Tech Lead vs. Team Lead: The Difference and Why It Matters

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When it comes to naming the various roles involved in software development, things can vary wildly between different organizations. One organization’s software architect is another’s lead developer. What Acme Corp calls a Senior Engineer might be a Programmer III at another organization. Today, we’re here to settle another nomenclature argument: the “tech lead vs. team lead” dilemma. Is there a real difference between these roles? Does it matter? That’s what we’ll answer today.

We’ll start by explaining why the confusion exists in the first place. After that, we’ll cover each of the terms, in turn, starting with tech lead. Before wrapping up by sharing some final thoughts, we present our verdict. Sound good? Then let’s get started.

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Tech Lead vs. Team Lead: Why the Confusion?

Why is this “tech lead vs. team lead” dilemma even a thing?

For starters, there’s no standardization of job titles across the industry. And rightly so. Job titles are written at the discretion of the company. As long as the organization doesn’t break any of its jurisdiction’s laws—say, by paying different salaries to people with the same job title—everything’s fair game.

Also, there’s close to no standardization when it comes to the software development process itself. While many companies (thankfully) use agile methodologies, many others are still stuck with the waterfall method. And even among organizations that have undergone an agile transformation, there’s no consensus on terminology since agile methodologies can also vary a lot between themselves regarding the many roles and their names.

When it comes to the specific case of tech lead and team lead, there are two important additional factors:

  • both terms look like each other (only two letters are different, after all); and
  • even if you think they shouldn’t be used interchangeably, they often are.

So, based on my own experience and conversations with other professionals, let’s now try to reach a verdict regarding this dilemma.

What Is a Technical Lead?

A technical lead, or tech lead, is someone with leadership responsibilities on a team focused on technical aspects of software development. Typically, a tech lead is promoted from the ranks of programmers. Many tech leads still write code, but not all of the time. They have to balance that with their other responsibilities.

What Are the Roles and Responsibilities of a Technical Lead?

The tech lead makes choices regarding programming languages, frameworks, and other tools. They’re also often responsible for coaching developers on technical matters, including reviewing code and design. Tech leads can even pair with more junior members of the team to help them get unstuck.

In some organizations, a tech lead is someone who’s on the path to becoming a software architect. Yet, in other organizations, both names might refer to a single role.

What Is a Team Lead Position?

Unlike a tech lead, the team lead doesn’t need a technical background. That’s because a team lead is more of a managerial role.

A team lead doesn’t write any code at all. Further, a team lead is typically not concerned with the nitty-gritty details of the team’s technical choices.

What Are the Roles and Responsibilities of a Team Lead?

Instead, the role they play has to do with steering the project in the right direction, defining roadmaps for the timely implementation of features, and interfacing with the product owners and the organization as a whole.

Depending on the organization, the team lead might accumulate management duties. They might be able to hire—and fire—team members. Programmers might go to them to have their PTO or vacations approved. Conducting performance reviews and awarding bonuses and even promotions might be included in their responsibilities.

In many organizations, a team lead is on the path to a more senior management role.

Tech Lead vs. Team Lead: The Verdict

So, what are the differences between these two, if any?

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Your Mileage May Vary

For starters, as we’ve mentioned, the way roles and job titles work across different organizations can vary wildly. So, your mileage may certainly vary here, and by a large margin.

Also, as we already mentioned, the terms are often used interchangeably. In many organizations, the tech lead and the team lead are, indeed, the same person. That might mean that a single professional accumulates technical and managerial leadership.

Tech Lead Makes Technical Decisions; Team Lead Manages People

So, for the verdict. Here it goes: tech lead and team lead should be two distinct roles. They have different responsibilities and require different skillsets.

While the former is concerned with technical matters, the latter role concerns managing people and making sure a project goes well. While it makes total sense—I’d say it’s even required—for a tech lead to have been a developer, the same can’t be said about a team lead. In fact, having strong technical skills might actually be a problem for team leads, which might be a surprise for devs turned team leads. The skills don’t translate, and being a great developer might turn you into a micromanager of a team lead that wants to fix technical problems by yourself, hindering your team’s growth.

Do We Need Tech and Team Leads?

Do all teams need a tech lead and a team lead? Well, it depends.

A company could make technical decisions in a top-down approach, deciding matters on an organizational level and handing decisions down to developers. Alternatively, technical matters could be decided democratically at the team level by the members themselves, though that certainly requires a maturity that most teams are far from achieving.

Making do with a team lead, though, is a horse of a different color. Some leadership is always needed. And though there are success stories of companies with a flat organizational structure or even with no management at all, most organizations aren’t ready to depart from traditional models of management. And such traditional models include having managers oversee team members, even if their job titles don’t spell out “team lead.”

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Tech Lead vs. Team Lead: It Doesn’t Have to Be a Dilemma

The software industry is known for many things. “Being able to reach universal consensus on matters” is not one of them. It doesn’t take more than a quick trip to Reddit or Hacker News to understand why. From the effectiveness of TDD to whether statically typed languages are better than dynamically typed ones, there’s no shortage of arguments going on. There’s even confusion when it comes to leadership roles in software development, as you’ve seen in this post.

The fact that there’s confusion between the “tech lead” and “team lead” terms is neither surprising nor worrying. After all, we belong to a young, fast-evolving field. If such a lack of standardization is the price we have to pay for the innovation and quick evolution we’ve grown accustomed to in the software industry, I say: so be it. However, that doesn’t mean the two roles should be used interchangeably. As you’ve seen, they’re two very different beasts. Each role claims distinct responsibilities and requires disparate skills.

Where should you go from here? Regardless of whether you’re on #TeamTechLead or #TeamTeamLead, it’s important to learn more about engineering topics. This blog is a great place for that, as is the Dev Interrupted Podcast, which we invite you to listen to. Thanks for reading, and until next time!

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