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What’s the difference between a junior and senior developer?

Natali Vlatko
Junior image via Shutterstock

Are you a junior or a senior developer? Perhaps you’re somewhere in the middle, but how do you know for sure? We look into what differentiates each rank and how experience plays the major part in determining your position and authority.

Companies large enough to have a distinction between types of programmers are often looking to hire junior or senior developers. The distinction between the two lies in their experience, but these definitions are never set in stone.

The ranks of junior and senior are, depending on the working environment, open to interpretation. While no authoritative resource exists that distinguishes between each rank, some have tried to define the level of knowledge and experience required in various ways.

Sijin JosephChief Software Architect at Cegment, Inc., has developed a programmer competency matrix to help developers and employers set a metric on what constitutes junior and senior levels of experience. Covering all facets of computer science, software engineering and programming, the matrix outlines different levels of cumulative knowledge.

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is another metric that’s been used to assess how students acquire skills through formal instruction and practicing. The five stages include novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient and expert and have been adapted by many to describe the levels of expertise programmers can acquire.

However, what both of these guides suggest is that experience is golden in the eyes of those hiring – but the type of experience you have is the game-changer.

What being a junior means

The question of experience between junior and senior developers has been explored on StackOverflow, the Ars Technica Forums, Quora and Hacker News, all of which are resources programmers themselves use to tackle the harder coding issues they face.

Junior developers, experience-wise, are considered to have less than 2-3 years of experience in any given technology. Duane Nickull makes a good point about the definition’s importance when it comes to different areas of expertise:

A developer may be considered “senior” with respect to the .NET development platform while at the same time be considered “junior” at HTML5 and some of the more recent related technologies.

Being a junior also implies that you require supervision with most tasks. You’re being given the least complex things to do, while senior developers are busying themselves with supervising projects or mentoring the next developer crop. As a junior, you’re not considered to be in a position to liaise with customers or gather requirements.

What companies expect of a senior developer

Seniors find themselves at the other end of the spectrum and are classified as experts in their chosen technology stacks. They’re responsible for mentoring junior team members and have experience in delivering a working product whilst adhering to the required deadlines of a project.

Depending on the workplace, they can also be considered project leads and are expected to make contributions to architectural issues. Designing solutions is arguably part of their repertoire, however these proposals still require analysis and approval before being implemented.

Troubleshooting for senior developers could almost be considered a sport – during their years of hacking they’ve encountered the same problems that juniors and intermediates run into, thus have a good idea of where to look for a fix. The years of experience they’ve accumulated are usually calculated in double figures.

Is there a middle ground?

The designation of intermediate developer is an area with the most room to move in terms of definition and responsibility. According to StackOverflow member HLGEM, the intermediate sphere is also where “many programmers fall”:

They have more than two years experience and generally less than ten, although some can stay at this level their whole careers.

While developers at this level have some experience under their belt and are able to be independently productive, they’re equally able to understand when they need to reach out for help. Having said that, HLGEM’s suggestion that some developers never progress out of this tier comes from the belief that they can be stuck in their ways and resistant to change.

A recurring point throughout the many definitions of these ranks is for a developer to be aware of how much they actually know. The middle ground here means that a programmer at an intermediate level has learned enough to know what they’ve yet to grasp, while a junior isn’t usually capable of such self-awareness.

Nothing is set in stone

Some recruiters have been known to use buzzwords to further define the characteristics they’re looking for in a candidate. One company’s definition of senior could be the next company’s ideal junior developer – it’s all relative to the working environment.

Although metrics and measurements are useful to some degree, the kind of experience a developer has is paramount in defining their title. Metrics set out the ideals for each category of knowledge, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’d be able to answer to all of them.

Do you agree? Share your thoughts about developer categories and differences below.

Natali Vlatko
An Australian who calls Berlin home, via a two year love affair with Singapore. Natali was an Editorial Assistant for (S&S Media Group).

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