Demystifying TLMs

A Tech Lead Manager, or a TLM, is a role split between a Tech Lead and an Engineering Manager. Most if not all TLMs come from previous TLs when:

  • Their manager got more scope or left and they had to step up.
  • They wanted to try management without switching to the engineering management track.

TLMs are highly regarded and well sought after, at least by some people and in certain parts of the industry. As a newly minted TLM of 6 months, however, I'm leaning toward the other side of the argument: taking a TLM role could harm your team and your own career growth.

The reason is simple. You need to do both the "TL" part and the "M" part of the role. And either of them should have been a full time job. When your manager offers you this position, it could be a fitting recognition of your contributions, or it could be an invitation for disaster.

In this post, I will talk about what's the delta from TL to TLM, and why you might or might not want to take the role.

The "M" part is larger than you think

Some managerial duties grow linear to the number of reports you have: 1-1s, goal setting, performance reviews, etc. This part is more predictable.

There are other duties that you might already be performing previously as a TL. Now that you are a manager, they become official:

  • OKR planning, project scoping, execution tracking.
  • Interaction with cross-functional partners.
  • Unblocking your reports by making introductions, escalating to another manager, etc.
  • ...

Finally, you would also own new duties that you have never thought of before:

  • You need to shift from caring about execution only to thinking more about strategies and visions.
  • You will set the team's identity and foster its culture.
  • You now need to constantly think about how to grow your reports and set them up for success.
  • ...

All of these eat up your time to do TL and IC work. Not to mention that many of them require a completely new set of skills to do well.

To make things worse, in some companies TLMs are still mostly evaluated as ICs. So let's say you did 60% of the TL/IC part and 60% of the M part. Then you overworked by 20% and will likely still be considered not as good as an IC who delivered 70% of their expectations.

Most TLMs I know, including myself, spend more time on TL/IC work and do some lightweight management. If this applies to you, talk to your pure EM colleagues and give them some hypothetical examples. You'd be amazed by how much more you could have done if you were spending 100% of the time on engineering management.

There are no right answers

You will be making many more decisions as a TLM, and not just technical ones. You will often need to act on incomplete data and in uncomfortable situations. To give a few examples:

  • Make hiring decisions
  • Assign work to reports
  • Prioritize work
  • Handle morale and performance issues
  • ...

It's easy to do a mediocre job:

  • Hire whoever looks the best on paper
  • Give the more important work to your favorite report
  • Never push back on requests from PMs and line up work blindly
  • Get rid of "low performers" at the first whiff of substandard work
  • ...

But you and your team will suffer if you don't get better over time.

The good news is you do get better over time. You feel more confident about having made the right decision. Meanwhile, you also start to realize that often there are no right decisions. The only kind of right decisions are the ones that you commit yourself to and see through.

This might be a blessing in disguise, as decision making is one of the most critical skills in your life. Take this opportunity to get better at it, but be mentally prepared to stare into the abyss.

Should I still do it then?

Despite all that, being a TLM still provides a number of benefits:

  • It's a relatively less costly opportunity to see if you would enjoy management.
  • You get to see "the other side" and gain valuable perspectives and organizational knowledge.
  • You tend to wear more hats and develop cross-functional skills faster.
  • ...

There are factors that would help with transitioning into a TLM role and being successful at it:

  • Having a small team with reports who are self-driven and whom you are familiar with.
  • Having strong organizational support, especially from your manager.
  • Having some other senior people on the team who can compensate for the fact that you won't be as available in certain periods of time (planning, performance reviews, etc).
  • ...

Sit down with your manager to carefully weigh all the considerations. Talk to you would-be reports when appropriate. Make sure you develop a backup plan if things go seriously wrong.

What's the endgame?

For most people, eventually you would want to take a side: either become a TL or an EM. While I'm still figuring this part out, my advice is to be more aware and collect data on if something or someone is suffering from you being a TLM. And work with your manager to develop a plan to progress your career with one of the two tracks.

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