow you to refactor with confidence. I've written about this extensively in these articles:

It's important to remember though that the situation can be more nuanced at times. What you've described is a legacy project, likely large, making changes frequently, and making changes with an uncertain impact. In this scenario, your suggestion to invest in writing tests makes perfect sense, especially if this is a codebase you will be working with frequently over time and that you plan to refactor and update.

Now consider a very different scenario: Let's imagine you need to make a small change in a repo that's part of a much larger app, where the last commit in the repo was five years ago, it's unlikely you'll need to make another change in this repo for several more years, and the change is narrow in scope and easy to manually verify the impact. Is it worth investing in test infrastructure for this specific repo in this case, especially if it will take orders of magnitude more time than the actual task? Probably not.

The nuance here is that the first scenario has a high amount of churn, expected changes over time, and complexity; the second scenario does not. These are important factors to consider in your decision.

Collapse
liunate profile image
Nate Liu

This is a great point. I like the easy to manually verify part so such a tiny part of code change in the vast amount of legacy code base.

In such case, what I will do is to make sure the how-to-manually-test-my-new-tiny-change is documented with code base, so QA and whoever touching this part knows what's matter/new and how the results could be verified as expected.

Thread Thread
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Absolutely. I'm a big fan of using merge request templates to provide additional context for other developers during code reviews, and one item I always include is a test plan for how to manually verify the change. These kinds of checklists are super useful!

More on that here: dev.to/thawkin3/managing-complexit...

Collapse
jankapunkt profile image
Jan Küster

Yes, totally agree with that!

Collapse
garystorey profile image
Gary Storey

Wow. You literally described my job to a "T". I don't think a lot of people understand the difference between a Senior Developer and a Tech Lead. This does a very good job.

Delegation and time management are areas I personally need to improve on so I will definitely be checking out the linked article.

Thanks!

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thanks Gary! That's good to hear I've hopefully captured some universal ideas in here that are applicable from company to company.

Collapse
luxaritas profile image
Jonathan Romano

I’ve struggled to come up with an accurate description of what I do, but this does a pretty good job of it - though with the nuance that my team has always been very small, and at times I’ve been the only contributor.

Out of curiosity, would you make a distinction between “tech lead” vs “lead developer”?

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Haha I've often had a hard time describing what I do as well, because it's a lot more than just writing code, which is what people usually think.

For the distinction between "tech lead" vs. "lead developer", it honestly probably changes from company to company. I guess you could say they're the same thing. Or maybe in some companies a "tech lead" would have more of an emphasis on project management whereas a "lead developer" would have more of an emphasis on the architecture. But even then, I don't think I've ever seen a company that has both "tech leads" and "lead developers", they just pick one term or the other.

Collapse
liunate profile image
Nate Liu

"Lead developers" must be top-notch/expert in certain domains. I'd rather call them "Subject Matter Experts(SME)" than "lead".

Collapse
liunate profile image
Nate Liu

Thank you!

This articles just RIGHT vividly describes the mindset change/struggles from my recent experiences. Wish I have had read this earlier so less confusions about my career/daily-works :(

Anyway, by far the one of the best technical leader explanation I have read and is kept in my bookmark now for future reference :)

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thank you Nate! Those are kind words.

Collapse
drinkthestars profile image
Tasha Ramesh

All of this! Currently trying to put delegation/improving dev experience into practice...

When on a team that follows agile/scrum, getting pulled into sprint/task management, project planning, etc. also takes a good chunk of time and concentration. Sometimes context switching from that to actual "coding" can be jarring, but finding similar ideas and themes that apply to both can ease the transitions; treating both aspects as two sides of the same coin and leaning into the similarities rather than the differences. It's a feeling to be similar to learning a two-handed instrument where you have to finally put both left/right hand parts together and play the thing! :D

++++1 for "Always keep learning". Ironic that seniority in engineering can also come with increased complacency ("I've been doing X-development for 13+ years, I know it all"). This is literally the industry of fast-paced advancement, and constant learning is the only thing that will help us keep up with it!

Thanks for sharing!

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Absolutely! The additional context switching and added responsibility are probably the hardest parts to manage as a new tech lead. It's a growing experience for sure.

Collapse
andrewbaisden profile image
Andrew Baisden

I agree with a lot of what you said here. Time management can be quite hard when your responsibilities increase but like any situation you can adapt to it.

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Absolutely! The additional context switching and added responsibility are probably the hardest parts to manage as a new tech lead. It's a growing experience for sure.

Collapse
gococonut profile image
gococonut

Thank you for sharing

Collapse
bipon68 profile image
Bipon Biswas

I agree with a lot of what you said here. Thanks for sharing.

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thanks for reading!

Collapse
svgatorapp profile image
SVGator

Delegation is such a touchy subject. Glad you delved into it in the linked post.
Great read!

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thank you!

Collapse
akirautio profile image
Aki Rautio

I very much agree with your thoughts. Especially the time management is something that managers need to learn to be successful. There are endless amount things to focus so prioritizing the most valuable ones really makes a difference.

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Absolutely! There is too much to do and a never-ending pile of work, so choosing the right things to work on is essential.

Collapse
curiousdev profile image
CuriousDev

Thanks for the words.
Well written!
Because the "Tech Lead" seems to combine many roles, I would like to know, what kind of Team setup or project we should expect. Which roles would be needed as complement?
Also I think the following is the responsibility of the whole team (at least people should be interested doing this): "As a tech lead, you are no longer interested in only your own success. You’re invested in the success of the team as a whole. This means that the needs of the team outweigh the needs of the individual.". But I get the point in sense of accountability.

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thank you!

This is written from the perspective of someone in a normal cross-functional agile engineering team. These teams typically consist of:

  • an engineering manager
  • a few frontend engineers
  • a few backend engineers
  • a product manager
  • a UX designer

Optionally you might also have a dedicated scrum master or QA engineer as part of your team, although the current trend over the last few years seems to be for those roles to be handled by the software engineers.

Hope that helps!

Collapse
odyno profile image
Alessandro Staniscia • Edited on

Thanks! Very well written, all clear as and I fully agree with the figure in the tech lead towards the team.

I think it is written from the point of view of a team player, but what about the teach lead towards his supervisor? You definitely had to relate to him/her as well, what did you learn?

Probably another article is needed, here I see only one side of the coin (do not misunderstand, well written and I absolutely agree), but I think the other side is complicated and not clear to everyone, especially when tech leads are the frontier of Tech and after there is only management with the figure of the product owner equivalent to water in the desert

What do you think, do you agree with me?

Collapse
davidbug profile image
davidildefonso

Thank you for sharing great post 🙌

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thank you for reading!

Collapse
nadatanasovska profile image
Nadica Atanasovska

Very insightful article, thanks!

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thanks for reading!

Collapse
donnyroufs profile image
donny roufs

first post that I actually loved reading on dev.to

thanks ;)

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Awesome! Glad I could produce some worthwhile content. :)

Collapse
ganeshpatil386386 profile image
Ganesh Patil

Thanyou for sharing its really helpful for understanding the basic foudation and work of Tech Lead...!!

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

You're welcome! Thanks for reading.

Collapse
ng_speedster profile image
Yuriy

A good one, thx

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Glad you enjoyed it!

Collapse
bolt04 profile image
David Pereira

Very good article 👍, although I think some of the responsibilities you mentioned should be primarily for the scrum master and product owner ☺

Collapse
martinpersson profile image
Martin Persson

Very interested, thank you for sharing!

Collapse
thawkin3 profile image
Tyler Hawkins Author

Thank you for reading!

Collapse
hongtat profile image
Yew Hong Tat

Spot on. Except for I don’t code that often. Even since I became a tech lead, my role has switched from delivering features to architecture design.