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director vs manager in tech: 5 differences

5 min readpublished 28 March 2022updated 15 September 2022

If you are a software developer, you might have lofty goals of eventually becoming a manager or director. So you take that “go get ‘em” mentality and use it to grow your career. But first, you might want to know a bit about what it means to be a manager vs a director as you consider potential career paths.

What is a manager?

Managers direct the day-to-day operations of their teams, which generally consist of entry-level and mid-level employees performing the actions that keep the company running.

A software engineering manager, for example, runs a team ranging from junior to senior software engineers. Those software engineers rely on the expertise of the levels above, directed by the guidance of their management.

How are leads different from managers?

What is a director?

A director is the manager of managers. Project managers report to senior project managers, who in turn report to project management directors. To become a director, one must first have multiple years of management experience.

While managers handle the day-to-day operations, directors dictate what happens within those operations. Directors use budgeting, organizational data, and staffing information to determine how a company runs. They create strategies to ensure that a company can optimally meet its goals.

What are the differences in responsibilities and roles?

The main difference between directors and managers is the employees they manage. Directors are superior to managers, and managers are superior to junior- to senior-level employees.

It is easy to get tripped up by who does what, so we explain in more detail below.

Difference #1: Directors handle business strategy

One main difference between a project manager vs a project director is that the former is focused on daily operations, and the latter is focused on how those operations impact a business strategy. Directors create the business procedures that managers follow.

If a group of software engineers is working with code for a government project, for example, directors might implement temporary levels of heightened security. Managers will be guided by those security announcements and enforce the rules.

Difference #2: Managers focus on performance

The performance of the low- to mid-tier employees is the direct responsibility of the manager. Directors, who take ownership of all aspects of the business, ensure that managers can measure performance accurately.

In the case of program director vs program manager, the director creates the performance metrics that managers enforce. If performance wanes, the director will take steps to hold the manager accountable, encouraging the manager to hold underperforming employees responsible.

The manager must also act as the bridge between directors and employees. Since a manager works more closely with individual employees, a manager might sometimes accept a weaker performance based on their knowledge of an employee’s particular circumstances.

Difference #3: Senior managers are not directors

In some cases, there are multiple layers of hierarchy between directors and employees. These levels are considered senior managers. While some of the duties may be interchangeable, the senior manager vs director comparison still yields differences.

A senior manager might, for example, be tasked with business development. Given the typical ten years of experience needed for that position, this is an excellent use of their skills. The strategy used to develop that business, however, is dictated by the director.

Some incredibly talented senior staff members could be directors, but they aren’t. And some smaller businesses might have unique definitions for senior-level teams and directors.

Are you a boss or a leader? Find it out

Difference #4: Directors have higher accountability requirements

Directors aren’t the highest level of the employment hierarchy. Typically, directors report to several different groups, including department heads and executives. Managers usually only report to directors or senior management.

Comparing general manager vs director, those who “generally manage” tend to be responsible for handling several lower-level managers. These less-senior managers are considered mid-level management, but they only report to a single person.

It is also useful to compare associate director vs senior manager. An associate director is always a bridge between the upper-level director and a senior manager. However, a senior manager might have the pull to sidestep the associate director.

When it comes to creating your career development plan, looking at how your company is structured will help you formulate a realistic plan for your career trajectory.

Difference #5: Directors need to worry more about leadership scale

As a manager, you might have general leadership techniques that you need to apply to those who report to you. Directors, however, need to understand how to apply their leadership style to their management of upper-level personnel.

Creating systems (not code) is a big part of what it means to be a director. Those systems need to come from proven examples of what you’ve seen in the industry.

Directors must first have experience as managers. Management experience allows them to understand the impacts of their decisions. They are able to “walk a mile in the shoes” of managers because they have been in that position.

The best directors often start from the bottom (in a junior software developer role). Having done so, they understand the pressures from entry-level to senior management. This enables them to be better communicators, which is important when managing numerous stakeholders (as directors do).

Director vs manager salary — how are they paid?

As you might imagine, directors usually make more money than managers. After all, a director has more responsibilities. But every situation is a bit different.

According to the latest job data, the average salary of directors in the US is just above US$160,000. This includes base pay of US$143,000 with additional pay (bonuses) of US$16,000. There is a wide range, however, and some directors make far less than this, around US$44,000, while higher-level directors can make over US$650,000.

Managers, by comparison, have an average salary of just above US$80,000 in the US. The base pay of this job is closer to US$65,000. There is a range for this position as well, and some managers earn as little as US$25,000 per year, while others earn up to US$337,000. According to Glassdoor, however, you are not likely to be paid above US$168,000.

Of course, each company is slightly different, so your numbers might vary. Consider comparing this information to your current title and salary. Knowing the industry standards is useful, and it will make you more confident as you pursue the next steps in your career.

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