Who is a team lead?

“We don’t have many opportunities to go in depth about what we actually do with people outside of our circle,” says Robert Musił, JavaScript Team Lead at STX Next. “Unless you have anything to do with the IT business, it’s difficult to explain what our role is using one short sentence.” Does it mean that what a team lead does is extremely complicated? Not necessarily. It is, however, very different from what a regular developer has to deal with on a daily basis.

Unlike developers who usually work on a specific aspect of the project at one time and communicate mainly with other developers, team leads are focused on collaborating with the whole team. They also spend far less time dealing with technical issues. A team lead, as the name of the position suggests, is a leader, representative, and manager of the team, whose responsibilities involve communicating with both the team members and the clients.

A team lead is the first person you go to when a problem occurs and the first person you expect to suggest a solution to it. Bug fixing, suggestions which library to use, or thoughts on how to approach a specific code-related problem—these are the team leads’ bread and butter, since their technical knowledge and experience are exactly what makes them… well, leaders.

Does a team lead know it all?

Can we say that team leads are simply the ultimate problem-solvers? They may be that, too, but they also give opinions on any new ideas you present to them. If you want to improve an application or a test, the team lead is the person to talk to about it.

“As team leads, we always try to explain why something works and something else doesn’t, and why it may be a good idea to do X instead of Y,” says Rafał Gatkowski, Python Team Lead at STX Next.

This doesn’t mean, however, that team leads are all-knowing. Asking more experienced developers to explain something to other team members is something they may do without fear of losing their authority. They should also be open to other people’s suggestions and welcome refreshing ideas.

In addition, team leads are the ones who think about a project as a whole, including the people who are working on it. They tell you what to pay attention to while making improvements, share best practices, take care of code infrastructure and project architecture.

As captains of their proverbial ships, team leads also know which assignment each member of the team—or crew, for that matter—is working on at any given moment. Needless to say, giving feedback is another responsibility of theirs.

Can you choose the perfect moment to become a team lead?

It seems obvious that knowledge, passion, and communication skills are all things that ultimately make a team lead. It almost never happens overnight—passing through various stages on the way and getting experience as a senior first may prove useful or even necessary to reach the level at which leaders may offer their guidance and expertise to the team.

So, is there any specific moment when you may realize the time is right for you to become a team lead? “A team lead is someone who emerges in a project rather spontaneously,” says Robert.

Paulina Gatkowska, Test Automation Lead at STX Next, adds, “Sometimes becoming a team lead is a natural consequence of the way you work. The team is beginning to notice your knowledge and engagement, and that’s how you start leading the others, showing the direction.”

What Rafał has to say about his recent experience confirms this: “While I was working on my previous project, I was an unofficial team lead for about a year. I was the one that everybody came to if they had any questions or when they needed to get a problem solved. Thanks to that, I could later become an official team lead.”

Is there anything that different team leads have in common?

While the paths toward becoming a team lead may vary, there is one key common denominator for those who have pursued careers as team leads, apart from their dedication and special interest in the field: “You must work your butt off,” Robert laughs. “I have done lots of things when working on various projects and it’s hard to say which of them actually pushed me toward the role of a team lead.”

What does hard work mean in this case? Getting knowledge and experience. “What makes a team lead different from a regular developer is being truly passionate about what they do. A team lead is not just a basement dweller who is only interested in their little piece of code; they are more focused on a bigger picture,” Robert explains.

He then adds, “After you prove yourself as a technically skilled team member, your passion and engagement come as an extra. Becoming a team lead is not just about changing your idea of what your responsibilities are; in fact, it’s mainly about changing your attitude.”

Does becoming a team lead mean changing your habits?

To a regular developer, transformation into a team lead may seem like getting thrown in at the deep end. It doesn’t mean, however, that there’s nothing they’re already skilled at that will be useful for a team lead.

For instance, let’s take attention to detail—something most developers are known for. Analyzing and improving your code relentlessly and endlessly may seem frustrating, especially to others, but the very meticulousness that tells you to do that is likely to come in handy in a team lead’s work.

If that’s an example of a developer’s habit that may help you once you become a team lead, which ones could do the opposite? “Being used to doing everything on your own,” says Rafał. “As a team lead, you must delegate tasks to others, even those that you wish you could do yourself. You need to let go of some of your power and control over things. It may be difficult at first, but after all, this is what teamwork is about.”

Can every developer become a team lead?

If true passion, hard work, and conscientiousness are the keys to becoming a successful team lead, it goes without saying that only the strongest survive—and those who enjoy working with other people.

“If you came to this business to stay away from other people, a team lead won’t be your dream job,” Paulina says. “Sometimes you do great as a coding specialist, but find it difficult to communicate with others. In that case, you should consider doing things that don’t require any contact with other people, and as a team lead you won’t escape that.”

Many developers begin their professional careers with a lot of technical skills up their sleeves, but still need a lot of practice in terms of teamwork and communication skills. And obviously, communication requires using language—thus, working on your English typically proves to be another goal on an aspiring team lead’s to-do list.

“Using English for coding purposes and communicating in English are two different things,” Rafał says. “As a team lead, you must talk to your clients and team members, and be able to solve conflicts. Of course, you develop your language skills as you go when you’re a team lead—meeting people and more and more opportunities to speak English give you confidence and fluency.”

“When I was a kid, playing video games with people from all over the world helped me develop my language skills greatly. That was a good thing to start with,” Robert adds. “Even if your basic English used to be enough for you back when you worked as a developer, it may no longer be sufficient in a team lead’s work.”

Does all of this mean that introverted and not particularly talkative developers should just give up even trying to become team leads? Robert offers an optimistic observation here: “I know people that I never would’ve suspected to be good team leaders at first. Now they’re leading teams who work very effectively.”

Your journey from being a developer to becoming a team lead can sometimes be long and winding—you never know what surprises it may hold in store.

What is absolutely essential to a team lead?

We already know that a team lead is someone who does a lot of talking, much more than any regular developer does. How about doing things, then? After all, a team lead holds their position for reasons that aren’t limited to communication skills.

Knowledge of various technologies, frameworks, and functionalities; experience in working with them; finding ways to change and improve things—all of these give team leads a good reason to talk, supervise projects, and advise their clients.

This pretty much explains why being a team lead may be viewed as an ambitious developer’s ultimate career goal. “It’s difficult to define the skills that a team lead must have, since different team leads deal with different matters. To me, however, a team lead’s skills always come along with seniority,” says Robert.

Obviously, this translates into more responsibility and work. “Sometimes I think it would be much easier for me to be a regular developer again. Being a team lead is certainly rewarding, but the amount of responsibility I must take is much bigger and I have more work than ever before,” Robert admits.

How important are soft skills in a team lead’s work?

Becoming a team lead is more about changing your work philosophy than changing your position per se. If working as a developer is about sticking to individual tasks and working almost independently, team leadership requires versatility, multitasking, and the ability to focus on the bigger picture.

A team lead’s job also makes you use your language and people skills more than ever before. Collaborating with your client and the members of your own team means you’re no longer a mere cog in the machine, but a central figure in the process. Being tech-savvy is great, but leading a team goes far beyond that, since it’s about both knowing things and communicating them.

Naturally, that means having much more on your plate, too! So, is it all worth it? “Absolutely!” says Rafał. “This job requires dedication, but I wouldn’t change it.” This seems to sum up a true team lead’s attitude best.

Final thoughts on the career path from software developer to team lead

With their bottomless willingness to work harder, learn more, and take on more responsibility, team leads may come across as almost mythological titans that not every developer would like to trade places with.

However, if you feel that constant development—both technical and interpersonal—is the only right course of action for you, then the path toward becoming a team lead is definitely one that you should at least consider.

Thank you for reading our article on becoming a team lead. We hope the collective expert knowledge of Robert, Paulina, and Rafał will help you make the optimal choices regarding your future in software development.

We have many other useful resources about advancing as a software developer on our blog. If you enjoyed this article, there’s a good chance you’ll also benefit from checking out these posts:

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