By Scio Team

Untangling how deeply our life changed during the Covid-19 pandemic will take a long time, and while we are still dealing with much of its aftermath, the process of planning the future doesn’t stop, even if we aren’t quite sure of what’s next for the industry.

You can’t just link years of experience to the number of different technologies you may know. Being a Senior or Lead developer includes soft skills.” 

Helena Matamoros, Human Capital Manager at Scio.

When it comes to the difference between junior and senior developers, drawing a clear line of separation is more difficult than you would think. On one hand, a developer with two or three years of experience could still be learning the ropes of different roles, while on the other, a developer with between 5 and 10 years of experience keeps learning new frameworks and technologies every day. So if years of experience alone aren’t the most reliable metric, what concrete characteristics differentiate between a junior and a senior? 

This is an important question because determining where you stand is the first step to knowing where to take your career and how to make it happen, even if you find that an answer is not as easy to find. Forbes magazine in this article, for example, begins by analyzing knowledge as a metric of seniority:

Career growth in software engineering (and many other areas) is determined by the depth of knowledge and the breadth of expertise. A project can scale both horizontally, and vertically – which requires a different set of skills and experience in practical applications following both patterns”, notes the article. 

However, defining what this “knowledge” means and entails goes beyond mere technical proficiency; how both kinds of developers handle a project, their approach and the outcomes they offer have as much weight as everything else: “In practice, a senior developer […] can assess the risks, ask the right follow-up questions, determine the right workflow, analyze the possible bottlenecks and deliver a stable solution. A junior developer can solve a limited set of problems with a smaller subset of alternative solutions.

Just like playing tennis

This concept of knowledge reminded me of an interesting essay about tennis that can help illustrate this idea more easily. Called “Loser’s Game”, and written by investment consultant Chares Ellis, this text evaluates the difference between professional and amateur players, sheding a light on the psychology of a person trying to master a skill. 

In short, a professional tennis player wins by earning more points than their opponent during a match (playing a “winner’s game”), which seems to be a sensible strategy for a competitive sport. However, it comes into focus when you learn that an amateur player has the exact opposite attitude: they try to win by losing fewer points than their opponents, playing a so-called “loser’s game”.

In other words, a professional tennis player tends to be more offensive, risking more for higher rewards. An amateur player is more defensive, setting on “safe” strategies that result in fewer risks and thus, lower rewards. And this mindset comes from both players having very different perspectives on the game: a professional plays long term, focused on the final result only, while an amateur focuses on each play, paying more attention to the short term gains.

Translating this to software development, we can say that a professional focuses more on outcomes, or the final result of the development process, while the amateur deals in outputs, or the result of each individual step of the project, and one of the key steps in the path of becoming a senior developer (or tennis player, for that matter) is recognizing and overcoming the difference between both approaches.

Senior developers realize that software is very complex. It’s not possible to identify all the requirements upfront, they will change, there will be more requirements found, and know the project is not likely to hit the deadlines, or the software will be wrong on the early iterations. This isn’t because of bad development, it’s because of the creative process of creating software. Junior developers take “wrong” software personally, even if creating the wrong software is the path to creating the right software”, explains the blog ITNEXT in their article about this topic.

This, more than anything else, is where a line can be drawn indicating the difference between Junior and Senior developers; beyond just knowledge (which informs every individual approach), the way both types of developers conceptualize development, as well as how they collaborate with the rest of the team, is the threshold.

This question is somewhat difficult to answer”, says Helena Matamoros, Scio’s Human Capital Manager, when presented with the question of how Scio defines the required seniority for different positions. “You can’t just link years of experience to the number of different technologies you may know. Being a Senior or Lead developer includes soft skills, such as leading teams, supervising the work of others, assigning tasks, reporting statuses, and visualizing obstacles in development, among other things. If you have been a developer for 10 years without these kinds of responsibilities, at least for Scio, you cannot be considered Senior.

A quick start-up guide to seniority

Following this logic, then, we can begin to define a junior and a senior by the level of autonomy they can have during the development cycle of a product. This autonomy can include everything from technical knowledge (that is, how much supervision a given individual needs to complete a task), to their capacities to see the full picture of development (especially what concerns decision-making and direction of the project), so we can go back to the framework that the “Loser’s Game” essay defines for tennis players, as well as the characteristics defined by Helena, to start painting a broad picture of both types of developers:

Junior Developer:

  • Requires a higher level of support from their teammates.
  • Avoids making decisions without consulting superiors.
  • Weights risks in terms of outputs.
  • Prone to fixate more on the features of the product rather than its value as a whole.
  • Consider their mistakes a failure to avoid at all costs.
  • Less than five years of experience in a professional setting.

Senior Developer:

  • Requires a lower level of support, and may bring it to their teammates.
  • Is capable of analyzing the project and making their own decisions about its direction.
  • Weights risks in terms of outcomes.
  • Tends to consider more the value of the product as a whole.
  • Considers mistakes as a normal part of the process, and learns from them.
  • More than five years of experience in professional settings.

The last points in both definitions are included because even if the experience doesn’t dictate seniority, the skills necessary to act with autonomy, technical expertise, and leadership need time to develop, so engineers, programmers, and developers with a few years in their resumes are more likely to have the practice necessary to master this level.

This, however, is not a definitive list of characteristics, but an assessment of the behaviors that result from experience developing software, and it doesn’t even go into depth about the skill sets and knowledge that come from years of collaboration to bring the perfect outcome.

What we are trying to convey is that technical know-how is just the starting point; in collaborative environments where a team works with a client to achieve a specific goal, honing soft skills, getting comfortable with mistakes, bringing every learned lesson to the next project, and knowing how to manage expectations, resources, time and outputs is what a Junior developer needs to take the next step in their careers. 

After all, growing as a developer is similar to growing as an adult; responsibilities get more important, you start paying attention to things you didn’t before, and before you know it, you are making your own way in the world. So what’s the next step you want to take?