Precise patterns of synaptic connections between neurons are encoded in their genetic programs. Here, we use single-cell RNA sequencing to profile neuronal transcriptomes at multiple stages in the developing Drosophila visual system. We devise an efficient strategy for profiling neurons at multiple time points in a single pool, thereby minimizing batch effects and maximizing the reliability of time-course data. A transcriptional atlas spanning multiple stages is generated, including more than 150 distinct neuronal populations; of these, 88 are followed through synaptogenesis. This analysis reveals a common (pan-neuronal) program unfolding in highly coordinated fashion in all neurons, including genes encoding proteins comprising the core synaptic machinery and membrane excitability. This program is overlaid by cell-type-specific programs with diverse cell recognition molecules expressed in different combinations and at different times. We propose that a pan-neuronal program endows neurons with the competence to form synapses and that cell-type-specific programs control synaptic specificity.