What’s the Difference Between a Senior Developer & Lead Developer?
As a development company grows and begins to take on larger projects and a bigger staff, different roles begin to emerge. Although many development teams use a similar set of criteria to define roles and determine when a developer is ready for a promotion, roles often vary depending on the size of the company, its structure, as well as its culture.
Oct 2020 - 4 minutes read
Development companies should be encouraged to have their own standards, and work with all of their team members to make sure they’re aware of the differences between positions. Not only does this keep communication organized, it also helps empower young staff members so they can set themselves up for better positions in the future.
Companies with organizational structures that are more opaque may find themselves continually hiring and losing junior staff because they can’t offer them a vision of what their future at the company will look like. Knowing what is expected at different levels is key to ensuring that there is a clear and organized trajectory for all positions.
To keep your company organized and avoid employee stagnation, it’s important to make sure all staff are aware of the expectations for various roles. Let’s talk about two of the most important development team roles, and how teams can succeed when they work together.
Similarities Between Senior Developers and Lead Developers
Many companies use the titles ‘Senior Developer’ and ‘Lead Developer’ interchangeably. Both positions are expected to have deep knowledge of the core technologies and programming languages they’re working within. They would both need to have experience building full solutions and would need to understand high-level architectural designs and patterns.
However, they serve two very different roles within a project. Today, we’ll explore the key traits of each role, and how they can complement each other to ensure a positive result.
Key Traits of a Senior Developer
Being a senior developer isn’t just about how much experience you have – although it is important. Let’s cover some of the key traits that make a great senior developer.
Many companies automatically promote their developers to the ‘senior’ title after 10 years in the field. However, in a meritocratic field like development, this attitude is pretty regressive. Senior developers should have the experience necessary to complete advanced development projects, no matter their age.
Whether you believe that the quality or quantity of their experience matters more, the result should be the same. Anyone with a senior developer title should be able to perform advanced development work, or should be able to learn it quickly.
Once a developer has reached this senior role, they should be actively engaged in mentoring colleagues in more junior positions. This is an important step in any developer’s journey. It doesn’t just give back to the company – it can also be helpful for the person in the mentorship role. Figuring out how to do something is easy for many people, but the real challenge comes when you have to explain it to someone else!
Big Picture Understanding
Once a developer is promoted to senior developer, they should have a deep understanding of not just their own tasks, but also the architecture and patterns of an advanced development project. They should be able to demonstrate an understanding of big picture architecture and be able to adapt to any modifications and adjustments requested by the client.
Key Traits of a Lead Developer
Senior developers are primarily responsible for organizing the project workload and overseeing technical requirements. Think of them as the leader of the internal team. However, the team still needs an outward-facing leader, who can liaise with other departments as well as the client team. That’s where the lead developer comes in.
Lead developers should have all the qualifications of a senior developer that we listed above, in some capacity. They may not be the most technically capable in the company, or even the team, because their strongest skills are focused elsewhere.
A lead developer is typically the person who is responsible for running the project team, which means that not only should they be skilled in management, they should also know the strengths of their team well. When they assign work, every team member should bear an equal load.
Lead developers should also be able to plan and communicate a sensible timeline for the different phases of their projects to all stakeholders, including clients. This type of management and leadership experience requires intentional effort to cultivate and eventually master.
Good Decision-Making Capabilities
Working on development projects never happens in a vacuum. Being a good decision-maker requires a strong knowledge of not just development and architecture, but also the needs of other departments like management and marketing. A great lead developer should be able to balance all these requirements when making decisions.
This requires a good understanding of development, as well as other correlated departments like design, marketing, and upper management. Their decisions should support the project, as well as the business requirements and company vision.
Understands Their Team
To manage a team and make decisions effectively, lead developers need to cultivate a good understanding of their team. This is often the key differentiator between senior developers and those who go on to make great lead developers.
Instead of being 100% focused on their own work, lead developers work hard throughout their career to understand every member of their team, including staff in other departments. This is the best way to ensure they can act as an effective liaison between the client or CEO and their own team.
Creating an Effective Team Requires Both Senior and Lead Developers
Both the lead developer and senior developer are key to a successful project. The more staff can understand the difference between these roles, the easier it will be for them to work effectively together.
Want to learn more about the development industry or careers in this field? We always have resources available.