A lead developer will still get their hands dirty in the codebase, but needs to know how to hire, lead, and talk to management.
A lead developer's twin roles are laid out right there in the job title: they must simultaneously be a developer by staying intimately involved in the technical work of their department or business unit, and a leader, helping to guide their team to realize their potential and further the organization’s goals.
Every organization has somewhat different expectations for different job descriptions, and, depending on an organization's size, someone with a lead developer title could find themselves helping make big-picture strategy decisions, or somewhere near the bottom of the management ladder.
But if you're looking for a job where you can flex your programming muscles, while also moving into management, then a lead developer role can be a logical next step.
What do lead developers do?
A lead developer can be thought of as a bridge between an engineering team and management. They often are a senior member of the team, comfortable giving technical guidance and mentorship to other developers on the team.
Lead developers may write code themselves, but it's more likely that their time will be used in conducting code reviews of components being created by other developers. They also are in charge of ensuring and managing day-to-day progress as their team tackles their assigned tasks. For organizations using the agile development approach, the lead developer often serves as the scrum master, determining which tickets make the cut for each sprint.
In their outward-facing interactions with management, lead developers should have a strong understanding of the overall business priorities of their organization and help work out how their team will contribute, a dynamic that includes both pitching their team's capabilities and advocating for them to make sure they have the resources they need to succeed.
Depending on the size of the company, their team may be the organization's entire engineering staff, or may represent the developers for a single department, project, or product. In larger companies, lead developers from different teams may work together to help coordinate activities, achieve larger goals, and improve overarching engineering processes.
A lead developer can also act as a manager for their team, with all the administrative work that entails, from supervising developers, to assessing their job quality, putting them in line for raises or promotions, or recommending that an employee is put on an improvement plan, or even needs to be let go. They can also work with HR to identify capability gaps and help hire new developers into the team.
Very roughly, a lead developer can expect to spend about half their time on technical matters and half on management responsibilities, though obviously this can vary significantly from week to week, and from company to company.
By now you should have a good sense of what responsibilities a lead developer typically has. Here are some of the most common we see:
- Write high-quality code and lead code reviews.
- Lead the process of designing, building, and rolling out applications.
- Plan and document technical specifications for future application features or infrastructural systems.
- Direct the development team through the design, development, testing, and debugging processes.
- Work closely with management and other stakeholders to document and shape business requirements and translate those into technical requirements the development team can act on.
- Mentor team members to help them get up to speed on company software quality standards.
Lead developer vs senior developer vs technical lead
One way to understand what a lead developer role entails is to compare it against other jobs with similar titles.
For instance, a senior developer. Where a lead developer splits their time between management and coding, a senior developer typically spends almost all of their time writing code. In general, the senior developer is more often than not given to a developer as a recognition of their talents and the importance of the tasks entrusted to them, rather than their leadership skills. While senior developers may serve as resources and mentors for newer and less experienced colleagues, they don't often perform management tasks.
A technical lead is another title that sounds like it might overlap with a lead developer's role, but their roles are quite different. A technical lead often does not truly denote a distinct job, rather it is a developer who has taken on a set of responsibilities within a team in recognition of their specific skills or talents.
For instance, a team might have a security tech lead who takes charge of security-related coding tasks and advises other engineers on security issues. Think of them as a senior developer with a specialty – and like senior developers, they don't have the management responsibilities that a lead developer might shoulder.
Lead developer skills
To achieve all this, a lead developer needs a good mix of both technical and people-oriented skills at their disposal to excel.
This should go without saying, but a lead developer needs to know how to write code at a high level. The specific languages and frameworks you'll be expected to know will depend on the job and the organization where you're applying, but you'll be expected to be highly knowledgeable on what's important for your employer, and to keep those skills current while you're on the job. That also means following industry trends and keeping an eye on new languages, frameworks, and technologies that might be beneficial for your team to adopt going forward.
You should also be comfortable with the larger development ecosystem, including IDEs, tools like Git, and project management methodologies like agile and scrum. Here too, you'll not only need to know what's currently popular in the industry, but be able to identify what's new and potentially better for your team.
Remember, a lead developer will be spending around half their time on management tasks, which means they need the people skills to match their technical knowledge. In particular, a lead developer spends much of their time talking to management and other nontechnical company employees, which means they will need to be able to translate between the technical and nontechnical sides of the company. They should be able to clearly explain in plain language what their team can and can't do and why, and should be able to help turn abstract business requirements into technical milestones that their team can reach.
As a manager, a lead developer also needs to demonstrate leadership: encouraging their developers to operate at their top potential and work together as a true team. They'll also need to be able to advocate for what their team needs to do their job while also making sure their team delivers on what company management expects. Finally, they need an eye for new talent when it comes to hiring and career progression.
How to become a lead developer
If you're already an accomplished developer – perhaps even a senior developer or tech lead – and want to grow into a management position, a job as a lead developer could be your next logical step.
Perhaps the easiest way to develop those skills is to simply volunteer to help your current lead developer in their work. You could also dedicate time towards researching new methodologies, distilling application requirements from business requirements, serving on a search committee for new hires, and so on. If nothing else, you'll develop new skills, and you'll probably cultivate a patron in the form of your current lead dev, who can help if an opening appears at your company or elsewhere.
Lead developer resumè
Once you're ready to start shopping yourself around, you need to put together a resumè. You probably already have one that got you your current job, detailing your technical background and achievements, which hopefully you've been keeping up to date.
When looking for a role as a lead developer, though, you also need to highlight your management experience, or (more likely as this is an entry-level management job) your management potential. Did you contribute to specific projects at your company in ways that went beyond coding? Were you part of any cross-functional teams in your previous roles? How have you demonstrated leadership as a member of your current team? Those all deserve their own highlighted bullet points. You'll also want to lay out any educational background that might help your cause, including relevant certifications.
Lead developer salary expectations
Lead developers are generally well compensated, though as always you can expect a wide range of salaries depending on experience, industry, and geographic location. Pulling from some publicly available sources, here's what you can expect in terms of pay as of this writing:
- According to Glassdoor, in the United States, the average compensation for an lead developer is around $120,500, with around $96,100 of that being base salary and the rest additional pay in the form of bonuses, stock grants, and so on. That average is part of a typical range that can go from $95,000 on the lower end, to $154,000 at the high end.
- In the United Kingdom, compensation is lower, according to Glassdoor: the median pay is around £67,000 in a band that ranges from £53,000 to £185,000.
- That's not too far off from what you'd make in Germany: Glassdoor pegs the average there at €83,500, with an expected band ranging from €69,000 to €96,000.
- If you're looking for lead developer work down under, the average pay in Australia in this role is A$154,000, according to Glassdoor. That can dip as low as A$125,000 and go up to A$174,000.
- If you're interested in a lead developer job in India's burgeoning tech industry, Glassdoor says you can expect an average pay of around ₹2,400,000, but that's part of a wide typical range that can run from ₹2,000,000 to ₹3,000,000.
A lead developer job can be rewarding both monetarily and in job satisfaction. Good luck in making this move in your career.