What is a Senior Programmer?

My friend and co-worker Nate recently wrote about some hurdles he has encountered in pursuing his┬áprofessional ambitions as a software developer. I know what he’s going through because I entered both my internship and my first post-college job with tragic misconceptions (non-conceptions really, in the case of my internship) as to how my career would develop.

My first mistake was that, as I began my internship, I had no idea how my career would progress, how it should progress, or how active a participant I would be in whatever progression did occur. I knew that I enjoyed twiddling around with code, and that I seemed to have more of a natural talent for it than most of my classmates. And I figured that if I was going to make a career out of anything, it should be something that I did at least passingly well, and that I enjoyed.

As I entered my first post-college job, I had decided I most definitely did not want to become a manager. I enjoyed programming too much to give it up, for one thing. Further, managers had so far stood mostly as obstacles to my involvement in interesting work, and as incriminating figures more prepared to remonstrate me for my professional flaws rather than empower me to better myself as a programmer. So I wanted nothing to do with that. Instead I set a near-term goal of becoming a “senior developer”, at which point I would re-evaluate my career trajectory and adjust course if necessary.

An important question in gauging the advancement of your career as a programmer is to ask what exactly it means to be a senior programmer. I have come to see this title as being tied to the professional respect that one has accumulated in a programming career. A senior programmer is not someone who has served a certain amount of time “in the trenches”. Nor is it even someone with a broad experience base.

No, I think there is something a bit more intangible, that identifies someone deserving of the “senior developer” title. Something less measurable. Something that is probably sensed, but not necessarily explicable by those with less experience. But something that would be conspicuous by its absence.

As I see it, what distinguishes someone deserving of the “senior developer” title is a sense of stability. A senior developer is someone who can stand in the middle of the chaos that arises in a project, and exert a calming influence on the people and efforts swirling around him. A senior developer is an anchor to which a project can be tied to keep it from drifting into dangerous waters. He is a sounding board against which claims will ring true or false and goals will ring possible or impossible. He is the steady hand, not necessarily on the rudder of your project’s ship, but wherever that hand is needed most. And he is a strong voice that reliably calls out your bearing relative to your destination.

Of course, these metaphors sound a bit grandiose. But the general picture I think is accurate. A senior developer is someone that you put on a project to ensure there’s some measure of certainty in the mix. It doesn’t mean your project is guaranteed to succeed. But it should mean that you can sleep a little easier knowing that where you think the project is, is where it really is. And that if it’s not where it needs to be, that there is someone involved who has a decent idea of how to get it there.

Naturally, these things do come with time and experience. So what I said earlier isn’t completely true, in that a senior developer is someone with tenure and experience. However, these are necessary, but not sufficient conditions. Not everyone with 20 years of experience on 5 platforms and 15 languages qualifies. And not everyone with 5 years of experience on 1 platform and 2 languages doesn’t qualify. Rather, if you show that you can learn from experiences both positive and negative, port technical and non-technical knowledge from one domain to another, and educate, inspire, or empower colleagues and junior developers…. Then you are showing yourself to have what it takes.

If you’re like me, and Nate, you don’t feel that you’re there yet, but you hope one day to proudly contribute this kind of value. Don’t lose hope. Every new experience, technical and non-technical, is a growth opportunity. But it is important to broaden your horizons in both of those respects. If you hope to educate, inspire, and empower others, you must first learn to do so for yourself. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can’t do that if you feel stagnant. In that case, your first responsibility to yourself is to educate your boss of the professional value you could offer with a little broader exposure. And if that doesn’t work, address the issue yourself, dedicating a bit of time outside work. If you can find them, working together with some like-minded friends or co-workers can be very encouraging, like what we have done with our “book club”. Remember, nothing changes if things just stay the same.