Senior Developer vs. Lead Developer: Which One Do You Need?

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Fred Monnier
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Fred Monnier
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Chief Staffing Operations Officer
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Senior Developer vs. Lead Developer: Which One Do You Need?

Table of Contents

Understanding the distinct roles of senior and lead developers helps you build optimal teams. Read more about the specifics of each role and the importance of selecting the right type of developer based on your team's needs and project requirements.
Published on
August 29, 2022
Updated on
February 22, 2024

Hiring the right person for significant roles in your development team can make all the difference to the success of your projects. That's why it's so important to understand how upper-level development roles differ. For example, many hiring teams confuse senior developer and lead developer positions, making finding the perfect fit for their business more challenging.

However, senior and lead developer roles occupy very different positions on a development team. Here's what you need to know about comparing senior developer vs. lead developer roles, which fits your team's needs, and how to decide which role you're hiring for.

Differences Between a Senior Developer vs. Lead Developer

Both senior developers and lead developers are highly experienced devs with a history of successful projects. However, there are some key differences in their roles.

  • Lead developers act as project managers, directing the other developers on a project and performing code quality checks.
  • Senior developers focus on writing code and mentoring less experienced devs instead of running the project as a whole.

Let's dive into the specifics of each role.

What Is a Senior Developer?

A senior developer is a professional programmer with significant experience in their chosen industry. Senior developers have a deep understanding of their chosen programming languages, excellent problem-solving skills, and industry knowledge that allows them to tackle substantial problems effectively.

Senior developers understand how to approach projects because they have previously handled other large projects. They know how to keep a project moving by focusing on important features instead of getting bogged down in the details. They know the best practices to accomplish the best possible results while meeting scheduling and budgetary requirements.

Most importantly, senior devs should be able to work with other developers. They know when to delegate tasks and where to look for answers if they don't know something off the top of their heads. That makes an excellent senior dev invaluable for mentoring junior and entry-level developers who may have technical skills but little real-world experience.

What Does a Senior Developer Do?

So, what does a senior developer do? It depends on the project and the team. However, a few typical responsibilities are fundamental to the role of senior developers on every development team.

Managing and Mentoring Junior Developers

Even with all the technical knowledge, a brand-new developer can only prepare so much for actual development projects. Without real-world experience, a new dev will likely struggle with details like problem-solving and following the development process schedule. They may also lack advanced skills related to specific tools involved in their projects.

That's where a senior developer can help. Senior software developers have a much higher level of experience than most devs. They can use that experience with good people skills to mentor junior developers on their team.

Mentoring can include teaching them new skills, explaining project requirements, and guiding them through solving problems. Having a senior leader on a project is an excellent way to ensure that less experienced software developers learn additional skills on the job and become more valuable to the company.

Writing and Adhering to Software Code Standards

Senior developers have the technical expertise to avoid making common mistakes. Their advanced skills mean they understand what's required for a project's code to run well. They can use this knowledge to write software code standards for the project as a whole, making it easier for the team to create a consistent, effective final product.

Your senior devs can also ensure that pre-existing software code standards are followed in a project. They can review code submitted by other programmers, double-check that it's consistent with the standards already set, and fix any errors that may pop up. If certain mistakes are repeated, a senior developer can mentor the team to help them avoid those issues in the future.

Providing Extensive Knowledge to the Team

Above anything else, senior developers act as a resource for the rest of their team, likely composed of less experienced developers. Since these developers have so much experience in the field, they should understand the ins and outs of various tools and solutions to common problems.

The rest of the team can ask the senior dev questions and learn new techniques and tricks. They can also work with the dev to implement complicated features or solve complex problems. In short, an excellent senior developer provides the rest of the team with access to critical knowledge to make projects run more smoothly.

What Should You Look For in a Senior Developer?

Senior devs need a strong balance of hard and soft skills to accomplish their responsibilities. The best candidates for senior devs should have verifiable soft, hard, and technical skills, which can be evaluated through a skills assessment

Technical Requirements

A senior developer doesn't necessarily need to be your team's best programmer. However, they must have strong programming skills and a deep understanding of software development. Technical skills to look for in a senior developer include:

  • In-depth knowledge of essential programming languages relevant to the project
  • Broad understanding of surrounding technologies
  • Experience in program testing, debugging, and troubleshooting
  • Understanding of software security
  • Familiarity with design patterns
  • Problem-solving skills and experience
  • Knowledge of resources, such as code databases, where they can find answers to unusual problems

This technical knowledge allows a senior developer to be a resource and guide for the rest of the team. A developer cannot successfully fill a senior dev role without adequate technical skills.

Interpersonal Skills

Of course, technical knowledge isn't the only requirement for excellent senior software developers. These devs also need strong interpersonal skills to mentor team members. They need to be able to do things like:

  • Providing constructive criticism to other devs without straining working relationships
  • Mentoring junior developers by sharing knowledge and resources
  • Encouraging and acknowledging other team members for their contributions
  • Collaborating with other team members to solve complicated problems and develop appropriate solutions

Good interpersonal skills often distinguish a senior developer from a junior developer who writes great code. Senior developers should demonstrate strong interpersonal skills and a history of leadership on other projects on their resumes.

Soft Skills

Beyond interpersonal skills, many other soft skills can make a senior developer stand out. The best senior dev soft skills to look for in a resume include:

  • Clear written and verbal communication skills to make mentoring and teaching other developers easier
  • Problem-solving and decision-making skills, including initially identifying a problem and understanding where to find solutions
  • Time management is fundamental to keeping projects on track instead of getting bogged down in irrelevant details
  • Self-motivation, or the ability to complete work without needing constant direction from someone else to get started
  • The ability to work well on a team, collaborating with others instead of attempting to do everything alone

These soft skills complement a potential senior developer's leadership and technical abilities, making them more likely to succeed in project environments.  

What Does a Lead Developer Do?

While there's some overlap, lead developers typically take on a much more comprehensive range of responsibilities than senior devs.

Leads are accountable for keeping the entire project on track, providing technical direction, and managing the team overall, not just writing code and mentoring junior devs. Here's what you should expect from your lead devs.

Serve as a Project Manager

The foremost responsibility of lead developers is to act as an informed project manager for the team. The project management responsibilities they must fulfill include:

  • Initiating new projects: Lead devs need to kickstart each project by outlining its purpose, goals, requirements, and stakeholders. The lead will work with other division heads to determine what kind of project is necessary and what resources are required.
  • Planning the project: After initiating a project, the lead developer will create an in-depth plan explaining how the project will be completed. This includes outlining the scope, cost, timelines, risks, and specific team members necessary.
  • Executing the plan: After finalizing the initial plan, the lead developer will collect their team and assign them roles. The lead will also revise the plan throughout the execution phase to account for unexpected problems and delays.
  • Monitoring and controlling the process: During project execution, the lead developer manages their team and ensures the project stays on track.
  • Completing and delivering the product: Once the project is nearly finished, the lead developer will review the project plan and the deliverables to ensure all goals are met. They will also work with the client to receive a final sign-off and deliver the end result.

Ensure Business Goals and Requirements Are Met

As the project manager, lead developers are responsible for understanding their organization's business operations and those of their department. Since the lead developer is also the primary point of contact for other company stakeholders, they have to have a firm grasp of the company's goals and the role their team plays within the company.

To help their team accomplish their goals, the lead developer must explain the targets they should meet. Lead devs will work with other stakeholders in the company to develop KPIs and assessment standards that accurately track project performance. They then work with their team to explain these KPIs and the tasks that must be completed to meet those standards.

Furthermore, lead developers are responsible for explaining their projects to other divisions. A thorough understanding of the company's goals and requirements allows the lead developer to describe their team's progress and needs to other stakeholders. As a result, they can ensure they get adequate resources and that their project is valued appropriately by other divisions.

Uphold Code Quality Through Code Reviews

Finally, lead developers are ultimately accountable for ensuring their project's code is up to standard. While senior developers may help write and enforce software code standards, the lead developer is responsible for code reviews. These reviews are critical to ensuring that all code operates correctly before projects go live.

Code reviews include reading through the code other team members have written to spot mistakes and running the code in a test environment to ensure it works. Both reviews are necessary to ensure the program meets quality standards and accomplishes its goals.

Learn More: No Code Development: Is It Worth It?

What Skills Do Great Team Leaders Possess?

Since lead devs are primarily leaders, leadership abilities are among the most essential qualities you can look for in your candidates. When searching for the perfect lead developer candidate, make sure you're looking for various skills that point to excellent communication, empathy and understanding, and technical prowess.

Communication Skills

Communication is vital for lead developers, even more so than for senior developers. A lead developer needs to explain the goals of a project to their team and communicate with the rest of the business. Lead developers should be able to clearly communicate with their reports, peers, and company stakeholders both in-person and digitally.

For example, a lead developer should be able to:

  • Write clear and specific emails in a professional tone
  • Explain projects to peers and stakeholders who aren't experts in the field
  • Coach their team to meet deadlines and KPIs while maintaining morale
  • Create strong presentations that can be used to sell the project

Leadership Skills

Lead developers need more than just strong interpersonal skills. They also need to demonstrate critical leadership skills such as:

  • Mentoring junior devs on best practices
  • Coordinating with senior devs or CTO to keep the project on track
  • Making decisions with team input
  • Solving problems to keep the project on time and under budget
  • Setting achievable goals for the team as a whole, as well as individual developers
  • Motivating the team to maintain morale and dedication

Technical Skills

Alongside their other responsibilities, lead developers often still need strong coding skills for their projects. In combination with their commitment to review the rest of the team's code, they need to have considerable technical skills, including:

  • Familiarity with industry best practices and software code standards
  • In-depth knowledge of project requirements and the intended software products
  • Expertise in the relevant coding languages
  • Creative problem-solving skills to resolve problems other team members cannot
  • The ability to quickly and accurately review and critique code
  • The ability to explain technical aspects of a project to non-technical personnel
  • Awareness of proper development principles and software development methodologies
  • The ability to debug and troubleshoot code that isn't operating as expected

Project Management Skills

Finally, great lead developers need to be able to manage their specific projects effectively. The most critical project management skills they need to possess are:

  • Experience in project development, including organizing the development cycle and managing all five stages of a project
  • The ability to navigate other business operations, such as communicating with clients and coordinating with marketing and sales teams
  • The ability to give technical direction and delegate tasks to team members or tech leads who can accomplish the necessary work
  • Flexibility to respond to changing circumstances and unexpected problems to keep the project running smoothly

How To Determine What Type of Developer You Need

Both senior developers and lead developers play an important role in your team. Candidates for both positions need significant technical experience and interpersonal skills because they need to mentor more junior devs on best practices and assist with writing code and establishing frameworks. However, you still need to clearly understand which type of developer you need for your team if you want to hire the perfect person.

To figure out which kind of developer you need, you can ask yourself a few questions to figure out the skills and responsibilities they need:

  • Does the developer need to coordinate with other divisions or just others within their team?
  • Is the focus of their role programming or leadership?
  • How active do you expect the developer to be in designing the project?

In general, if leadership is a primary role responsibility, you need a lead developer. Lead devs are responsible for helping design projects and coordinating with other departments.

Alternatively, if a role focuses more on programming, you can look for a senior developer. Senior developers or software engineers can provide mentorship and technical knowledge, but their primary responsibility is writing code and architecture. They typically don't interact heavily with other divisions within the company.

Hire the Right Tech Talent for Your Dev Team’s Needs

Whether you need a senior developer or a lead developer, you have a significant gap in your team. The sooner you fill that open position, the sooner your development team can return to working at their full potential. That's where Revelo can help.

Revelo makes it easy to find and hire remote developers for your business. With Revelo, you can sort senior developer vs. lead developer candidates by their expertise and experience, so you can immediately identify the application developers that will work in your company. Revelo also vets every developer on the platform, so you can trust that experts have verified your top candidate's skills. Start exploring qualified candidates for your open developer positions today.

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