When do you feel like you’re “senior”

Dear new developer,

I thought this was a great tweet. It’s worth clicking through and reading the responses. I wrote my own tweet in response, but thought I’d write about it a bit more here.

First, it’s worth acknowledging that the term “senior developer” means different things in different places and times. Certainly the knowledge expected of a senior developer in 2020 is different than in 2010. And likewise, a senior developer at a small consulting company will probably be ineffective at Google and vice versa. I’ve written more about the various types of senior developers here.

It is also worth pointing out that a senior developer isn’t the same as being a good coder. A senior developer has that skill plus many others. So, how do you know you are a good coder? In my mind, there are three attributes:

  • You know your tools
  • You can figure out what the right code to write is
  • You can make the right set of tradeoffs

Let’s examine each of these in turn.

First, it’s important to know your tools. These could be low level tools like the syntax of your language or your text editor. They could be higher level tools, like an open source framework or a custom library. They could be computer science focused tools like a parser.

But you need to know these tools and what are the right ones to apply to solve the problem at hand. Otherwise you’ll either be re-inventing something that has already been done or trying to apply the wrong tool to a problem (much like using a saw to hammer a nail; can be done, isn’t pretty).

Next, you need to figure out what the right code to write is. Even if it is no code. This means that you don’t expect to be handed a full set of requirements from some all knowing figure. It means you dig in and understand the domain. That you apply your knowledge and skills to the problem. And that you use the above tools to solve the problem within the constraints that you are operating.

For that is the final piece. Every bit of code has its own context in which it was written. The code that you write to load a CSV file one time can be undocumented and slow. The code that you write that will be executed multiple times by every application user should be polished, tested and fast. As a senior developer, I think you know that “good code” is context dependent.

You understand that context and make appropriate choices to get the job done.