What's The Difference Between A Senior And Lead Developer?

James Hickey on February 01, 2019

For software developers, more often than not, job titles don't really mean that much. Take for example these: Software Developer Software Engin... [Read Full]
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Everywhere I've worked in 20+ years as a developer, 'Senior Developer' essentially boils down to 'older developer' 😃


Damn! I'm a Lead Developer and I didn't even realize. I guess I need a salary increase 🤔😂


A senior developer is a developer that hasn't evolved, and yes, we are like the Pokèmon(TM) while a "leader" is a developer that evolved.

We could not only program forever, sooner or later, but we should also learn to do administrative/management jobs.


This, to my mind, leans close to a dangerous fiction I see far too often. The theory that you can't develop forever, it's used to reduce the importance of engineers and justify reducing salaries and commoditize the position across the board.

Not everyone can be an engineer, likewise everyone can't be a manager. They're not the same skillset; engineers create process, managers direct the implementation of a process. That's why companies like amazon have pure engineering direction tracks like "Principal Engineer."


This is important. Management and development are two distinct skill sets.


This is just a reworked Peter principle. Taking skilled people away from their strongest skill set.
The idea that one cannot code in our old age is ridiculous. Imagine telling a doctor that he's too old to keep up with modern medicine


I think my main question would be this; how would a senior/lead developer in one technology transfer to another one and stay current? For example, if you are a React Native developer in terms of knowledge depth, and need to switch to either another tech or even from frontend to backend how would that work and what would it look like? I'd love to get your input on this, thank you for reading!


It's just the new tech that's the issue. Pick something concrete and start learning it.

Perhaps, even build a real project with that tech stack focusing on the "new stuff".

Once you are in the space of being a lead dev. soft skills, general principles matter the most. 😁


Thanks! The reason for asking it is less of prioritisation but more "how do we put that into our career". For example right now, I have solid experience with React Native. To do, for the sake of the argument, ML what would be the step? Even if I learn and do some projects, I am mostly curious as to how will getting a company say "Yes, come be the senior/lead of ML here".

It is a huge question mark since it will be needed for most of us and knowing how to transition allows us to be more flexible & secure.

Thanks for the kind reply by the way!

I think devs who can demonstrate that they are quick learners and thrive in an environment where they need to learn things and get-up-and-running fast are necessary.

If you can somehow showcase that on your resume, cover letters, or whatever then def. helps!


It is mesmerising how changing technology stack, industry and company culture have a tremendous impact on your seniority.

One year ago I moved from being a .NET architect in Brazil, with 11 years of experience, to being a senior React/Node.js developer in Germany, in a job that teams are expected to handle their own operations in AWS, Docker and Kubernetes.

Only now I can say that I reasonably understand the overall company architecture and processes. It is not easy to move from being the go-to guy to a person that barely understands what is going on and whose opinion is not super valuable.

Despite being a hard process, it is absolutely valid in terms of learnings.


Wow! Sounds like you have very well rounded and in-depth experience and knowledge after that!

I think your story proves the point that being competent in the tech stack you working with does matter.


In my (considerable) experience Sr Developer is usually a title associated with a pay grade, whereas as Lead Developer is usually associated with a position or assignment. Or in other words, this article is trying to compare apples and oranges.


I was made a Lead developer, and while it did bring more responsibility, it didn't bring an upgraded pay grade.


I've had the opposite experience :)


Interesting. I've held both lead developer and principal architect roles most of my 30+ year career, and while these were reflected in the org chart, neither was reflected in pay grade (or HR for that matter) in any way.

In my job market senior vs. lead devs are two specific roles I've seen both in organizations I've been with and also reflected in job postings too.

Given how variable our industry is, it's not really surprising that different people in different markets or living in different areas would have a different experience 😜

Ah yes, job postings are a different story - those definitely conflate role/position and pay-grade into one thing and that rarely reflects reality.


I think it's important to add additional items to senior engineer:

  • Self-starting. Will advance their work independently, once they understand the requirements. (Holds themselves accountable).
  • Helps identify and avoid issues with the requirements they are given. Won't build something that won't work just because someone tells them to.

One other addition I think is that a lead engineer doesn't have to be everything that a senior engineer is. I have less talented engineers managing more senior people who just want to do technical work. Obviously lead engineers can't be totally green but you box yourself in as a manager if the most talented people technically are the only ones who can manage a team of engineers.


Def. agree.

I agree that a lead developer doesn't necessarily need to be the best technically. But, usually, lead developers are expected to take on some pretty important fundamental architectural design up-front.

That implies a certain level of skill and experience.

It also helps if they are technically competent in order to build trust as a leader. No one wants to follow someone whose job is to direct the team in technical matters but himself isn't competent.

But that just qualifies your point a bit more.

Sometimes you have devs who are really skilled technically but wouldn't make good leaders. But I don't think the opposite would be true - specifically for a lead developer - since trust and respect need to be present. Part of that, again, is to be lead by someone who can actually make the right choices on technical matters and be a good mentor in technical matters.

Thanks for the extra points Steve!


In my experience, you're on point. Senior Developer, often so for as many as 20-25 years in my experience, is often very content to be the coding ninja in the group if you will, s/he will mentor others technically but prefers to not get involved between inter-departments and the "business liaison" and "architect" like role that the Lead Developer does.


In the end, the whole article is pointless if person to person, country to country and org to org the definition varies. And this is the case everywhere right now. I believe title should strongly reflect the salary and work you are being assigned. Most cases this doesn't happen, because interviewee and interviewer lie. It is all about supply and demand.

I have seen so many linked in profiles where people have long list of positions in just five years career, mostly show off. On the other hand, I have seen very few brilliant programmers simply say "I am just a passionate developer". No bullshit of senior, tech lead etc. These guys can build databases, UI, architect, communicate effectively with top brasses, have website, write articles and teach their juniors life long skills. I have one mentor few years back like this. I can't find another one.
In three years, he never said "I did it". I have witnessed that he built three huge systems for my company without anyone's much help. Still these systems are in use. His title was "Software developer". I doubt a team of lead architect, senior software developer, database administrator and project manager could have done it. They better fight for their titles and assigned duties.

In the US VP, Director, Senior Senior VP positions are sold like a candy bars.


I would have to disagree that the entire article is pointless 😋

I specifically said in the article:

It usually comes down to the actual job description itself and how the company views it's different tiers of developers.

Given how I started the article off with this comment, I think your first comment is addressing a straw-man.

I do agree that there is a lot of confusion due to job titles not reflecting actual roles - which was the reason why this was written.

I also agree that there are many super skilled programmers/developers that no body knows about. But that's not a reflection of the "evil-ness" of our industry, that's a reflection of the fact that doing good work alone will not get you noticed.

Again, it's false to assume that simply doing good work will get you noticed. Whether that's a good thing or bad thing is a different discussion 😉.

I've written some articles around these ideas here:

You said:

In three years, he never said "I did it".

That's the problem. If someone is doing good work then they need to own their own career and tell people how they brought value to the company. Expecting everyone to simply notice how good you are generally doesn't happen and is naive.

In fact, it actually shows that you aren't taking initiative, perhaps don't understand the true business value you bring to a company (being able to build a big system, in itself, doesn't tell a business what value a person can bring in terms of making more money, reducing costs, etc.) Those are all things that we have to be intentional about and take ownership of.

I was once bitter about this - not having my work noticed. Once I realized that nobody owes me anything, I started to simply work hard at being responsible for putting myself "out there", promoting my work, talking to my managers about how I brought value to the company, etc.

Thanks for your comments!


This comment is pretty interesting to me, can I ask for your opinion in this question? --> dev.to/delbetu/how-to-become-a-mor...


Gilfoyle?? You’re even from Canada!

I believe this is pretty good description of responsibilities. Leads tend to understand all aspects of the business. I see a lead as more of a general managing position—not as someone who is more technically competent in all cases.


This is a great article.

It's really important this distinction because there's a lot of developers that are really good (Senior Level) but are introverts and, that doesn't let them communicate well up the chain of command or clients.

This distinction places them in a really nice spot with the option of learning communication skills and move up.

However, I do believe that management and development are very different, so I don't see a lead developer replacing a PM anytime soon (Unless the person is an overachiever, but that is a special case)


Agree, a lead developer is still doing some technical stuff like code reviews, architectural design, pair programming, and even just building stuff from time-to-time 👍


My best ever lead developer was not a manager. He was broadly experienced in all the technical things (many that I did not possess in good depth). And whenever I flashed a question to Slack or bumped a noise over the transom, he jumped out of his chair to explore the question, seek an answer and pursue an example. Our team flourished. In contrast, I once worked with a "chief of software" who rarely made eye contact because he was staring at his three (!) monitors and was unable to disconnect from his devices and other coincident dialogs long enough to "get" the nature of the question. That didn't go so well. #peoplefirst would be my hashtag. It's not for everyone but it's right for software developers who would level-up.


I've had similar experiences - totally agree.


Hey James, the first link to your newsletter seems to be broken (the one at the end of the article does work).


Thanks dude - I'll fix it in a jiffy!


Haha. I read "traits and indicators" as "Traits and Interfaces."


An important highlight is that it's pretty easy to make that transition from "Senior Developer" to "Lead Developer" regardless of age. One's got to pay attention to the environment...


Thanks for your good article. We want to learn advance core technologies,high-level architectural design and patterns for being a senior developer.


You're welcome! Glad it was helpful.


All this while i have been a Lead Developer 😃


So! am I a senior now? I should get a promotion

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