Earlier this year, we interviewed a few dozen tech leads and asked them this simple question:
“What does success look like as a tech lead?”
Across small and large companies, infrastructure and product teams, enterprise and customer-facing companies, people shared that being a good tech lead means some version of: good execution with a team that’s happy.
On every team and at every company, tech lead roles can vary substantially. Tech leads can be managers. They can be mid-level engineers dipping their toe in “people stuff.” They can be the most senior engineer who wants to be a tech lead indefinitely.
In our interviews, we found that because the role is so amorphous, people in tech lead roles really craved something to hold onto. “What else should I be doing?” “Am I even doing a good job?” “How can I figure out what I don't know?”
So in this post, we dig a bit deeper into this question:
What makes a good tech lead?
Below, we share with you shared attributes of good tech leads and some quotes from our interviews. As you read through this post, keep in mind that no one wakes up one day with all these skills — fully ready to be a tech lead. Especially as tech leads first transition into the role, it's expected that there's a learning curve. Regardless of how many years you've been a tech lead, there are always areas that are your bread-and-butter, as well as areas that you're still developing and growing into. We developed our two-day Foundations of Effective Tech Leadership experience precisely because we want to help tech leads build a solid foundation in this role.
A good tech lead excels in delivery and execution
What people are saying:
“Success for me in this role is if I can get the team to accomplish the goals that the company is looking for.”
This is typically what people think of as the main job of the tech lead — do what it takes for the team to deliver quality projects reliably. This is often the area that is closest to what a tech lead was doing as an engineer. And on small 1-2 person teams, the behaviors of an engineer versus those of a tech lead may be indistinguishable.
As the team size grows, excelling in delivery and execution doesn't just mean being able to do those things yourself, but being able to coordinate, communicate, plan, and delegate effectively.
Tech leads that excel in delivery and execution have teams that run like a well-oiled machine. They know exactly what they need to know to keep a finger on the pulse of projects, without being overly mired in the details.
- Without cross-team communication, best practices can get stuck in certain teams without cross-pollinating to other teams. Look to how other teams manage their team processes and see what you can learn from them. Take into account differences between team size and team function.
- If you're feeling overloaded and spread too thin, take a look at the things you're doing and ask yourself, “What am I uniquely capable of doing?” Ruthlessly delegate the things other people can also do.
A good tech lead builds a thriving team
What people are saying:
“Bringing together a group of people and understanding how to create the context in which these people can succeed.”
“How can I grow my skillset in service of helping people grow theirs?”
“I'm really proud of the work that we did together as a team. I'm super proud of the progress that they made. And I was really glad that I was able to support them and encourage them to that point.”
Are people on the team happy, productive, and engaged?
Building a thriving team might look like hiring, mentoring, coaching, running team meetings that feel cohesive, creating team process that is just right, and much more. This is where tech lead responsibilities sometimes overlaps a bit with an engineering manager's responsibilities. Sometimes, a tech lead is the manager (in a hybrid role commonly called TLM or Tech Lead Manager).
Tech leads can tend to shy away from this area, as it can feel unfamiliar, or they might not wanting to step on a manager's toes. Developing these skills when you are a tech lead, however, is quite ideal, as you have a bit more flexibility in what areas you want to work on. For example, if you mentor a junior engineer as a tech lead, it's often seen as a bonus activity, whereas it's expected for managers. One of the tech leads we interviewed described the role as “an opportunity to cultivate and explore management.”
Tech leads that build a thriving team feel personal fulfillment and joy in growing the team around them. The team's impact and capacity can keep up as the team and responsibilities grow. They also can trust those around them to step up and lead, and don't end up exhausting themselves under the increased load.
- What are you interested in doing more of (hiring, mentoring, running meetings, etc)? Coordinate with your manager to explicitly design how you can work together to help you grow into these skillsets.
- Schedule 1:1s with some engineers on the team to get feedback: What's going well? What could be going better? How can you best support them as a tech lead?
A good tech lead builds alignment
What people are saying:
“I really need this to be done, but do I have the pieces in place or the environment in place to do the things I need to do?”
“My biggest challenge has been learning how to feel empowered to drive clarity upward.”
“True success for a tech lead would be...being able to bring together a group of people to summit a technical challenge, and then socialize that solution.”
Building alignment is absolutely critical for engineers wanting to have more impact and influence in their work, and especially critical for tech leads. That's why the 1-day leadership course we first designed at Co Leadership focuses entirely on this skill.
Building alignment means not just being able to get a team of engineers headed in the same direction, but also finding alignment with cross-functional peers and also with the company at large. It means knowing what other people or teams care about and being able to share the impact of the team's work in language that the audience cares about, at the right level of granularity and detail.
Tech leads that build alignment find more ease in everything they do. They know how to discover what's important to people they work with, and then focus on those leverage points as they collaborate together. They spend upfront time investing in relationships and experience far less friction in tactical things.
- Find some 1:1 time with someone you work with, and ask them “What's important to you in working together?” You may be surprised at the responses.
- Check out our 1-day in-person leadership course Building Alignment: How to Create the Impact and Influence You Want as a Leader in Tech — we also run it as a 4-week online course.
A good tech lead balances priorities
What people are saying:
“You're constantly trading off short-term delivering things versus long-term tech debt or investing in platforms of things for the future.”
“If we only focus on today, we are going to bury ourselves in tech debt or in systems that aren't flexible enough to handle future use cases.”
A tech lead is like the technical counterpart to a product manager — they're a hub with many inputs. Engineers, engineering managers, product managers, designers, other engineering teams, executives, marketing, the list goes on! Success as a tech lead means finding ways to navigate seemingly competing priorities.
How do you chisel away at technical debt while also meeting the needs of a product team that wants to ship, ship, ship? How do you allocate work so that engineers are working on what they care about or want to learn, while also making sure output is high? How do you do all that while also keeping your own sanity and prioritizing your personal life alongside these work demands?
Tech leads that balance priorities create clarity for their teams, which allows team members to make smart decisions that are aligned with the team and company goals.
- When faced with seemingly competing priorities (tech debt vs. feature work), first ask yourself, “Is there a way forward that achieves both?” Oftentimes we overlook an Option C because we assume it doesn't exist.
- Define and communicate the top 3 priorities that can help guide decisions for you and your team. For example, in a product push, it might be, 1) Hit product launch dates, 2) Improve existing features, 3) Work on tech debt. In a period that is more focused on investing in engineering longevity, it might be, 1) Tackle high-leverage tech debt projects, 2) Invest in longer-term infrastructure, 3) Maintain existing features.
A good tech lead is clear about what they want
What people are saying:
“This is a natural path up towards larger engineering management role.”
“The only way that I'm going to grow in leadership is to continue to make impact. The thing for me that has changed about that though is that now I have to learn different ways to make impact.”
In addition to more tactical skills, a successful tech lead also needs to be clear with themselves — what do they want to get out of their role, and are they getting what they need? In a role that interfaces with many engineers and other people within a company, it's important that they feel like their work is toward some purpose. For a tech lead with aspirations to one day start their own company, that may be gaining visibility of different parts of the business and learning all they can. For a tech lead who sees themselves as a tech lead for quite a long time, that may be honing into specific skills or areas of expertise.
Tech leads that motivate themselves bring that motivation to the team as well. They understand that a motivated individual working towards specific goals is far more productive and efficient and can help align others on their team as well.
- What do you want to be different about your work in 3 years? What would be intolerable if it were still true? From there, think about what you want to get out of your time in your current role.
- Share your aspirations and what you'd like to get out of your current role with your manager or coworkers. When people around you know what you want, it's more likely that you'll be top of mind when opportunities arise.
Next Steps for Current and Aspiring Tech Leads
- For each of the above categories, give yourself a rating from 1-5. Where comes easily to you? What feels harder?
- Who do you know that excels in each of these categories? Have a conversation with them about what they did to strengthen those areas.
- Look at your immediate team. Between yourself and others, do you feel like there is good coverage between these areas? If not, start a conversation to figure out how to fill in those gaps. Perhaps there's a more senior tech lead you can consult with to streamline execution, or an engineering manager you can work alongside to bolster team culture.
- Have a conversation with your manager. Which of these areas do they think are your strengths and which are areas to work on a bit more? Come up with a plan together for the areas you want to work on. How can your manager best support you?
If you want to dive deeper into setting yourself up for success as a tech lead, check out our Foundations of Effective Tech Leadership course. It’s a 2-day immersive experience for new and experienced tech leads where we use live demos, hands-on practice, case studies, deep-dive discussions to give you the core foundations to set you up for success.