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3x3 - Misconceptions About Senior Engineers

Published 8/2/2019

What exactly does it mean to be a senior engineer? In today's episode we're talking about three misconceptions about what it means to be a senior engineer.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
You just got your first job as a software engineer. Maybe you got hired as a junior engineer or maybe you just have the title of engineer. Some people even come in as senior engineers. What does this mean? What exactly is a senior engineer? In today's episode, we're going to talk about three misconceptions of the title senior engineer. My name is Jonathan Cutrelle and you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal on the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in your careers. Before we get started with today's episode, I wanted to share some very exciting news. My wife and I welcomed our brand new baby daughter into the world on, I guess, a week ago when this episode airs. Her name is Nova, so now we have two little ones that have joined us, Liam, who is two years old and Nova. We've been doing this podcast since before. We had any children at all, so it's really exciting to share these moments with all of you. Now, let's get started with today's episode talking about misconceptions about senior engineers. This is the third of our three by three week here on Developer Tea. This is something we did a couple of years back and we brought it back for this week. I think today's topic is incredibly important because at some point in your career, if you work on a team of developers, you will likely to encounter someone with the title senior engineer. Now, why is this particular title important to talk about? Well, certainly not the only title that can be confusing. For example, a junior engineer, what exactly does it mean to be a junior engineer? In some places, it means that you're expected to be learning on a regular basis and most of the time you're going to have someone pairing with you. In other places, junior engineer has nothing to do with the kind of output that you generate and everything to do with how long you've been working at the company. There are some similar confusing points about being a senior engineer and we want to talk about three of those misconceptions today. The first misconception is that senior engineers are only solving really technically difficult problems and they're working alone to do so. This picture of an engineer that is kind of going into their magic cave and they've been doing this for what seems like hundreds of years and they come out with some piece of incredibly important software. This is not an accurate depiction of the average senior software engineer. Instead, most of the time senior software engineers are working alongside other members of the team and often the difficulty that the senior engineer is kind of tasked with solving isn't a technical difficulty most of the time. Instead, it ends up being a context difficulty. Decisions that were made perhaps many years ago in a legacy code base, for example. This is where a senior software engineer can shine. Most jobs that we encounter as software engineers in our careers are not going to involve deeply technical software engineering. You aren't going to have to rewrite a bunch of sorting algorithms. Instead, most of what we have to determine as software engineers in today's market is how do we fit these things together? How do we solve the problem at hand in the most efficient and appropriate way possible? A senior software engineer then is not really tasked with writing the most efficient algorithms but instead understanding the product that they're working on in the context that it exists. The next misconception about this title is one that's true for most titles in the software engineering industry. That is that there is some kind of specific standard that you must meet in order to gain the title of senior engineer. For better or for worse, titles for software engineers typically don't necessarily have a specific standard that justifies the title. This isn't necessarily the case in other professions because many times other professions have established norms, sometimes even institutions that will provide these kind of guidelines. But for software engineers, any title that you hold is one that you hold because someone was willing to call you that. This ambiguity can be frustrating and it can cause a bit of anxiety because in one company you may have one set of standards that identifies whether someone is a senior or a mid-level or a lead or a senior two. There's lots of titles that you could have and they may be different from the next company that you go to. It's important to understand that titles are mostly relevant to the company itself and less relevant to industry-wide recognition. With that said, that doesn't mean that other people won't take signals from those titles. It just means that everyone has a different definition of what it means to be a senior software engineer. The final misconception that I think is important to clear up about being a senior software engineer is the idea that you will never have to do what managers do. In this profession, we have the kind of illusion that there are two tracks, either manager track or engineering track. Often our titles reflect those tracks. It's very unlikely that you are going to make it to the level of a senior position in any company without having some kind of people leadership skills and maybe even responsibilities. This doesn't mean that you're going to identify with all of the responsibilities that a manager might have. It certainly doesn't mean that you won't have a manager yourself or that your team won't have a manager. As a general rule, the most valuable people in a given company are the ones who can multiply the efforts of others. If you are a senior software engineer, and all that you can do is provide your own effort and you're not affecting your team members in a positive way, then you're probably not operating at your highest value to the company. For that reason, if you are headed on the track towards becoming a senior software engineer, then I encourage you to dispel with the idea that your responsibilities are entirely represented in code or in features and instead understand that all of your responsibilities ultimately are about humans. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you to today's producer, Sarah Jackson. My name is Jonathan Cutrell and until next time, enjoy your tea.