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What Is a Lead Developer
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What Is a Lead Developer (+ Is It the Same As Senior Dev?)

8 minute read | November 28, 2023
Sakshi Gupta

Written by:
Sakshi Gupta & reviewed by Akita Emmanuel

Sakshi Gupta

Reviewed by:
Akita Emmanuel

Ready to launch your career?

Lead developers are the gatekeepers of code quality, project vision, and team harmony. It’s a distinct and rewarding career path, rich with opportunities. Yet, the landscape feels familiar beside the title of a senior developer, sharing responsibilities and diverging at times. You might be asking yourself then: where’s the fine line, and how do you spot the nuances that set them apart??

This guide unveils the puzzle, offering clarity on the unique roles of lead developers and senior developers. As you progress, a roadmap emerges, guiding your journey toward mastering the art of becoming a lead developer.

What Is a Lead Developer?

A lead developer is a key figure within a software development team, guiding the technical direction of projects, ensuring coding standards are met, and mentoring junior team members. While they do engage in hands-on coding, they also often make decisions about the architecture, tools, and technologies used in the development process. Their role extends beyond pure coding, including leadership duties such as planning, coordination, and communication with stakeholders. 

Lead Developer: Career Overview

As software development projects become more complex and teams grow in size, the role of lead developers becomes even more important. Let’s dive into the basics of what a career in lead development looks like.

What Does a Lead Developer Do?

A lead developer wears multiple hats, ensuring that the technical vision aligns with the project’s goals and that the development team operates at peak efficiency. While they’re deeply involved in the technical aspects, they also have a hand in managerial and coordination tasks. 

Some of the primary responsibilities include:

  • Technical decision-making: Deciding on the architecture, tools, and technologies best suited for the project.
  • Coding and review: While they still engage in coding, they often review and approve the code submitted by other team members.
  • Team mentorship: Offering guidance, sharing expertise, and helping junior developers grow in their roles.
  • Stakeholder communication: Acting as a bridge between the technical team and non-technical stakeholders.
  • Project management: Overseeing the project timeline to meet milestones and allocate resources efficiently.

What Does a Day in the Life of a Lead Developer Look Like?

More often than not, lead developers start their day by reviewing any updates or issues that have arisen overnight.

You’ll often participate in morning stand-up meetings where you can share progress and blockers. Much of your day could be spent in a mix of coding, reviewing code from other team members, and making technical decisions.

While certain tasks—such as stand-up meetings and code reviews—are daily routines, ad hoc responsibilities such as addressing unexpected technical challenges or coordinating with other departments might appear without warning.

Lead Developer Job Description

A lead developer job description includes the technical expertise and leadership abilities needed to steer a development team. Specific non-technical and technical requirements might include:

  • Technical proficiency: Expertise in specific programming languages or technologies relevant to the company’s projects.
  • Experience: A certain number of years in software development, with a portion in a leadership role.
  • Problem-solving skills: Tackling technical challenges head-on and finding practical solutions.
  • Communication skills: Clear and effective communication with both technical and non-technical stakeholders.
  • Project management: Familiarity with software development methodologies and project management tools.
  • Education: Oftentimes, this means completing a bachelor’s degree or bootcamp in computer science, software engineering, or a related field.

How To Become a Lead Developer: General Prerequisites

In this section, we’ll explore the foundational knowledge, education, and other prerequisites that pave the way for a lead developer role.

  1. Foundational Knowledge

  2. Education

  3. Skills

  4. Experience

  5. Other Prerequisites

Foundational Knowledge

Having some basics covered helps you handle the tasks at hand and adapt as technology changes. To get started as a lead developer, you need to have a firm grasp of the following:

  • Proficiency in programming languages: Understanding languages like C#, Java, or Python.
  • API development: Extensive knowledge of creating and maintaining APIs, guaranteeing smooth data transmission between applications.
  • Full-stack development: Familiarity with both front-end and back-end development to oversee projects holistically.
  • Database management: Skills in working with databases like SQL, MongoDB, or PostgreSQL to store and manage data.
  • Agile scrum framework: Experience in this iterative approach to project management and software development.

Education

A solid educational foundation can be a valuable stepping stone on the journey to becoming a lead developer.

University Degree

While many lead developers hold degrees in computer science, software engineering, or a related field, the tech industry is becoming increasingly open to those with non-traditional educational backgrounds. 

What’s most important is demonstrable coding skills and level of experience. 

A degree can provide a structured learning pathway and networking opportunities, but passion, continuous learning, and hands-on experience can also open doors. 

Consider Taking a Course

For those looking for industry-relevant training, web development or software development courses can definitely stand out on your resume. When considering a course or bootcamp, always check up-to-date curriculums, reviews from past participants, and opportunities for real-world projects or internships.

Skills

To excel as a lead developer, you’ll need both technical and soft skills.

Technical Skills

Mastering certain technical skills is non-negotiable for lead developers:

  • System architecture: Understanding how to design and implement complex systems.
  • Version control: Familiarity with tools like Git to manage code changes.
  • Continuous integration and deployment: Strong knowledge in automating the building, testing, and deployment of apps.
  • Security best practices: Ensuring software is free from vulnerabilities and threats.
  • Performance optimization: Skills in enhancing the speed and efficiency of software.
  • Cloud computing: Understanding platforms like AWS, Azure, or Google Cloud to deploy and scale apps.
  • Test-driven development: Creating reliable and powerful software.

Soft Skills

Beyond technical capabilities, certain soft skills are also needed:

  • Team leadership: Guiding and motivating a development team towards success.
  • Problem-solving: Tackling challenges with a creative and analytical approach.
  • Effective communication: Bridging the gap between technical and non-technical stakeholders.
  • Time management: Prioritizing tasks to meet project deadlines.
  • Adaptability: Embracing change and navigating the tech landscape.

Experience

Nothing can replace the value of hands-on experience. For those finding it challenging to land their first lead developer role, consider alternative routes like internships, freelancing, or volunteering for tech-based NGOs or open-source projects. 

Other Prerequisites

Becoming a top-notch lead developer requires more than the conventional prerequisites. Taking leadership courses or attending workshops can refine management abilities. Also, joining developer communities or forums can enhance your networking opportunities and keep you updated with the latest industry developments.

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Lead Developer vs. Senior Developer

The terms “lead developer” and “senior developer” are often used interchangeably in the tech industry, leading to some confusion. But are they really that different? Let’s take a look.

Is There a Difference Between a Lead Developer and a Senior Developer?

Yes, there’s a distinction between a lead developer and a senior developer. However, there’s often a blurred line between the two, mainly because companies may define or advertise these roles differently.

What Are the Main Differences Between a Lead Developer and a Senior Developer?

At their core, both lead and senior developers are recognized for their technical skills and experience. 

A lead developer often carries a few more years of experience than a senior developer and possesses a more pronounced leadership role. While senior developers are experts who can tackle complex coding tasks and mentor junior developers, lead developers often act as project managers. They are responsible for steering projects, making critical technical decisions, and leading teams. 

In essence, while their technical responsibilities might mirror each other, lead developers embody the dual role of a senior developer who also manages teams and projects.

How Much Can You Earn as a Lead Developer?

what is a lead developer, annual salary

The average salary of a lead developer in the US is $149,468 per year.

Becoming a Lead Developer: Real-Life Stories To Learn From

If you want to get a feel of the day-to-day life of a lead developer, look no further. Here are two real-life stories to learn from.

Vladimir Mladenovic

what is a lead developer, real life examples, Vladimir Mladenovic

Vladimir Mladenovic, the CTO of Eton Digital, has over a decade of experience and has successfully launched numerous projects. He shares a glimpse of his daily activities, challenges, and joys of his role. In this article, he emphasizes responsibility as a key trait for lead developers, stating that they should lead by example, empower communication, and help others perform at their best.

Chris Kyle

YouTube video player for AwuqJ1qORag

This is a 45-minute video that details Chris Kyle’s experience transitioning from a developer to a team lead and the challenges he faced. He learned to balance his time between management tasks and coding, suggesting that at least 40% of a leader’s time should be dedicated to coding. Chris also talks about the significance of agenda management, saying no when necessary, and the role of culture in a development team. 

What Is a Lead Developer? FAQs

We answer your most frequently asked questions.

How Long Does It Take To Become a Lead Developer?

The timeline to becoming a lead developer depends on your capabilities, the complexity of the projects you work on, and the opportunities available to you. Generally, after securing an entry-level position, you might spend several years gaining more technical expertise, working on projects, and developing leadership skills before transitioning into a lead developer role.

What Comes After Being a Lead Developer?

Many lead developers move on to roles like technical architect or principal developer, where they are responsible for shaping the technical strategies of larger projects or entire organizations. They can also become managers and work as engineering managers or directors of engineering, where the focus shifts towards budgeting and broader organizational strategy, with less emphasis on hands-on coding.

Do Lead Developers Write Code?

Yes, lead devs write code, but not always to the same extent as other developers on their team. While they are still deeply involved in the technical aspects and often engage in coding projects, a significant part of their time is spent on managerial tasks, mentoring junior team members, and communicating with other team leaders.

What Is the Difference Between a Lead Developer and a Manager?

While there’s some overlap in the responsibilities of a lead developer and a manager, especially in smaller organizations, there are clear distinctions. A lead developer is a hybrid role that combines hands-on coding and technical leadership, ensuring the team adheres to best practices and makes sound technical decisions. A manager, such as an engineering manager, leans more toward operational responsibilities like resource allocation, team building, budgeting, and aligning the technical team’s work with broader organizational goals.

Since you’re here…
Interested in a career in software engineering? Join our mentor-led Software Engineering Bootcamp or our foundational Software Engineering Course if you’re just starting out. We help people make the switch every day (just peep our reviews). You can do it, too!

About Sakshi Gupta

Sakshi is a Managing Editor at Springboard. She is a technology enthusiast who loves to read and write about emerging tech. She is a content marketer with experience in the Indian and US markets.