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Most online resources use time spent professionally developing as the main differentiator between senior and junior web developers. This article for instance suggests the following ranges for determining how junior you really are:

  • Junior Developer: 1-2 years of experience
  • Mid-Level Developer: 2-5 years of experience
  • Senior Developer: 5+ years of experience

I find that approach entirely unhelpful. Sure, on the whole, with time comes knowledge and wisdom. But that’s just a general truism. Billion dollar companies have been started in less time than it would take to become a senior developer in the formula above. That can’t be right!

Wrong way sign

I’ve also encountered many older (not senior, just aged) men and women who have been building websites and writing code for many years but who were by no means “senior” developers.

So what is it? What sets a senior dev apart as truly senior in distinction from a more junior, green developer?

Wrong Answers First

Senior devs are not “Rain Man” geniuses with all the solutions at their fingertips. He or she hasn’t memorized the WordPress codex. They don’t dream complicated SQL queries. They also don’t necessarily know a plethora of languages. They still make mistakes. They still introduce bugs into their code. They get frustrated, flabbergasted, and sometimes stumped. The true difference between a junior dev and senior dev isn’t in sheer knowledge or technical chops at all!

The Real Difference

A senior dev is senior because they have confidence in their experience. As I’ve seen website developers progress through their careers, I’ve watched their sense of confidence in their abilities and resources track accordingly. A senior dev can tackle a problem with ease and confidence. It’s still a problem that they have to solve, but they aren’t overwhelmed at the thought of it. They don’t need their hand held while they walk through each step of the solution. You give them the problem, and they calmly go into a hole and start plugging away, researching, looking to trusted resources, and slowly strip away at the solution.

They may not know the solutions offhand, but they have the experience to find them quickly through different resources. This enables them to take on unfamiliar builds without any hesitation or worry. The junior dev does not have that.

How Junior Are You?

Baby with floaties on

Most junior devs feel like you’ve thrown them into the deep end when you ask them to look into a hairy bug. They just barely have their floaties on and you’ve tossed them off the high dive. If you’re wondering if you are a junior developer yourself, just consider: how did you feel the last time your boss asked you to take a look at something you hadn’t done recently? Did it feel daunting, lonely, overwhelming? Did you panic with the thought that nobody was going into this dark cave with you and that you would be all alone and unable to get assistance if you needed it?

The last time you needed help, were you able to clearly and succinctly articulate your problem to a coworker? Did they have to ask you for clarification? Did they get the details they needed to both understand your problem and offer a solution? If not… well you know the answer already. There’s your sign my friend. You’re probably a bit junior.

The panic of being a junior (lacking confidence) creates a barrier to appropriately asking for help. Oftentimes senior developers actually ask more questions than junior devs. Their confidence allows them to clearly delineate what they do and do not know. They ask clear questions with a confident knowledge of what they don’t know. Junior devs aren’t sure of the things they don’t know, so they fumble around trying to muddle their way through.

Final Encouragement

Encouraging sidewalk chalk sign of You've Got This

All senior developers were once junior developers. You’ll get there (if you’re not there already). If I can encourage any juniors out there with one piece of advice, I’d love for you to walk away with this: focus just as much energy on building your mental game as you do your tech stack chops. When you get overwhelmed, when you snip at your coworkers or boss, when you realize you’ve asked a dumb, under-formulated question (which you’ll know as soon as your coworkers start asking a series of follow up questions before they can actually address your issue), recognize those moments as indicators of growth opportunity. Work on it! You will grow much faster if you put effort into communicating, knowing yourself, acknowledging what you don’t know (and being comfortable with that), and trusting your abilities to resource the things you’ll need to knock out this next project.

Partnering With Us

At Kestrel, we employ a range of developers from brand new green-behind-the-ears apprentices to senior level technical directors. Our partnerships with creative / marketing / branding agencies works so well for them (and us) because we bring our entire range of experience to bear upon the initial solutioning, tech stack requirements, project planning, and detailed execution.

It’s not a good idea to have your most senior member filling out Gutenberg blocks. Just like it’s a bad idea to have your most junior member deciding on complicated requirements for your custom API. It takes a village, and that’s what we’ve got.

Hit us up if you are looking for a solid partner to have your back on your next project.