How to build your path to become a lead developer

Plan your career path to become a lead developer using our expert advice and valuable tips. Discover how to gain promotion to dev team leader

11 min readNov 20, 2020

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Sooner or later, developers who fear that their career is at a dead-end will want to make sure they have better opportunities. When setting goals for promotion to the next level, lead developer, it is useful to understand what skills and experience employers seek. If you are looking for career advices to become a lead developer, we invite you to read on and discover more. Are you the right candidate for your company to promote to that busy and possibly demanding position? What skills do you need? Below, we answer these key questions and offer useful pointers, along with some common pitfalls to avoid.

How do you set goals for career development?

Broadly speaking, coders, programmers, and developers who wish to advance within their careers have two options. For some people, the route to technical specialist offers the chance to formalize their accumulated work experience. This path is attractive to IT employees who want to stay close to the technological aspects of their role, and perhaps become a designated in-house authority or guru.

Alternatively, senior developers who have gained people skills in the workplace might prefer to continue growing this newer part of their role. They enjoy interacting with others, and sometimes already act as an appointed or de facto mentor.

To set personal goals to work towards getting a promotion to LD, it is essential to understand the ways in which the role is different from that of a senior developer. Instead of facing mainly inwards towards their development team, a lead developer’s job is more outward-looking. He or she bridges the gap with other departments such as functional acceptance testing, non-functional performance or stress testing, and management.

What does a lead developer do?

lead developer

Naturally, a lead developer possesses the skills and abilities of a senior developer: mentoring, design guidance, and contributing to the conceptual and initial stages of product development life cycles. But LDs often participate in planning timescales and agreeing on operational priorities, too.

LDs could well have to provide verbal and written feedback to sales and marketing teams or departments. They might also take part in dialogues with managers of other departments. Board-level directors will also engage with this lead member of staff to ensure that dev team members and technologies fit well with the company vision and business goals.

Given that the role of the lead developer is quite outward-facing, gaining promotion to this new level demands additional skills. It means that the candidate for the vacancy must consider the big picture, as it were, sometimes in fast-moving or challenging situations.

It also requires the ability to engage with one’s audience, be they team members, conference attendees, or senior managers, in terms that they understand and with which they can identify. In particular, lead developers should be able to explain technical business requirements to their team. Reciprocally, they sometimes need to translate oft-complex technical solutions into straightforward summaries that non-technical staff will absorb with ease.

What are the hard skills of a lead developer?

Typically, as a senior member of the development team, you will already have a full working knowledge of six or so tools of your trade, such as Agile, Scrum, Visual Studio, GitHub, and Slack. Also, lead developers need to fully understand the end product or service that the enterprise supplies. They should also appreciate the business need or problem that this product solves.

Accordingly, LDs require technical skills in the following areas:

  • Optimizing the development process by identifying opportunities to improve business processes and efficiency, thus saving time and money.
  • Contributing to information security by reducing exposure to threats through controls and audit trails.
  • Coaching and guiding others in the most appropriate or latest working methods and practices.
  • Setting team standards for the use of programming tools and techniques.
  • Programming and building software modules in compliance with established standards.
  • Maintaining technical responsibility for the development stages, modification, and testing iterations of a project.
  • Managing availability and capacity, including organizing service components to meet business needs and performance targets.
  • Providing professional advice to stakeholders.
  • Prototyping as a team activity, through a variety of suitable methods.
  • Coordinating product integration, and support of linked testing activities.
  • Identifying, locating, and resolving defects.
  • Designing systems to medium levels of business or technical complexity, using approved methods and tools. Validating system designs of others to ensure appropriate technology, efficient resource usage, and correct integration.

Job descriptions are broadly similar across Europe, but for UK-specific expectations, there is information about lead developers’ duties and responsibilities available on YouGov.

What are the soft skills of a lead developer?

Even at the senior developer stage, some software engineers find that their role naturally divides into the code and the people. At the leadership level, coding is only half the job — and sometimes even less.

Thus, lead developers and candidates for promotion to the role require:

  • Good communication skills
  • Familiarity with their clients’ or users’ field (engineering, telecommunications, logistics, HR, medical, etc.)
  • A good understanding of other disciplines such as product development, project management, and technical pre- or post-sales support.

So often in business, soft skills are crucial — especially when talking to clients, user researchers, and managers. A lead developer ought to be able to prioritize, recommend the best tools or methods, and differentiate between user needs and optional desires.

Being able to handle challenges positively and deal with stressful situations calmly and confidently will mean that you stand out from the crowd. Always useful in teams, such personal qualities carry particular weight when company bosses are musing over whom to promote. To put it another way, polishing one’s communication skills is likely to reap dividends.

If you have changed careers or worked your way through sporting or other qualifications outside the office, you might have relevant and transferable skills. If in doubt, a specialist career adviser could help you focus on your strengths and present them correctly.

Which goals should you set to become a lead developer?

Lead Developer's goals

As well as coding techniques and programming methodologies, now is the time to consider company business in terms of meeting customers’ requirements on time and within budget. Invariably, commercial awareness helps. A keen understanding of essential business skills, current projects, and how your team fits into the broader organization will ensure that you are a strong contender for LD.

We suggest you familiarize yourself with business finance knowledge and skills if you have not already done so. Of course, an understanding of the basics helps at even relatively junior levels within corporate hierarchies. Increasingly, however, a fuller appreciation of relevant topics such as business models, income streams, and profitability is increasingly important if one aspires to supervisory and managerial posts.

The higher you look up the career ladder, the more essential it is to understand that generating income brings about organic business growth. On a day-to-day basis, this is likely to involve ensuring that work meets budget limits and planned timescales.

If you work for a large employer with a well-defined training structure and path for career advancement, you might want to ask your boss what internal training course(s) he or she would recommend. Alternatively, smaller enterprises might allocate a training budget and work with local training providers.

How can I develop or improve my leadership skills?

Personal qualities are crucial. In a team of developers, each member needs to be able to count on timely support and assistance, as appropriate. Therefore, being able to advise and assist team members is a vital part of a lead developer’s remit. Good team leaders are approachable.

Bearing the above in mind, there is no time like the present to brush up on interpersonal, supervisory, and team working skills. Additionally, presenting yourself as someone willing to share information instead of keeping it to yourself will support the team effort. Except when the data is private, confidential, or commercially sensitive, team workers should ask themselves who else needs to know.

Conversely, hoarding knowledge is unlikely to be in anyone’s best interests — or, more to the point, those of the team. Instead, aim to foster active communication. When appropriate, sharing useful information with bosses, colleagues, and direct reports proves you have the right mindset. The oft-misguided or mistaken belief that knowledge is personal power seldom leads to success in the medium or long term.

Additionally, in the face of challenges, setbacks, and delays, or budgetary problems, it is vital to maintain your composure. Take a deep breath (or two), avoid impulsive or knee-jerk reactions, and handle stressful situations in a timely but calm way.

Is continuous learning and professional development truly necessary?

While most SDs are highly skilled in technical terms, it is best not to remain in the comfort zone. Instead, embrace lifelong learning — whether for new productivity and collaboration tools, the latest version of coding standards, or soft skills, including leadership principles or appraisal techniques.

Usually, it does not take long for senior analysts, software engineers, and developers who are motivated and committed to CPD and personal improvement to catch the attention of their manager(s). Common sense tells us why, although some 1990s research into human psychology neatly illustrates why this has to be so. Researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger documented a principle that became known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which people who have only limited knowledge or competence in a given situation tend to overestimate their ability.

Using objective criteria to compare peer performance, the two eminent psychologists noted that the phenomenon occurs because the capacity to acknowledge or admit deficiencies in one’s knowledge or competence requires a certain minimum level of that very same expertise. However, the subject has not attained the relevant threshold — or at least, not yet.

Furthermore, because many such subjects are unaware of the said deficiency, they generally assume that they are not deficient. While this positive human trait is not usually unreasonable in everyday situations, it is relevant and significant in spheres where accuracy and reliability are crucial. Think of the meticulous precision required in real-time fly-by-wire software control programs in passenger aircraft, for instance.

Lead Developer: Seniority VS Knowledge

Where should you start?

In today’s competitive environment, company bosses are always seeking staff members with determination and drive, along with a commitment to quality. First-rate people skills and an ability to get the job done also work in one’s favor. With these factors in mind, look for opportunities to shine, and accept responsibility whenever possible.

Although you are not yet at the stage where you have to take formal responsibility for the team, it is not too early to start. Using a few soft skills to good effect could show bosses that you are ready for that desired promotion.

Additionally, you could investigate training course availability, as outlined above. Topics vary from running team workshop sessions or preparing staff appraisals to coaching and how to be a good mentor. Alternatively, if lead developer roles in your company involve dealing with international clients and user groups, why not look for opportunities to brush up on a long-shelved and perhaps half-forgotten foreign language?

As ever, be consistent in your work and persistent where necessary. In the same way, continue to ensure that you deliver project tasks on time and that the quality of your work meets or exceeds expectations. Conversely, however, if problems do occur, it is advisable not to opt for the ostrich approach and hide your head in the sand, figuratively speaking. Instead, try to come up with a new solution to resolve the problem effectively, thus showing that you are a steady pair of hands and a person who can handle a crisis well.

Getting the job done accurately and delivering work on time means that soon, your boss and his or her boss should realize that there is no need to look elsewhere. Resourcefulness, finely-honed communication, and a willingness to be in the lead when the situation demands tend to oil the wheels of job applications and requests for promotion.

Should you ask for the job?

On a general note, if an opportunity presents itself during one-to-one reviews or other dialogues with your manager, take the opportunity to ask about promotion prospects. Similarly, if a specific vacancy comes up, even though it might seem obvious, express your interest in the position when bosses mention or advertise it. Let decision-makers know that you are looking to expand your career. While you need to avoid being conspicuous or blatant, it won’t harm to make managers gently aware of your career plans.

In many companies, both the recruiting manager and human resources consultant will want to be sure that your skills and experience justify your promotion to fill the position of lead developer. Aim to demonstrate, therefore, that apart from a reasonable and healthy level of ambition, you could make an early contribution to the new post.

By what age should you become a lead developer?

Given that you have progressed to senior developer level and have plenty of experience, you might have wondered whether it is ever too late to build your career. More specifically, is there an age limit for lead developers?

In the modern workplace, staff recruitment and selection for promotion tend to be more transparent and inclusive, respecting equal opportunities policy and complying with recent guidance. Fortunately, as a result of legislation (and to some extent, litigation), an increasingly anti-ageist approach means that often, being a decade or so older than the competitors should not reduce job candidates’ eligibility.

Truth be told, such candidates for internal promotion offer certain advantages for employers. On a personal level, applicants in their late thirties or forties tend to be stable and settled. Professionally, many have amassed technical and inter-personal skills and a breadth of experience.

While younger graduates might have a new degree or a technical qualification in the latest programming language syntax, a more mature team member with a few years’ experience under their belt will usually be familiar with the principles. Some skills are transferable, while it is also possible to adapt through mentoring, self-study, or training.

Whatever your age, earning promotion to team leader isn’t something that happens instantly — especially in the best organizations. Instead, getting the promotion you desire involves positioning yourself skilfully over time.

Above, we have covered how to boost the probability of your gaining promotion to lead developer. Finally, some tenets for success once you have made it include:

  • Aim to achieve autonomy, mastery, and purpose
  • Give opportunities to others; let them grow
  • Set visions and take people on journeys
  • Don’t stop learning; realize it’s OK not to know everything
  • Teach others and share what you know

Here at Codemotion, we wish you every success with your career! And we want to help you achieve it. You liked this read, simply subscribe to our newsletter to be notified when we publish new contents like this.

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