Technical Lead vs Project Manager – Which is Better?

There is a wide range of different job titles and positions that are used in the embedded systems and electronics industry, from software architect to product lead, team leader and engineering manager. What makes these terms even more confusing is that many businesses use them interchangeably, making it difficult to determine what each role requires and when it is needed in a company.

Knowing the difference between a technical lead vs a project manager can be tricky, especially as a technical lead is often called other names as well and can sometimes be confused by a team lead, which is a different position altogether. There are clear differences between the two roles however, with each having its own responsibilities and requirements.

What is a Technical Lead?

Technical Lead

A technical lead or technical project lead is the job title given to the individual who is responsible for guiding the technical development of a product and overseeing a team of technical developers and designers. It’s a role that senior software engineers or developers are often given as part of a larger project and involves liaising with the project manager and other individuals who may be in charge of similar teams.

As well as having the necessary technical skills and knowledge to plan and direct the development of a project, a technical lead also needs to have good interpersonal skills and a knack for leadership. They will be in charge of instructing all members of their team and solving any issues that arise within this group, as well as advising on the whole project’s development and reporting any issues or ideas to the project manager.

Often, a technical lead will be in charge of managing the technical development side of a project and may work alongside their team to write and contribute to code, create prototypes, fix bugs and run tests. They will also be responsible for maintaining a positive working atmosphere, ensuring that all team members are working efficiently and guiding more junior members in the team who might not have as much experience or technical know-how.

What Does a Technical Lead Do?

The specifications of a technical lead role will vary depending on the project and the company you work for, but there are many general tasks that most technical leads tend to be responsible for.

  • Identifying technical user requirements for the project and finding solutions
  • Sourcing technical staff and delivering training if necessary
  • Organising their team by delegating tasks and implementing a project timeline
  • Working with members of the team to complete technical tasks
  • Supervising work and solving technical issues
  • Mapping progress goals and ensuring they are met
  • Auditing and updating components and software

What is a Project Manager?

Project Manager

Whilst many technical leads have other job titles or requirements as well as their leadership responsibilities, a project manager or project team leader is solely responsible for managing projects within a company and does not have any other roles.

Project managers are in charge of seeing a project through from initial conception to completion and it is their responsibility to ensure that it is successful. The role involves planning, organising, delegating, monitoring and finalising all the different aspects of a project and overseeing the work of every team or individual involved. It may also require liaison with clients or senior management to confirm requirements and give regular progress updates.

In the electronics and embedded systems industry, a project manager doesn’t usually have the same level of technical knowledge or experience as the team members and technical leads working beneath them. Instead, their key skills lie in management, motivation, communication and organisation which are all needed to take charge of a large team and spearhead all kinds of projects.

What Does a Project Manager Do?

There are project managers in every industry, and different businesses will have different project specifications and steps that need to be followed to see a project through from start to finish. It is the responsibility of a project manager to identify what is necessary for a project based on their industry knowledge and experiences, but the following tasks give a general outline of what might be involved in the position.

  • Planning all stages of the project and identifying when, how and who is going to complete each of these
  • Deciding what methodology and model is going to be followed to develop the project (eg: what model of the software development life cycle will be used)
  • Risk assessing the whole project and individual stages and then managing these risks
  • Identifying and setting standards for the project and monitoring the work done to ensure these standards are met
  • Speaking to everyone involved in the project and ensuring that they are happy, motivated and know what is required of them
  • Bringing together the work completed by different teams and ensuring that this cohesion goes smoothly
  • Keeping the project on schedule and managing the time and resources that are spent on it
  • Solving any problems that arise and ensuring that any necessary changes are reported and resolved
  • Monitoring the project at all times to ensure that it will achieve its desired outcomes and that a product or system is completed that meets client or customer requirements

What’s the Difference?

In short, a technical lead is in charge of supporting and guiding a team of technical employees. A project manager is in charge of ensuring that a project is completed successfully.

When you’re a project manager, all the decisions that you make will be influenced by the need to grow the business you work for and deliver a successful product or service that maintains a positive reputation. As a technical lead, your main concern is delivering effective pieces of software or components and ensuring that the aspects of a project that you are responsible for are completed.

In the electronics and embedded systems and software industry, both a technical lead and a project manager will have studied some kind of engineering or technical design degree and likely had jobs in areas based on this qualification in the past. Whilst both individuals will have a good level of technical knowledge, a technical lead is much more experienced and knowledgeable in their chosen area, whereas a project manager is more likely to have a good overview of different systems, approaches and solutions.

Technical leads will also be required to be much more hands-on than a project manager as part of their role and will work alongside the team they are leading to develop a product or system. Project managers can offer advice or guide other employees, but practical work is not usually required of them during a project.

When it comes to useful or relevant skills, both a project manager and a technical lead need to have solid leadership skills and be comfortable with taking responsibility and managing others. However, a project manager does this on a much larger scale and is usually a more senior member of a company with years of experience, whereas a technical lead role might just be the first stepping stone on an engineer’s journey to project management.

Ultimately, the differentiation between the two comes down to the question ‘what is the difference between leading and managing a project?’. If you are leading in any capacity then you are in charge of guiding a team and getting involved in the work required, but the task you are doing has likely been decided by someone else and you will be required to liaise with a more senior professional before being allowed to make any changes. If you are managing a project, you decide what is going to be involved, who completes each task and what resources they use, how you are going to meet requirements and how you will solve any problems that arise.

Teamwork

When Do You Need a Technical Lead?

In the engineering, electronic and embedded software and systems industries, a technical lead is required for projects that are going to need software, code or components created.

For a small scale project, a single or a few specialised engineers might be all that you need, particularly if they are all comfortable with the tasks required of them. However, if you have a team with several junior members or are embarking on a large project that involves multiple departments, it can be beneficial to appoint technical project leads so that there are designated employees who can manage others and report to more senior members of a company.

A technical lead may also be required if your business has just taken on a cohort of new employees who have been assigned a project or part of a project as one of their first tasks. Appointing a technical lead who is more experienced and potentially is qualified to deliver training can be incredibly useful in these instances where guidance and monitoring are needed.

Where Can You Find Technical Leads?

In the majority of cases, a technical lead role is a temporary position that is given to an existing member of staff for the duration of a project. You can choose a technical lead for a new project based on the staff you already have at your company and the experience that each member has, deciding who will be best equipped to lead others.

Some employers may decide that a project needs specialist technical advice and guidance however, and bring in a new technical project lead from outside of the company either as a permanent member of staff or on a contract basis. You can find suitable candidates for this position either by advertising the role through your company’s HR department, contacting freelancers in the industry or using a specialist recruitment agency to find exactly what you are looking for.

When Do You Need a Project Manager?

A project manager is required for all kinds of projects within the engineering, electronic and embedded software and systems industry. Unlike a technical lead, this is usually a role that someone takes on as an entire job and has specific training or qualifications for, as opposed to temporarily taking on more responsibility.

No matter the scale of the task, a project manager is needed to organise what is needed to complete the development of a new service or product and ensure that every necessary step is carried out. Whether it’s an internal task or a project that is being completed for a client, having a project manager ensures that someone has taken charge of the whole process and has the authority to do what is required to ensure success.

Where Can You Find Project Managers?

In many cases, a project manager will be hired for a company as a permanent member of staff who takes charge every time a new project comes your way. If you are a large business that deals with multiple clients and projects at one time, you may employ multiple project managers to deal with all of this business.

Project managers are experienced individuals who have worked their way up the ranks in various companies and have the required experience and industry knowledge to take charge of multiple teams and departments. They can be found by advertising for the role, reaching out to experienced individuals in the industry, or using a recruitment agency that can handpick candidates from their talent pool.

Summary

Whether you’re deciding between hiring a technical lead or project manager, or have been offered a role and want to be sure what it involves, knowing the difference between these two job titles is very important in the engineering and systems development industry. Each plays an essential part in the product development cycle and the majority of companies will require both as part of their workforce, but the skills and talents needed for each do differ quite a bit and are better suited to quite different individuals.

If you’re an employer in the tech and embedded systems industry that is looking for specialist help with hiring technical leads or project managers, get in touch and find out more about what we can do.

Permanent Employment

Permanent employment is a more traditional method of hiring and is the route that most employers go down when they are looking to expand their business.

A permanent employment contract is more appealing to those who are looking for job security and want to develop their skills and career from within a company, and is the best way of keeping very talented employees working for you.

For our clients, this occurs in businesses where software development is a core part of their offering and they will have an ongoing need for talent in that area.

What is permanent employment?

Permanent employment involves hiring a full-time individual to be part of your business long-term. They will have a yearly salary, access to employee benefits, and be involved in the day-to-day working of your company.

When should you hire a permanent employee?

A permanent employee is often needed if you are expanding your business and need more members of staff to handle the work that you are doing each month. This may come about if a new role is created in your team, a previous permanent employee moves on from their position with you, or if you review your business’s workload and decide another full-time team member is needed.

Advantages

  • Hiring a very talented employee permanently means that you keep their skills and expertise in your team for a long time, which is very beneficial to business
  • Permanent employees allow you to build a stable, loyal and more efficient team
  • There is much more job security in a permanent position, which is very appealing to a lot of people
  • Permanent employees tend to be more invested in the growth of your company and your business values, so are more likely to go above and beyond when completing their tasks
  • A permanent employee has more potential for career development and growth from within your company, and can take the time to develop specific skills that are useful to your line of work
  • There is more loyalty to a business from permanent employees
  • If you suddenly need someone to respond quickly to a task or cover for another team member, you have permanent staff on hand who can help and who know exactly how everything is run already
  • Many employers prefer having an in-house team of workers, as this makes it easier to evenly divide workloads and keep on top of progress

Disadvantages

  • Permanent staff are an investment for a business; as well as paying salary, insurance and covering equipment costs, you will also need to provide training, support for career development, and regular performance updates
  • Permanent employment contracts are harder to terminate if a new member of staff isn’t working out for your business
  • The process of recruiting permanent employees can sometimes be expensive if you are doing all of the sourcing and screening yourself
  • You may end up with a team of staff with more general skills and miss out on hiring employees with specific talents and training
  • Highly qualified and talented individuals, particularly in the tech industry, now tend to be looking for fixed-term roles that allow them more freedom and choice
  • If you end up hiring a permanent employee who doesn’t fit your company, it can be a costly process to give them appropriate training and support, and often requires a lot of long-term work

Which is Best for Your Business?

Choosing whether you are going to hire a permanent employee for your company or just recruit a fixed-term contractor to help with work instead can be a difficult decision, especially if you’re just starting as a business. Everyone’s situation will be different, but there are several things to consider before choosing whether a contracted or permanent employee is best.

Duration

One of the key factors that will play into your hiring decision is how long another member of staff is required. If you have a big project coming up with a set timeframe then it might be a better decision to hire a contractor, as this will be a faster recruitment process and also allow you to outsource any specific skills that might be needed.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for another employee to help with tasks that regularly need completing or just to help lighten the workload of your other members of staff, a permanent employee is probably your best bet.

Objectives

Before deciding between contract vs permanent employment for your latest hire, also consider what you want this person to bring to your company. Do you have specific business objectives that you would like them to assist with, such as offering specialised services or just being able to take on more clients? Do they need to have certain qualifications and training, or are you just looking for someone who will fit in well with your current team?

Also consider whether you’re currently in a position to invest in the time and resources needed to onboard a new member of staff. If you’re just looking for help right now to tide you over, a contractor is probably your best solution.

Scalability

Some businesses have clients and workloads that change drastically on a month-by-month basis, and some have a steady, predictable stream of work. The nature of the services or products that you offer will affect the scalability of your business, and whether you’ll be better off with a permanent or temporary workforce.

Companies that deal with projects or clients on a one-off basis may benefit from having a more flexible team of contract staff who can be called in when their skills or advice is required, and who can take on projects in order to help out. If you find that you have a similar level of work each month then you’re more likely to benefit from a permanent group of employees who know the ins and outs of your business and can handle everything that comes your way as a team.

Development

Where you are in terms of growth and development will also massively affect the type of employees you are hiring. If you are willing, and in a financial position, to invest in training permanent employees then over time you will end up with a core group of very experienced professionals who are loyal to your company and able to handle a range of different tasks.

If you need specialist skills quickly and don’t currently have the resources to produce these in-house, then you’ll be better off outsourcing tasks and working with a range of fixed-term employees who can help you when needed and already know exactly what needs doing. This is less of a long term solution, but there are many instances where hiring a contractor yields faster and more efficient results.

Office Workers

Summary

Contract work vs permanent employment is a dilemma that more and more business owners are finding themselves stuck in, as hiring solutions change and remote or freelance work continues to grow in popularity.

For many projects in tech and embedded systems specifically, there are scenarios where either approach can work and we always do our utmost to understand the needs of the client so we can advise on the best solution.

Generally, most companies have a core group of permanent employees which is supplemented by contract workers during busy periods or important projects, but every industry and team is different. Both options have their benefits, and both can work brilliantly either alone or together.

Chris Oddy

Chris Oddy

About the Author

Chris is an award-winning recruitment consultant who has specialised in the electronics and embedded systems sector since 2008. Chris is passionate about technology and customer service.

 

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