What Does a Lead Engineer Look Like?

Jeremy Wight

VP of Engineering at CareMessage



"I recently had another engineering manager ask me what I look for when qualifying someone as a lead engineer. While the leveling and expectations vary by company, I have compiled a list of key traits that I look for in a lead engineer. I am hoping that this will help trigger conversations between engineers and managers to help further the career growth of the engineer."

Actions taken

A lead engineer exemplifies the qualities of the senior engineers to a broader scale of impact and operates on that level successfully. I have put together a list of competencies that I view as effective at the lead level.

  • From a technical standpoint, I expect a lead engineer to have a good understanding of all the code bases and design patterns of all services rendered. They should be able to pinpoint areas of concern, know how they operate, and the architectural patterns. They should possess the skills necessary to construct a problem or a handful of services to accomplish the needs of the client. Essentially, they need to be able to take on the decision making roll with effective judgement and have a deep understanding of the services and how they function together as a whole.

  • For project management, I expect a lead engineer to effectively break down each project into workable chunks for 3 or more engineers. These work packages should be small enough so that estimates are effective and that is most suited for the assigned engineer, while making sure it is broken down effectively and that the overall project goal is understood by all.

  • I require a 70-80% accuracy rate on estimates (within 150% of the estimated sizing). They should understand what a properly defined ticket looks like and effectively push back when a ticket written by another team needs further clarity. All estimates should be consistently completed while meeting the defined criteria and done on time.

  • The lead engineer should strive for continuous improvement. They should raise ideas for improving the efficiency of their teams, looking at things holistically and identifying constraints. They need to have a good understanding of their product as well as their users and the market that it operates in.

  • Lead engineers need to be able to effectively lead others through meeting, planning and any processes which are needed to accomplish the goals set for the team. They need to be a mentor for all other engineers so that they know they can go to the lead with any questions and have them answered. The lead engineer has to effectively communicate with those both inside and outside of their direct team and give clear updates on all projects.

Lessons learned

"There are certainly other competencies to keep in mind, such as user empathy, interviewing, design focus, etc. However, when I think about the core competencies that they are expected to possess, the above are what I expect to be demonstrated consistently with engineers in the leading level. Those are the ones that I most often and consistently point out to help engineers at the lead level grow to be successful."

Source: What Does a Lead Engineer Look Like?

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Jeremy Wight

VP of Engineering at CareMessage

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