A senior software engineer and tech lead have essentially the same background on technical aspects as both roles entail high levels of technical skills. These skills enable them to guide and support their respective development teams. When you have more experience & knowledge in the team, it’s only a matter of time before you’re chosen as the tech lead. However, it’s actually quite challenging to distinguish between the two roles. That said, these are four points we believe best highlight the differences.
Naturally both have key responsibilities that they are charged with executing, but here is where we can first see some separation between the roles. A senior SE is charged with teaching and providing best coding/working practices for the team to follow; as well, providing solutions. On the other hand, a tech lead is focused on eliminating obstacles, clearing the path ahead for the team and helping them finish the job.
There are three key points of responsibility for each role we’d like to highlight here: coding, leadership and problem-solving/troubleshooting for the senior SE; decision-making, project management and communication for the tech lead. Let’s take a look in detail at what those entail.
Coding vs Decision-Making
The senior SE needs to focus on coding to better understand job requirements and design dependable systems so advanced coding skills are a must. As the senior SE is a highly skilled coder, they can at times be an unofficial team leader as their coding skills become a resource for the team.
On the other hand, the tech lead focuses on decision-making. Often team members have differing ideas creating a technical conflict. When this happens, the tech lead must help bring the team to a mutually agreed decision that doesn’t result in finger pointing later when something goes awry.
Leadership vs Project Management
Here the senior SE naturally takes a leadership role as they are one of the more, if not most, experienced on the team. Hence some degree of leadership ability is inherently expected, making the skill one they need to have in their toolbox.
In contrast, the tech lead is concerned with project management rather than leadership for the team. This is not to say they don’t act & behave like a leader, but understandably they have differing priorities to manage and they know the senior SE will lead the team. The tech lead is responsible for this point making the skill vital; client expectations must be managed and met.
Problem-Solving vs Communication
Finally, all senior SEs need the skill of problem-solving or troubleshooting; it’s non-negotiable. They can fulfill their responsibility of testing/debugging code, and assisting team members with their own challenges they face. Being a leader means you can solve problems and show the team the way forward!
While the senior SE is solving problems, the tech lead will be handling communication; it’s well choreographed. As the tech lead needs to deal directly with clients, professional communication skills are necessary. As well, clearly and concisely communicating at all times.
Here we want to highlight the focus of each role and differences therein. The key point here is that a senior SE focuses on the ability to deliver (in the sense of development) quality products whereas a tech lead focuses on the ability to lead the team and deliver a product end-to-end (tech, people & project).
A senior SE is an expert at tech stack and able to implement the technology with a deep understanding of it. Sometimes their skill focus may specifically be on frontend web or mobile development, or backend development. Senior SE are more often team leaders who work within their teams to help complete projects according to standards. As technical experts, they can provide inward guidance and support, but their roles don’t typically include formal management or outward-facing business functions.
In contrast, tech leads must focus not only on the technical side of things, but also the people involved and project management. Therefore, their focus is stretched between three points naturally increasing the gravity of their responsibility. For the technical side they have a firm grasp of the technology being used, and are able to drive decision making on the system architecture that is suitable for the project while considering the pros and cons. Then of course, they need to understand their team capacity, understand all the team members’ personalities, and solve potential conflicts within the team bringing people together to be team players. Finally, the SE must take care the project meets the deadline and correct priorities meeting client expectations; while of course, keeping the team focused on the priority. All this while mitigating risk and working closely with all stakeholders to ensure all the risks, assumptions, issues and dependencies are resolved.
Now for experience. Of course, both individuals have an impressive range of experience for this is what got them into their respective roles to begin with. They both possess a high level of skill for coding, but of course the job is about more than coding as you know.
A senior SE has a T shaped skill set. They have experience in a modest number of projects, with years of know-how in select areas to create a well-honed T shaped skill set. In contrast, a tech lead has an M shaped skill set. They have experience in a large number of projects, with more years of expertise in multiple areas to create a masterful M shaped skill set. Their knowledge encompasses a wider range including experience in leading, presenting, facilitating, mentoring and so on. If this were an RPG, the tech lead would be the wise mage role!
Finally we come to time management. Everyone needs to manage their time properly when working; this cannot be overstated for the two roles herein. The question then is how they typically divide their time with the laundry list of responsibilities they’re given. Consider the points and information therein covered above; three repeated items you likely caught were technical, product and leadership.
Typically a senior SE will split their time management into 70% focus on technical aspects and 30% on product and leadership. This should come as no surprise to you as we mentioned above, a senior SE has a T shaped skill set which is heavily tech focused. So they focus on research, proposing solutions, coding, code review refactoring, pair coding and more.
Reversely, you will notice a tech lead opt for a 30/70 split for their time management. A tech lead will often have a senior SE on the team they’re leading so they can allow the senior SE to handle the bulk of the technical aspects while they focus on the bulk of the product and leadership aspects. The tech lead will spend much of their time meeting with clients discussing technical feasibility and RAID, explaining obstacles and challenges they will face; also simply motivating the team, recognizing team achievements, driving decision making, mentoring team members in technical excellence, understanding the product vision and values and so on.
As you can see, both roles are vital to the development process so naturally the individuals for them are selected carefully. As the roles are complimentary in some ways, they ideally make for a decent working partnership and example for the team. So don’t short your development by only allotting for one of these two vital roles; having both will greatly benefit your development process!
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