Engineering Leadership Skill Set Overlaps
How Staff Engineer, Engineering Manager (EM), Product Manager (PM), Tech Lead Manager (TLM) and Technical Program Manager (TPM) positions overlap in Big Tech and at high-growth startups – and their di
Q: I’ve noticed quite a bit of similarity between staff engineering roles and engineering management. What is your take on the similarities and differences?
An interesting observation is how many leadership roles in Big Tech and at high-growth startups begin to utilize overlapping skill sets after a while. At these companies, everyone working in engineering or product is technical, meaning they have good understanding of programming and computer-related concepts, and most of them wrote code at some point in their careers.
This article covers:
Engineering leadership career paths. The most common engineering leadership roles and transitions between them.
Strategy & alignment, people, building: a mental model. A way to think about work engineers and managers do.
A deepdive into the roles: senior engineer, staff engineer, engineering manager, tech lead manager, technical program manager and product manager roles.
Strategy & alignment, people, building, other: visualizing these roles. How do the above roles typically spend their time across activities?
“Beware”: a combination of activities that tend to burn out people.
Similarities between engineering leadership roles. Areas worth investing in, even if you’re not yet in these roles.
1. Engineering leadership career paths
Which engineering leadership positions are we talking about? We’re covering those that typically come after the senior engineer role, and assume a leadership scope that is beyond that role.
These engineering leadership roles are ones that are often progressions from the senior engineer role – given the right opportunity, that is:
In this article we’ll narrow down engineering leadership roles into these five groups:
Tech Lead Manager
Technical Program Manager
2. Strategy & alignment, people, building: a mental model
A mental model I’ve started to use is to split day-to-day activities into three buckets, when working in Tech:
Strategy and alignment: clarifying the vision, mission and the strategy of the group. Working with teams and people to align them on the strategy and to avoid wasted efforts. Informing teams, managing dependent teams and collaborating at a team-level.
People management: ensuring the team stays healthy, helping people to grow and the team to execute.
Building software: everything that is directly to do with producing code which powers the products customers use. This goes from planning architecture and code structure, writing code, code reviews, deployments, monitoring of rollouts, and similar activities.
Admittedly, these buckets will not cover all activities engineering leaders potentially do every day. Still, I find this a good enough mental model for visualizing differences between several engineering leadership roles:
3. A deepdive into the roles
Let’s jump into more detail on the roles.