Ross Hagan

Questioning "Junior" Engineering Titles

April 20, 2021

Taking a dive into the junior title, privilege, and starting out as a new engineer.

This article's about what it means to start your career in engineering, or development, or whatever your preferred language is to mean 'I write code' and how an organisation can support folks who are earlier in their journey in software engineering as a discipline.

I'll be using 'junior' as the modifier here, but replace with whatever you might use as a qualifier to denote someone very early in their experience.


People who might find this article useful:

  • Getting started as a software engineer, coder, programmer.
  • Organisational leadership

Key Takeaways

The points I hope you'll at least have taken away to consider:

  • Consider how valuable a 'junior' title is, or is not, internally to your organisation.
  • Recruit for junior, hire for engineer.
  • Consider the impact 'junior' has on an individual's self perception and progression.
  • If you keep that title, have a clear progression plan aligned to the individual.
  • Ensure a strong culture that supports growth through safety - at all levels!

What is junior?

It's actually really hard to define who qualifies as a junior in any meaningful way because of all the possible routes into engineering.

Is it somebody who's written code for a period of time? How long? What code? Is it somebody who's been through a course, bootcamp, or university, but not had professional experience? How do you measure the distinction in interview?

There's so many dangers to gatekeeping people who have not had the same opportunities who could be brilliant if just given the opportunity. That will come down to a sound hiring process, one that gives candidates the chance to demonstrate capability and aptitude, not just the concrete skills.

Expectations for the title

For those looking for their route into software engineering, here's some actions and questions to be thinking about.

Action: Have a clear expectation of what you'll get out of time in that role.

With that action in mind, some prompting questions:

  • How do you see the title?
  • Why is this right for you as a first job title in development?
  • What does that mean for your day to day experience?
  • Once you've been in that role for a while, what are your turning points for "I'm ready to not be a junior" anymore?
  • If you've recently moved to a different title, how has that experience been?

There are no objectively right answers. Finding what's right for you can be especially hard when you've not been in the role and know what to even count as a red flag.

Think hard about what your own progression looks like. What's a great environment for your growth? How do you learn well? What support do you need?

Action: Ask how you'll be supported, at what interval, and what the bar is for people to progress

Ask what progression from junior to "not junior" is. Does your sense of feeling ready to lose that modifier align with what the organisation sets as markers of progression? Do they have them? Ask this before, or at, the interview!

It's not always easy to get that first job for so many reasons and this puts you in a power imbalance. Your eagerness to find that first job and do awesome things is admirable. You might feel like the organisation is investing in you, and taking a risk so you've got to work extra hard to prove yourself. That may be true in some ways, but you're also investing your time and skill into them.

Remember you're not just a code factory, or a 'pair of hands'. Your value isn't just what code you've produced at the end of the day. The best organisations are looking to hire new engineers because they can bring fresh perspectives, an ability to question things and giving the more experienced engineers the opportunity to learn how to mentor and coach. If deep skill is seen as the ability to teach a complex topic in a simple way, then having people to teach in the day to day is incredibly valuable.

So when looking for that first job, beware setting the bar too low. The behaviours you pick up from the existing engineers, the positive and negative, can shape your future. Finding the right environment for your growth means knowing yourself a little, not necessarily with a specific destination like "I want to be a machine learning specialist", but the things that motivate and demotivate you.

Experienced engineers - What does junior mean to you?

Ask yourself:

  • How do you perceive people with that kind of qualifier?
  • Are you more forgiving, more patient, more willing to teach?
  • How does your perception and interactions with them shift as they progress?
  • Are you comfortable with somebody who was once a junior surpassing you, at least in title, in a short space of time?

I'm a bit more fiercely egalitarian than some, less than others. Hierarchy makes me squirm at the best of times, but it's worth talking about power dynamics. These dynamics exist in all our interactions, not just with 'juniors'.

Our own egos, perceptions of our abilities and knowledge, can come into conflict with anyone we interact with. Coming away from a conversation feeling patronised, or even confused due to a lack of explanation can be a good indicator we've just experienced this underlying power dynamic going unacknowledged.

The 'junior' qualifier then serves as a bit of a shortcut for some people further along in their progression in how they interact with a junior. They might need to take a bit more time to explain, and be a bit more patient. Yet... is that always the case?

Each task, story, or action is a potential new learning experience for any individual at any level, tech stacks vary, underlying principles get you so far but don't always mean that much when you're faced with a completely new paradigm or sphere of work.

It's really easy to dodge this problem though - be humble, and ask! Not just of juniors, because software engineering is a big old world, and a simple up front exchange of "Are you familiar with X?", and a reply like "I'm not that familiar, I might need a bit of guidance" can ease that burden of feeling like you should already know this, and can save some of that feeling of being talked down to or going at a pace you're not ready for.

Power dynamics in relationships are constantly shifting, and the codification of those into labelled titles can be risky.

Job titles - they matter!

There's a privilege to even be able to get close to an argument that sounds like 'titles do not matter'. They do. They matter for progression in our wider career as the industry is built for this. Insert rant about capitalism, human value, labour workforce value generation here. This is the systemic problem to solve for, and not something we'll change right now, but I hope this article prompts some thought and action on that.

Under-represented groups already have to continuously assert their experience and expertise. Does a junior title reinforce that? The qualifier can put up barriers in recruitment, and be weaponised as a tool to keep people 'in their place'.

It might even be internalised in a negative self-narrative, thoughts around "I'm just a junior, it's not my place to speak up". For people who have been silenced, these titles can come with some extra load.

However, it's really the underlying culture that makes this matter. Mitigate this with good checks on your more experienced engineers, are they dominating conversation? Have they been trained in pairing, mentoring and coaching? Are discussions and decisions happening through fact and clear reasons?

Organisations - get it right

Now these imbalances can be mitigated in a good organisation that uses the qualifier:

  • Have a consistent and predictable progression out of the junior title in place before they start, adapting once they have started to specific needs.
  • Have people who celebrate their successes and listen to them.
  • Give regular actionable feedback
  • Follow the Prime Directive[1] even outside of retrospectives.
  • Even better still find the people who don't just want to bring people up to their level, but who are capable of coaching them to reach beyond and champion them to greater heights.

[1] Prime Directive: Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

This is where personalised plans matter. Listen to where the individual wants to go. It should absolutely be ok for there not to be a specific destination in mind.

So when there is no universal baseline to measure, and we have a best practice of individualising a plan for progression, we might look again at the junior title. Where's the line between junior and not junior? What really changes in how we should be supporting each other?

Some of that will depend on how your organisation operates. Some have very fine grained ladders of progression. Other organisations have not got that, maybe they operate a wide view of responsibilities for engineers. This can be a really exciting type of place to work as your opportunity to work on new things is ever present, and your job title doesn't come with a feeling of 'stay in your lane'. Yet in this wide set of responsibilities model, why do expectations differ?

If there's room for continuous learning and improvement, then that 'safety' shrouded in a junior title, should surely apply to all?

Recruitment of new engineers

Then there's the recruitment layer. Some recruiters are awesome. They will see straight past the CV, and any job titles held and find the person underneath.

For the less great side of recruiters, there are the ones that gatekeep a resume from making it onto the 'Yes' pile. Whether it's lack of degree, formal education, to a missing rung on the typical ladder. The junior title can harm. Spend too long with the title, and it's a concern, too little and switching roles early becomes a challenge.

Recruiters face a challenge too, if the junior title goes away, how do you specifically find people and advertise for those newer in their career? This is a pretty reasonable point, with a generally well known system of progression in the individual contributor space, junior > engineer > senior > lead > principal | staff, people look for those titles when job hunting.

So maybe we keep the title at recruitment but just as that - an advertising tool. More radically we could change the tools we use to find people and for people to find jobs, shift to the responsibilities and expectations we look for outside of titles.

Wrap up

This post has touched on expectations, motivation, power dynamics, and being a better organisation for new engineers.

All that fanciness said... just do it. Make a quick plan for new engineers to be supported well, for the right structures to be in place to support them and make room for them to absolutely thrive. They can be the most exciting hires you'll make in how they can help your whole organisation grow and learn to improve.