Lead Applications Developer: The IT Ambassador
BackBy Deanna Hartley — January 2009
Picture, for a minute, a scene at the United Nations: You’ve got each different country represented by an ambassador, with each ambassador bringing the insight and perspective of his or her people to the table.
Now, translate this scenario to the workplace. If a company represents the world and the various departments within the company are the countries, a lead applications developer would be the IT department’s ambassador. The person in this job role typically represents projects from an engineering perspective and communicates the status and plans to outside teams, said Matthew Konda, senior architect at Trustwave, a provider of data security and payment card industry compliance management solutions.
“[Lead applications developers] need to be able to participate, in detail, in a cross-department process while effectively leading the technical development of the actual project,” Konda said.
In addition, a lead applications developer should be able to receive input from both his technical and nontechnical counterparts.
“They are, in many ways, a key hub of knowledge and communication, which can be instrumental in forging successful alliances across business divisions — from [quality assurance] to IT to marketing to product management,” Konda said. “The lead applications developer often needs to build subject matter expertise to effectively communicate with stakeholders and ensure that the requirements are being met.”
Some organizations delegate additional responsibilities to people in this job role. At Trustwave, for instance, the lead applications developer also takes on the role of key project planner.
“[Our] philosophy is that the project planning is intimately tied to the technical implementation,” Konda said. “Understanding risk and timeline tradeoffs is inherently tied to the technical details.”
Terry Shade, chief operations officer at TalentDrive, a company that provides talent sourcing solutions, said it’s particularly beneficial for a lead applications developer to exhibit strong project management skills. He or she will be able to keep the big business picture in mind and delegate specific tasks effectively, he said.
“The lead applications developer is really at the forefront of sketching out the specs for the application, understanding exactly what use cases are there and then drilling down into the details of what needs to be included in the code,” Shade said.
While the job responsibilities of a lead applications developer may vary depending on the organization, one competency requirement remains consistent: providing technical leadership.
“Technical leadership includes everything from making design decisions at a coding level to enforcing quality standards within the code base,” Konda said.
“A technical leader needs to stay up-to-date on different technologies and have background that includes exposure to a broad set of real-life implementations,” Konda explained. “Ultimately, the lead applications developer needs to be the authority on how to make sure an application does what it’s supposed to do in a cost-effective and maintainable way.”
There are a few standard academic routes to becoming a lead applications developer. According to Shade, the majority of people in this job role have a bachelor’s degree in an area such as computer science, mathematics or statistics. A degree in information systems also is quite common from a pure development standpoint.
Nevertheless, a handful of professionals in this role emerge from unexpected educational backgrounds. Konda pointed out how a number of music majors have gone on to become successful lead applications developers.
Ultimately, however, the academic background must be bolstered by hands-on experience building applications. Lead applications developers typically have about a decade of experience building software, Konda said.
“You typically see people grow into this position,” he explained. “[They] start working on a part of a project; then maybe they own a part of the project. And then they own more and more of the project, and then they become the person who represents the projects — but that’s over years.”
Furthermore, some type of consulting experience can prove to be helpful in certain cases.
“Consulting experience requires interaction with different teams and different people,” Konda said. “It also requires a person to understand non-engineering perspectives.”
Additionally, while Konda views certification as something that enhances a candidate’s resume and accelerates the career-development process, he said there is no certification or combination of certifications that would guarantee success as a lead applications developer.
However, he said Java technology certifications from Sun Microsystems typically demonstrate baseline technical knowledge, while Shade added that the best certifications to obtain depend on the person’s interests.
“As you get into the cloud computing and social networks and so forth, it’s really important to have a security certification,” Shade said. “The one I see mostly on the security side is the CISSP [Certified Information Systems Security Professional]. Also, since we’re on a .NET platform, many of the Microsoft certifications would be really helpful.”
However, although technical skills are a prerequisite, companies typically look to hire lead applications developers who have acquired nontechnical skills, as well.
“For this type of role where you’re leading and [must] have a strong development background, you do need both,” Shade said.
According to Konda, soft skills can play a more or less prominent role depending on the organization. At Trustwave, for instance, a combination of these technical and nontechnical skills is essential for success in this job role:
- Communication skills.
- Ability to think from a business perspective.
- Organization skills.
- Project-planning abilities.
- Proficiency in Excel.
- Broad technical or architecture and design background.
- Ability to write code.
- Knowledge of and ability to weigh costs and benefits of new technologies.
Challenging, Yet Rewarding
On any given project, lead applications developers inevitably will come across various technical hurdles. “They will need to roll with the punches and learn on the job,” Konda said.
Additionally, Konda said one challenge is the need to set aside personal interests to build something with the best business and market value. “That’s one of the challenges for me, because I come from a pure engineering background where I just want to [build] the thing that’s the coolest or fastest,” he said.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are a number of benefits to the job. First, the work is varied and constantly changing, providing new learning opportunities.
“If we’re integrating a reporting engine, I need to know [something] about reporting to be able to make a good decision about which reporting engine we choose to use. And that applies across a variety of technologies that we integrate with,” Konda said. “Everything from database technologies to security technologies — it’s my job to know how they work, what their drawbacks are, weigh the other options and help choose one.”
A second benefit to becoming a lead applications developer is there often is a great sense of accomplishment once a project is completed.
“You feel like if the buck stops, it’s going to stop at you if something breaks or if something doesn’t work right. [But] when all the pieces of the puzzle come together and the product works, you have a sort of pride of ownership in a sense that you’ve built something,” Konda said.
The Bottom Line
The future looks bright for those who are considering careers as lead applications developers.
“While it is difficult to predict market conditions, in most organizations that build software, lead application developers are key contributors,” Konda said. “Finding high-performing, reliable leaders for this role is key to [achieving] success in delivering applications.”
In the face of offshoring, Konda said a new derivative role for lead applications developers involves overseeing offshore projects to ensure the standard of excellence associated with the organization.
“Very competent companies can take this role and offshore it,” Konda said, “[but] I don’t see these roles going away. I think that there’s plenty of opportunity in the future.”
– Deanna Hartley, email@example.com