~jpetazzo/Juniors, seniors, and mentors

What’s the difference between a junior and a senior software engineer? Is it the responsibility of a company to provide learning resources (e.g. time or mentoring) to its engineers? What makes a good mentor anyway?

All these questions are particularly important in the context of software engineering, a discipline where the tools and frameworks and languages evolve very quickly. At a first glance, it seems like we need to keep learning if we want to be good at what we do. How can we make that work?

Note: this post is about software engineering roles and practices. It is likely that many of the points still hold in other fields—i.e. engineering in general, or non-engineers in software companies; but reader’s discretion is then advised.

Juniors and seniors

For a while (at least the first decade in my career in software), I never really thought too hard about what it meant to be a “junior” or “senior” engineer. It was probably something that came with experience, I thought. After some time in the industry (how long?) I would be able to tack “senior” next to my title, and that would be about it.

And then, someone challenged this thought process. It was in 2014, at the SCALE 12x conference. Lars Lehtonen said approximately this:

The primary skill of senior engineers is to train junior engineers. If you’re senior with no junior around, you’re not senior.

If you want the full context of that quote, you can check the recording of that talk at the LISA conference (the quote about junior engineers is a bit after the 19” mark).

There are multiple ideas packed in there.

First, in every project, there will be some work that will be exciting and a great learning experience if it’s one of the first times we do it, but less interesting if we have done this 10 times in previous jobs or projects already.

It’s great to have someone “junior” to do that kind of work; with the help and supervisior of someone “senior”. It will free up some time for the “senior” engineer, while helping the “junior” one to ramp up their skills.

Under that lens, the term “junior” just means “someone who has done less, and/or has less experience with, a specific task or tasks in a specific domain”, by contrast with “senior”. In other words, junior/senior is domain-dependent and team-dependent: we can be senior in one field (e.g. databases, containers), junior in another (e.g. frontend, machine learning). We can be senior relative to one team, and junior relative to another.

Juniors and janitors

Of course, the actual situation is not always as rosy as I described above. Sometimes, junior engineers are tasked with the boring and repetitive grunt work. Less exciting, for sure, but in the right environment, that can still be a great opportunity to learn and grow, for instance by trying to automate that work.

This is part of a larger conversation about the different kinds of tasks that need to be done when building and then scaling and operating an application. My favorite talk on this topic is Rock Stars, Builders, and Janitors by Alice Goldfuss.

Juniors and saviors

In this context, it means that we shouldn’t assign exclusively janitorial tasks to our junior team members. But it also means that conversely, if our team is overworked and short-handed, and our senior engineers don’t have the time to do all the complex, value-adding stuff that we’d like them to do, one easy and cost-effective solution is to hire some junior engineers. After a short ramp-up period, they will be able to take over the less complex tasks, freeing up time for the rest of the team.

After a while, junior engineers are not junior anymore, and we now have a better, stronger team. After I wrote about my experience with depression and burnout, many people reached out to share their stories; and I heard more than a few terrifying ones where an entire team was wiped out by burnout, one after the other, because after each departure, the workload and the overall situation got worse for the remaining people, and management failed to course-correct in a timely manner. The more you wait, the more expensive it gets to fix a situation like this one—not even mentioning the appalling damage caused by burnout. Hire junior engineers and train them before your best people start leaving in droves.

Learning resources

Training people requires adequate resources. How do we do that?

Everyone learns differently, and every organization has different budgets and people anyway.

Let’s start with the obvious: we should give time for people to learn and grow during office hours. We shouldn’t expect our employees to spend their evenings and week-ends learning new things. Otherwise, we are penalizing people who cannot invest that time, for instance because they are parents or generally speaking caretakers.

To quote Jen Simmons:

If you are spending a lot of your time learning while you code — while someone is paying you — then you are doing it right. You don’t need to learn it all ahead of time and show up to work already knowing. …

Learning on the job is the job. You’ll accumulate wisdom as you go. You’ll learn to recognize & prevent complex problems earlier & earlier in the process. But you’ll never reach a place where you don’t have to look things up, don’t haveto keep learning (on someone else’s dime).

To progress in our careers, we need to keep learning and pick up new skills. If we cannot do that, we are stuck.

I should clarify, here, that there is nothing wrong with using your free time to gain new skills and work on side projects. It is very likely that this will accelerate your career, of course. Therefore, somebody with more free time and fewer responsibilities is likely to progress faster than a single parent taking care of two young kids and an elder while having to endure a long commute. Such is life. But our responsibility is to make sure that we give enough time for everyone to keep progressing, so that we don’t build an environment that is downright hostile or toxic for less privileged folks.

Always be learning

Some people might be thinking, “but we want to hire engineers that are productive from day 1; we select them because they have the set of skills that are required for the job, so that they can be operational faster!”

Oh dear, I have a few things to break down to you.

In most big organizations (or, really, any place that has been around long enough to have a non-trivial stack), it will take weeks and even months to properly on-board an engineer. Yes, we keep touting how containers help us reduce friction, and how good infrastructure and platform tools enable us to push code with confidence very early after joining a team; but even with all that, every engineer at Facebook goes throuh a six-week bootcamp. I’ve heard a few times that it could take 3 to 6 months for engineers at Google to reach acceptable levels of productivity. (Keep in mind that there are, of course, outliers; these are just averages.)

In the big picture, it doesn’t matter if a new hire has to spend a few days or a week getting familiar with the specific framework that you’re using, or the API of your Cloud provider.

“But we are a startup; we can’t afford to wait months for people to be adding value!”

If you’re a startup, your employees need even more to keep learning, because your technology stack and your processes are even more likely to evolve than in a bigger company. On the other hand, if you are at an early stage, your existing stack is hopefully less complex, and they can get started faster—but they will still learn a lot during the first weeks and months.

I’m going to give you a personal example. When I joined dotCloud, the infrastructure was 99% AWS EC2. I had zero experience with it (I had perhaps fired up an instance with the console before; but I had never used the CLI or API and I wasn’t familiar with the specifics of AWS). I also had zero experience with ZeroMQ and MessagePack, which were powering the RPC layer used all over the place by dotCloud. That didn’t prevent Solomon Hykes and Sebastien Pahl from hiring me. If memory serves me well, one of the first things that I had to do was to add SSL termination to some services, in a reproducible, automated way. I spent some time messing around with ELBs, only to discover that there was a limit to the number of certificates that we could load back then, and that it wouldn’t work for us. Then I switched to small EC2 instances running NGINX instead. There is a good chance that somebody familiar with AWS wouldn’t have been faster, or not by much. Furthermore, while working on this, I also contributed useful features to the RPC layer (again, if memory serves me well, by improving introspection features and auto-documentation, making it easier for me but also others engineers to discover the services that we were running and how to use them without having to pull up their source code each time). On that topic, requiring a candidate to know beforehand about ZeroMQ and MessagePack would probably have reduced the potential talent pool to unacceptable numbers anyway.

Louder for the folks in the back: you shouldn’t hire people for their current skills, but for their ability to pick up the new skills that they will need to do their job tomorrow, next month, next quarter, next year. Very few software engineers knew about containers in 2013 when Docker launched. Millions of developers learned how to use Docker and containers since then; and most of them learned on the job, for the greater satisfaction of their employers.

Mentors

There is another resource that is crucial to the development of good engineers: mentoring.

What’s that, exactly?

The first thing that comes to mind is usually a long-term, ongoing, one-to-one relationship between a more senior and a more junior person (see, we’re back to the junior/senior theme). I want to use a broader definition, so that it encompasses any kind of situation where someone takes some time to help someone else by providing them with information of any kind that they need to better do their job.

Here are a few examples of situations that many people would probably not consider as “mentoring”, but that I would like to put under that broader definition.

How much mentoring should we provide? As much as necessary.

Is there such a thing as “too much mentoring”? No.

If we find ourselves thinking, “we are spending too much time training new people”, or similarly, “our senior engineers can’t get anything done because the new hires are taking too much of their time”, then we should re-read that paragraph. The better we help new hires to ramp up their skills, the faster they will be able to accomplish complex tasks and free up time of our senior engineers.

From what I’ve seen in various organizations, when people complain that “this employee is taking too long to be operational”, they are shifting the blame to the employee, while very often, the actual reasons are:

Individually, these things can hinder someone’s progress; and combined, they can be even more damaging. For instance, if we don’t have proper documentation explaining how to set up a new hire’s environment, and rely on Alice to do it each time, anyone starting while Alice is on vacation will appear to be slower than the others, even if it’s totally not their fault.

Another example: if only Bob knows the ins and outs of our database setup, and the only way to get information is to sit with him at his desk, this puts remote workers at a disadvantage. If Bob also has bias (which is likely, because Bob is human and all humans have bias), he might not communicate as easily with people who are different from him, and therefore put them at a disadvantage.

Encouraging people to ask questions (rather than discouraging them by sending them the message that they should already know everything, and that asking questions is a sign of weakness) can also make a huge difference. Foster a culture where asking questions is normal and expected, regardless of experience and seniority.

Eventually, once we have fixed our on-boarding processes, documentations, made sure that key people were available in a fair manner, and trained our people to reduce the impact of bias, if someone is still a poor performer, letting them go might be the only option; but it should be done as fairly as possible, and see that as an opportunity to improve our hiring process. But I digress!

Always be teaching

The other side of the coin is that as an engineer, regardless of my level, teaching should be part of my core skills. It doesn’t mean that every engineer should be able to build a course curriculum, deliver a tutorial, give a talk, or anything like that; but every engineer should be able to answer questions from a peer of any level.

Learning is a critical skill for a good software engineer, but teaching is just as important. An awesome 10x engineer who can’t or won’t share what they know only brings short-term value to your organization. In the long term, they will become a liability: at best, by being gatekeepers to important information; at worst, by driving other people away.

Conclusions

To recap, a senior engineer might be more experienced in some areas, but first and foremost, they should be someone who is able and willing to share what they know.

Everyone (not only junior engineers) needs mentoring and easy access to information, during their whole career.

There is no such thing as too much mentoring.

We should promote cultures and environments where asking questions is always OK.

All these things will pay off quickly and make us more effective!

Thanks to AJ for proofreading an early version of that post and suggesting many fixes and improvements. All remaining typos and mistakes are mine.

This work by Jérôme Petazzoni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.