Part of my job is hiring people to build websites for advertising clients. Most of the things that we build don’t compete with brain surgery for complexity, but as anyone knows when working in software, having skilled people working on simple problems often leads to scalable, well built solutions – I hire accordingly. The problem is how do you define "skilled" and does it even have meaning in software out of the context of a company’s needs?
I have been quite lucky that early in my career I realised that no matter how skilled I got at my craft, there would always be someone on a whole other level. Crossing developers with egos aside, attending conferences, user groups and development events is one of the easiest ways to reset your expectations surrounding skill level, and find this out early.
I am a Junior Programmer
I have been developing software since I was 10. Commercially since I was 14 and 9 months (this is the legal age in Australia to work). I have had a go at creating many different types of software in many different programming languages, more recently on the Microsoft stack.
I’ve lead teams, travelled for work, had high risk, low risk, sexy, boring, you name it programming jobs over the years.
All this has made one thing very clear to me:
I know nothing.
Our industry is so vast, and different technologies and methodologies are so numerous that this single piece of information should go with you everywhere you travel.
How about you?
When applying this to hiring though, things are never as clear. Nowhere is this more evident than working in a Sydney advertising agency, and being tasked with hiring web developers.
You see in the land of web development in Sydney, the age of the Brogrammer/Coder is upon us.
I have been tasked with hiring a new senior technical member of staff. I
literally did 30 or more phone interviews, many-many in person
interviews and the experience left me feeling quite dis-enchanted with
the Sydney .Net web world. The amount of 10+ year experience huge salary
swinging web developers I saw who couldn't:
- Describe how POST data was submitted to a server by a browser.
- Explain a number of HTTP status codes (except maybe 404 and 500).
- Explain SOLID or name a design pattern.
- Explain ways to improve a pages load speed or user experience.
You may think I am being being aggressive in suggesting this, but if you can’t answer the questions above there are a lot of people who wouldn’t think of you as a Senior Web Developer (maybe we can rule SOLID out… but you understand my point). However what do you call yourself if you have been building websites for 10 years in ASP.Net (or PHP, or Perl, or anything…) and you need a title?
This got me thinking though: how do you define seniority or skill in Software Engineering terms. Especially when hiring.
So many people can have simple roles for long periods of time, where they aren’t necessarily exposed to new principles or changes in their industry – do these people deserve high 6 figure salaries and “Senior” or “Architect” in their job titles?
This is where I think it all comes down to a single word:
If you have been building applications, websites, or *whatever* for many many years, you would hope you would have become considerably good at it. This doesn’t make you a senior developer, and this I think often gets lost on most of our ilk. It does make you good at what you have been doing.
But my view on people compared to your view on a candidate and their skills might be totally different – because I am totally blinded by the context for which I need from my new team member. My definition of senior will be totally different from that of someone hiring at a place that builds landing systems for spacecraft; or someone working on small business accounting packages.
In my hiring case, I was looking for someone who had a fair bit of experience building websites in ASP.Net and c# among other things. Not someone to build the next Google. However our industry only thinks of people in terms. “Junior ASP.Net developer”, “Senior Ruby programmer”,”Mid level PHP developer”. I don’t think this describes people’s experience or knowledge levels well enough.
Usually this equates to someone who is new, has been around for a while, or is an “old salt” at whatever they were doing – maybe building “Hello World” websites over and over… Who knows?
Maybe it’s time to rewrite how we describe people in our industry. Something similar to Scott Hanselman’s use of “FizzBin” in technical support calls might just do…