Tech lead vs. CTO: who does what

Tech lead vs. CTO might be the wrong way to put it. Let’s learn who does what to avoid this mistake.

Fidel Chaves
8 min read

Tech lead vs. CTO

Management and leadership. Both the chief technology officer (CTO) and the tech lead are connected by these essential qualities in a development team. However, each role takes different combinations of the same skills and is also enhanced by the organizational culture. Choosing a leader for a work team is hardly a simple task, but in the case of these two positions specifically, on-the-job responsibilities are, more often than not, confused with leadership skills. Tech lead vs. CTO. Is there such a feud?

 

As it happened with automation and orchestration, it is not a matter of which is better: tech leads or CTOs. Both roles are essential for any company, which might implement them differently according to the size of the business. In many small startups, these roles might get mixed up. However, in larger companies with a growing structure and hierarchy, they have to be very clear.

What is a tech lead?

A tech lead definition proposed by Andrea Maietta is: “A software engineer, responsible for the team and for the quality of all technical deliverables: functional application, reporting, documentation.” A tech lead should be a technical reference for his team members and a beacon of trust and responsibility. The core responsibility is avoiding what is known as tech debt: low-quality code into early production that becomes a headache down the line.

 

As Eryn O’Neil says in her talk, Congrats! You're the tech lead - now what?, tech leading looks a little different everywhere you go. The tech lead is not a specific point in your company’s hierarchy but a role that implies a new set of responsibilities that an engineer or developer may take once they reach the senior level. Being a tech lead may include people management, looking after juniors, and organizing team members to maintain high standards.

 

These standards include:

 

  • Regular one-on-ones
  • Regular feedback on career growth, progression towards goals, areas for improvement, and praise as warranted
  • Working with reports to identify areas for learning and helping them grow in these areas via project work, external training, or additional mentoring

 

Even when not managing directly, tech leads are still expected to provide mentorship and guidance to the other members of the team. It is a kind of Jedi master with their younglings.

 

Tech leads are on the path of becoming technical project managers, and as such, they are scaling themselves by delegating work effectively without micromanaging. They focus on the whole team’s productivity and strive to increase the impact of the work product. They can make independent decisions for their team and learn how to handle challenging management and leadership situations.

 

Ultimately, tech leads are software developers responsible for leading a development team and guaranteeing the quality of their products. They manage and guide the work while they are still involved with the coding and programming. The most recent surveys show that they spend one-third of their time programming.

 

This position includes diverse responsibilities, such as working as a developer, architect, and, obviously, team lead, which can often be a challenge, as tech leads are often in charge of inspiring trust in their developers and remaining empathetic. As a pillar of the tech company, this position implies a wide range of functions and responsibilities.

Guiding the team

Tech leads measure and define the project scope and put it in perspective regarding time and resources. They become the technical directors of the software to be created and guarantee that every developer pulls in the same direction. These professionals can take a step back from minor tasks to deliver an encompassing view of each project and interact with other areas—design, operations, quality, and management.

Getting involved

Tech leads know inside out what profile each team member has: their strengths, weaknesses, priorities, and concerns. They devote a great deal of time listening to their input and helping them solve problems.

 

Also, they instill confidence in their team members to make decisions while being aware of —and accepting— the fact that teamwork, with its various personalities coming together, is not devoid of some degree of chaos.

Delegating

They do not take part in every decision made by the team, but only the most important ones. Tech leads assign and share responsibilities, but above all, they watch their tone: it is not about giving orders but asking for collaboration.

What is the role of a chief technology officer?

Almost every CTO has a slightly different job description, but they will generally be in charge of executive-level decisions about technology. This includes future technology requirements, strategy implementation, and resourcing, among other things. A CTO is responsible for “how technology affects and optimizes and benefits the business”, rather than developing software.

 

In many startups and SMEs, it is likely that the lead developer—who provides support and networking services—takes up the CTO position. They just don’t have the title as the organizational structure is too small.

 

A CTO in a larger company is in charge of designing mid and long-term strategies concerning technology as a whole. It implies making decisions about the staff, the software, the devices on the network, the network, the mobile technology, the services, and whatever is necessary to reach the business goals.

 

The role of a CTO requires combining management, technological, and interpersonal skills. You can watch a “Day in the Life of a CTO” to understand it from someone that actually works in said position.

 

CTOs communicate with all the company's major players: teams, other C-level executives, and the clients or customers. The CTO takes the lead to combine the goals of the business, the technology, and the sales department.

 

The role of the CTO, of course, also combines management and leadership, but it is the top executive technological position in an organization. They will be primarily in charge of setting up policies and procedures and developing strategies to generate revenue, guaranteeing business success. Because of this strategic planning, the CTO is necessarily not on top of the day-to-day programming.

 

CTOs functions are based on two core aspects. On the one hand, they need to promote the company's technological evolution, provide a strategic outlook and insight, and create the best environment for the company to be competitive. On the other hand, they bring business and technological strategies together—a responsibility that makes CTOs essential in any structure. Due to its high proficiency, the position requires someone with well-defined skills. Let's have a look:

High level of expertise

The position entails having enough training and experience with multiple technologies, foundations that will allow the CTO to accompany and steer change in the industry.

Versatility and creativity

CTOs are constantly faced with the challenge of adapting to change and evolution in technology. They need to permanently innovate to keep the company moving forward and up-to-date with the latest trends.

Business vision

Not only do they need to understand how the company works and comprehend its goals, but they also need to provide their perspective on the industry and be able to seize business opportunities.

From tech lead to CTO

Tech lead vs. CTO comparison table Tech lead vs. CTO comparison table

For the developers out there reading this article, I hope I’m not making a fool of myself. Please, send me a message if I got something wrong. Should you be interested in pursuing a career, whether to evolve from a developer to a tech lead or a tech lead to CTO, here are my recommendations.

 

If you are about to become a tech lead, you might want to develop some traits. Even though you are going to be the leader of the team, you will still be a developer at heart. Half of your day will be dedicated to coding and the other half to team management and conflict solving, as much of the daily decision-making will go through you. To be able to make a better choice, mastering software technologies is paramount.

 

Are you on the path to becoming a CTO? Well, you might have to unlearn some things that we discussed above. You’ll have to put your developer soul in the companion seat; it’s time to put your business brain to work. Also, you might experience a change in scale, as you will be managing several teams. Mastering an interconnected technological vision and being able to avoid conflicts will be the new skills to develop.


Moving from tech lead to CTO might feel like a change of air and advancing in the hierarchy, but remember, not everyone feels comfortable with a leading role. You know what they say: with great power comes great responsibility. If you strive to take a leadership position, I recommend The Phoenix Project, a book by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford about IT and the DevOps culture.

 

Being a tech lead can be similar to taking the role of a Roman Centurion; you are in charge of your legionaries (developers) and fight with them side by side. Conversely, a CTO position can be more like a commander, a Legatus. While many strive for high-ranking positions, keep Julius Cesar in mind. Even the greatest power can come with poignant pain.

 

At Awkbit, we pay special attention to understanding the scope of these roles, even with weird analogies. We know that both sometimes converge in a single person, especially in small companies and startups. However, if you can designate different people for each role, it will definitely pay off. Are you trying to set up your business's organizational structure? Do you need assistance to fast-track your project?

Reach Out!

Sources & further reading