Why your early-stage startup doesn’t need a lead engineer

An exploration of the roles of managers and lead engineers

I’ve noticed a trend lately, partially from the recruiters that contact me, and partially from friends talking about experiences. So-called “lead” engineers are in high demand, but what does that title really mean? Yes, it’s another way to distinguish between different levels within a “flat” organization, and a way to recognize a particularly talented or important engineer. Just like with many other things, changing something’s name will change how people think about and interact with it.

Lead vs senior

In some companies, these words are used synonymously. When a job description is posted for a lead, it more often than not, is for a very very senior engineer. Someone recognized as a lead should have strong technical skills, but this person needs more than just technical knowledge.

If you start calling someone a lead, people will start treating that person as a leader. Hopefully this person wishes to be in a leadership position, and excels at more than just writing code. It’s common for early stage companies to be incredibly tiny. An independent-minded senior engineer will thrive in this environment, facing tough technical challenges as the primary development force. A lead engineer who thrives in a team environment would not be as effective.

The role of a manager

As much as engineers groan about managers, an effective manager creates more effective employees. Contrary to what most engineers will tell you, a manager’s job is not to schedule tons of meetings. A manager should facilitate communication between different areas of the company, and be the nexus for conflict resolution. A manager does not necessarily need to be technical, but needs to be able to empathize with the challenges engineers face.

Engineers incorrectly assume non-technical managers will be ineffective. The root of this problem is often that the engineers do not have higher-level technical guidance for tough problems, and a manager tries to serve this purpose. This missing piece can often be filled by a lead engineer.

Leaders maximize team efficiency, Managers maximize individual efficiency.

This doesn’t mean leaders shouldn’t care about the individual, or managers shouldn’t care about the team. This does mean that managers and leads perform different functions within the organization, and that difference needs to be recognized. In the constrained world of early stage companies, it’s unlikely that you’ll have both.

Since a lead is not anybody’s boss, there is less of a mental barrier to engaging with a lead than a manager. A lead can, and should, pass along organizational problems to a manager, but is not responsible to fixing them. And vice versa, a manager should pass along technical problems to a lead. A manager and a lead work together to create a more efficient workflow and happier workplace for everyone.

There is no such thing as a perfect hire

When you’re an early-stage company and building a product for the first time with a small team, each individual needs to perform spectacularly. Let me repeat that, in case you missed it. Each individual needs to perform spectacularly. Strong engineers need an advocate for being as productive in their individual tasks as they can be. This responsibility falls to the manager, not the lead.

Identifying whether your company needs a lead or manager is an important step when hiring. Any entrepreneur will tell you that the first few hires a company makes are a huge determining factor to the success of the product. Lead engineers create fantastic products, but restricting them to a purely code-driven role is likely a waste of talent. Recognizing the difference between these two functions, and their interdependence, will most certainly help your company grow sustainably.