Tech Lead Management roles are a trap.

December 18, 2020. Filed under management 127 career 20

The tech lead manager role is often presented as an easy on-ramp to team manager, but my experience is that being a tech lead manager is a considerably harder first management role than pure team management. Rather than an on-ramp, tech lead manager roles are usually a trap for first-time managers.

The theory of the tech lead manager is that you find a capable engineer who is defacto leading part of the team, and make them the official manager for that sub-team. Because they're already defacto doing the work, it can seem like a formal recognition of what's already happening. Because they'll be working with a small team, it'll be easy for them to keep contributing their technical strengths in addition to spending a bit of time on people management.

In practice, these roles usually work out a bit differently. Your team is usually too small to focus exclusively on managing people and execution. Typically you're the senior-most member of the team, which requires that you stay heavily in the technical details. You're also expected to make direct technical contributions, which mean you need to structure your time to have extended blocks of uninterrupted time. It's hard to balance these constraints, and it's even harder to balance them without falling prey to the most common failure mode of new managers: micromangement. (If you've ever gotten the advice that "managers shouldn't code," rest assured that advice isn't really about whether mangers should actually code, it's just a clunky preventative for micromanagement in new managers and an equally clunky preventative for senior managers who've forgotten how to listen to others.)

The reality is that when you're trying to learn something brand new, like team management in this case, you're almost always going to be better off getting to focus on that area. In a team management role, you'll be encouraged to lean on your team for technical leadership rather than fulfilling both roles. Folks attempting to fulfill both often retreat towards work they find familiar, which typically results in tech lead managers who forget to perform the management part.

Another problem with the split focus is that the tech lead manager role is a bit of a dead end. Down the managerial path, the evolutionary step is towards group management. Down the technical path, the evolutionary step is towards staff engineer. Splitting your time across both functions isn't ideal for pursuing either path, and unfortunately it's the rare role and organization that supports ongoing growth for folks in tech lead manager roles. They do exist, but they tend to be a bit specialized, for example working on infrastructure efficiency, performance engineering, or applied machine learning.

Tech lead manager roles are not always a bad choice. If you've built up your experience as both team manager and technical contributor, then sure give it a whirl if it's what checks the most career boxes for you, but I do consistently recommend against folks starting their management career in such a role.