Making the jump from developer to lead developer can bring you more fulfilment, more respect, and more money. But what does the role involve–and how do you get there?
What is a lead developer?
The lead developer is the conductor of a team of devs. As well as coding, the lead developer is responsible for the technical quality of the code written by the whole team. They guarantee the project’s technical success.
This means they’re also responsible for initialising a new project, choosing technologies to use, making technical decisions, helping other devs to build skills on the project, and most importantly, acting as a role model and inspiring them to do better.
“Lead developer” is just one term for the role. You might also hear it called:
● Technical referent
● Technical Project Manager, Technical Manager
● Technical leader, technical lead, tech lead
● Lead programmer, lead dev, lead tech
● Or just “lead”
What age to become a lead developer?
While lead developers are often senior, there’s actually no age requirement. A young dev who’s motivated and curious can become a lead developer as early as their mid-20s.
How much is a lead developer's salary?
Lead developers tend to be paid more because they have extra responsibilities and a more advanced technical background. According to Glassdoor, the average salary for a lead developer in the UK is about £58,000, 38% higher than an average developer’s salary of £42,000.
The different types of lead developer
While the best lead developers combine a bit of each, there are three definite types that tend to emerge. Note that the labels we’re giving them here won’t necessarily be the person’s actual job title.
1. Technical referent
Often a senior, the technical referent is a coding expert who meets general technical needs. They initiate the project, create the architecture, and write the technical design. Their expertise is often called on to solve technical problems, and they may well be a specialist in a particular language or technology.
2. Tech experimenter
The tech experimenter has a passion for innovation and is always looking for new technologies that can be used on other projects. They’re delighted to have the opportunity to learn a new language. Rather than specialising in one thing, they tend to accumulate a broad knowledge that allows them to pick the right technologies and tools for each project. They’re a lead developer who’s all about development, in every sense.
3. Technical Manager
This type of lead developer emphasises the other part of the job title–leadership. They improve the team’s technical skills, get involved in recruitment, and are great at matching people with projects. They often coach junior developers, give them technical leads, and point out design errors. They know the project’s functional needs inside out, encourage new ideas, and upgrade development processes.
How to become a lead developer?
1. Show you’re trustworthy
The lead developer is trusted with the success of the whole project. If a problem needs solving quickly and elegantly, developers will bring it to the lead, who can be relied on to deliver clean code with no technical or functional issues.
How do you show that you are trustworthy? Start by eliminating mistakes in your own code.
Check your code before each commit
Create clean, well-documented code
Stop making KO recipes
Respect the main principles like SOLID and DRY
Educate yourself on each technology you use (read the Readme, look up info about it online…)
Make sure your deliverables are qualitative, and you’ll create quality code with a 100% functional match. This will demonstrate how trustworthy you are.
2. Develop yourself technically
As a lead developer, you’ll need to be able to give advice on all kinds of problems, even if the technology in question is outside your expertise. Lead developers don’t know everything, but they do learn continuously. Keep trying out new languages and talking to your team about them. Adding to your repertoire of languages will boost your skills as a lead developer, not only by adding to your knowledge but by making you a master of the learning process itself.
3. Communicate with others
Coding is quite a solitary occupation, and when some devs get promoted to lead, they become withdrawn and inaccessible leaders. Avoid that mistake by building good communication habits before you get that promotion. Have an “open door” policy (even if the door is virtual) where your colleagues can come and talk to you whenever you’re at work. Ask questions about what others are working on and how they’re doing. You may find yourself giving some good advice. Over time, you’ll develop a reputation as someone to talk to about coding problems–and your boss is sure to notice.