Junior vs Senior Developers, and Why They Both Matter

Any developer looking for a job is bound to come across postings for a “senior developer” or “junior/entry-level developer” — perhaps without really understanding the difference between the two. At the same time, many hiring managers seeking a developer may not understand the difference either, and may by default assume they always need a senior developer to help solve their problems. Today we’re going to address this question, and analyze why the best choice a company can make is to employ both junior and senior level developers alike.

The core difference between senior and junior developers is that senior developers are in general more skilled in their field than junior developers. You probably knew that, right? Right off the bat, however, I want to bust a couple big myths between junior and senior developers:

1) Being a senior developer doesn’t mean that you’ve had a longer career as a programmer than a junior developer, nor does it mean that a senior developer has to be older than a junior developer. It all comes down to skill, 100%. How do you get that skill? Well, career length is usually a big player in that, which is why many senior developers have been coding longer than junior developers — but it also comes down to passion and drive. A developer who spent 4 years getting by in Computer Science classes in college will have skills, but there’s a good chance that someone who has self-taught themselves programming over 2–3 years might be considerably more talented — just because they had more passion and dedication while learning during that time.

2) Being a senior developer doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in everything. No one is an expert at everything; however, it is true that a senior developer should be reasonably good at at least one language. That could be JavaScript, C#, Ruby, Java, R — it doesn’t matter, because under the hood most of these languages use similar concepts, and understanding those concepts is what’s important. But no, you certainly don’t have to be a jack-of-all-trades to be considered senior-level.

Let’s dig deeper: what does it really mean to be a senior vs junior developer?

Senior Developers

I would expect a senior developer to be able to completely develop an application entirely on their own. And in all honesty, that’s where I draw the line. I’m purposely being vague with my use of “application” there, because that can mean different things in different fields of programming. Notice how I never said that senior developers wouldn’t have questions. Every developer has hundreds of questions every single day, and that never changes no matter how skilled you get. What being a senior developer really comes down to is knowing how to ask the right questions, and then taking actions based on those questions. Here’s a sample thought process that a senior level developer might work through.

“Hmm, I’ve been tasked to build a web application in Python using Django, and I don’t know Django; I barely know Python! But I do know C#, which is an object-oriented language like Python, and I do know ASP.NET MVC, which follows similar patterns as Django, so I have a solid foundation to start with. I’ll read the docs on how to get started with Django, watch a few tutorials, and go from there.”

See — never in that thought process was there a sense of “I’m lost and don’t know where to go from here.” That’s what being a senior developer means. You won’t ever have all the answers, but you’ll know the questions to ask and how to learn more to be able to accomplish your tasks. Sometimes that does involve asking other developers for help, but that’s never the only option you have.

Let’s move onto how this compares with being a junior developer.

Junior Developers

As a junior developer, you’re new to the world of coding — but you do need a base foundation of skills. Someone who just decided that they want to start coding isn’t automatically a junior developer. You need to understand the fundamentals such as variables, loops, functions, conditionals, data types, etc. — and how to actually use them to accomplish tasks.

A junior developer should be given small to medium-sized programming tasks from their superiors with the expectation of accomplishing them, assuming that they are provided the necessary resources (i.e. documentation, coworkers, etc.). I would not expect a junior developer to completely solo a project, and I would expect them to work directly with a senior developer to a large extent so that they could work through code reviews and other collaborative learning experiences together.

Where junior developers really shine is the ability to take the frequent, uninteresting, and often annoying tasks off of the shoulders of senior developers, so that the senior developers can focus more on complex tasks, such as architecting new projects, building data persistence layers, translating programming progress to higher-ups, deploying applications, etc. To junior developers, the small tasks they’re given aren’t annoying at all; in fact, they’re very important in the growth of a junior developer. They allow the developer to latch onto something small that they feel comfortable “owning,” which helps them not only learn more skills, but also build confidence as a developer.

Junior developer salaries are also significantly lower than those of senior developers, so that means it costs less to the business to have these less technically-challenging tasks performed by junior developers instead of senior developers.

Summary

When you’re out in a workshop, you don’t need a power drill for everything; sometimes a simple screwdriver will work. Likewise with programming, senior developers and junior developers alike have their own strengths and weaknesses — and understanding when and how to use each is the key to forming a strong developer community within your organization.

Aaron Krauss is a Senior Software Engineer of Clevyr, Inc. Clevyr makes software using all the buzzwords like AI, Machine Learning, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality.

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