#Introduction There are many different qualities that make software engineers successful. Each company has their own unique set of needs regarding developer skill sets and seniority.
As we continue to grow in numbers at This Dot Labs, we’ve begun to ask ourselves what qualities we most look for in developers, what traits exemplify our conception of a senior engineer, and how we can drive mentorship at the company with clear guidance about how every employee can work towards their next promotion.
We’ve decided to share our thoughts with the community in the hopes of spurring conversations among your team. If you haven’t mapped out a career path for your engineers, we hope that you take the time to start talking about what that would look like. A clear purpose at work leads to higher employee satisfaction and retention, better outcomes for customers, and overall lower costs across the board. It’s truly a win-win-win!
#What’s a senior engineer, anyways? Titles are a funny thing. We know that they’re important. They convey responsibility, status, and achievement. When you’re applying for a job, it can really matter if your previous roles say “senior engineer” or “architect” instead of simply saying “developer”.
However, I’ve known people that tout their CTO experience of the small startup they co-founded, or brag that they were the Senior Architect of their 3 person company. Do their experiences match the experience of other CTOs or Senior Architects? Not necessarily.
More important than titles is what a person actually accomplishes at their job or enables for their customers or team members. Therefore, we think there’s a difference between the title “Senior Software Engineer” at a company and the concept of a senior engineer (as opposed to a junior or mid-level engineer).
Outside of the context of titles, we consider the journey from a junior engineer to a mid-level engineer to be a journey of learning. You gain knowledge by learning the software development patterns, rules, and how-to. The journey from being a mid-level engineer to becoming a senior engineer is a gain in wisdom. You learn how to transcend the rules and how to deliver value to your customers however you can with a strong knowledge of tradeoffs.
We’ve known “Software Developers” who were mid or senior developers, and we’ve known “Architects” who might still be mid-level in the grand scheme of things.
We want the difference between engineers and senior engineers to really mean something at This Dot Labs. Here are the key distinctions we make as our developers become senior developers:
Culture Stewardship - As developers make the leap to senior developer, we expect them to take an active role in promoting and improving the company culture. We want people to take ownership of their part in making the company culture vibrant, interesting, and inclusive. Building developer communities is in the DNA of This Dot, and we want our senior engineers to exemplify this both internally and externally.
Team Focus over Individual Focus - Mentorship is another thing that we take seriously both internally and with our customers and the community. Whether it’s the fact that every employee at This Dot Labs meets regularly with a mentor (and may have mentees themselves), that we invest in our Apprentice Program that helps women get their first job in tech, or that we offer training and mentorship to all of our clients as a key differentiator in our projects, we value the ability of our developers to help others grow, learn, and be successful. We expect our senior engineers to not only be responsible for their own performance, but also to make sure that everyone on their teams are fully successful as well.
Customer Awareness - Our senior engineers take a larger role in interacting with our customers on a daily basis. While all of our engineers work alongside our customers, and we center our customers in all of our work, our senior engineers are responsible for managing client expectations, establishing strategy, deciding milestones, and setting a good example for the other members of the team. At the end of the day, This Dot Labs is a software consultancy, and giving our customers a positive return on their investment in us is critical to our success.
Business Awareness - Many of us develop software both as a career and as a passion. However, we have to remember that we’re also operating a business that all of our employees rely on to support themselves and their families. Therefore, as our developers transition to more senior roles in the company, they are responsible for more of the financial success of their projects and the company at large.
#Why not just hire all senior engineers? At This Dot Labs, we love to talk about our PAM stack. In the PAM stack, we discuss that teams with junior, mid, and senior level developers are more successful (and cheaper) than teams made up of exclusively senior engineers.
A big reason why this is true is that our senior engineers are often asked to operate at a higher level of abstraction. Our senior developers think at the team or organizational level, consider both our internal staff and external customers, and have to consider both the technical and financial ramifications of their work.
We like to think of this in terms of something like Google Maps. If everyone is looking at the Google Earth view, you’ll miss a lot of details. But, if everyone is looking at the StreetView level, then you’ll miss a lot of context. We need people at different zoom levels to be successful as a company.
It’s important to have the right blend of developers. The right blend of developers means having people who are not only focusing on different levels of abstraction, but that those developers feel fulfilled in their career when focusing on those tasks. This is the value of having engineers of many different levels on your teams.
#Introducing the This Dot Labs Engineering Ladder
Apprentices - Let Me Google That For You
Our apprentices are getting their first experiences working professionally as software developers. We expect our apprentices to participate in team activities, processes, and the company culture. Otherwise, we expect them to work under the supervision of other developers and/or mentors to complete tasks. Our apprentices are great and growing developers, and usually they have deep expertise in other fields before coming to software development. The extra support given for those in this role is to ensure our apprentices have successful first development experiences, which are so vital to getting more roles in the future.
Software Engineer I - Street View Developers at the Software Engineer I level are expected to participate in the company culture, write and test their code proficiently, work closely with other engineers to accomplish tasks and implement features, and to attend and contribute to all team meetings and processes.
These developers are able to deliver routine tasks on-time with limited supervision. These engineers are working with their mentors to learn software development patterns, best practices, and the software development lifecycle.
Software Engineer II - Neighborhood View Developers at the Software Engineer II level are responsible for all of the same things as those on the Software Engineer I level, but with a little more complexity and scope. These developers are responsible for helping guide and mentor more junior developers and apprentices. These developers are able to write and test code proficiently, but with a greater knowledge of design patterns, approaches, and libraries than more junior developers.
We expect these developers to deliver moderate tasks and features on time with little supervision. These engineers are working with their mentors to learn about software architecture, even more development best practices, and team leadership in preparation for becoming more team focused senior engineers.
Senior Software Engineer I - City View Developers at the Senior Software Engineer I level are responsible for activities at the team level. These developers are responsible not just for participating in the company culture, but they are relied to contribute to and improve it as well. These engineers have knowledge of several design patterns and architectural solutions.
These individuals are able to deliver significant features on time with little supervision. These engineers can work as either the lead engineer or technical lead of a client project. With their mentors, these developers are working on software architecture, team leadership, and soft skills. These engineers often mentor junior engineers and apprentices.
Senior Software Engineer II - State View Developers at the Senior Software Engineer II level are different from engineers on earlier levels in two significant ways. First, they are responsible for mentoring not only internal developers but also client developers, while also working with clients to define new features. Second, they are responsible not only for delivering excellent work under little supervision, but also helping a team to deliver their features on time as well.
These developers have advanced knowledge of coding standards and architectural approaches. These engineers not only attend and contribute to team meetings and processes, but can also lead those activities as well.
They are capable of operating as the technical lead on a client project. With their mentors, these developers are focused on team leadership, soft skills, and strategy. These engineers are responsible for mentoring engineers of all levels and the apprentices.
Senior Software Engineer III - Country View Developers at the Senior Software Engineer III level contribute significantly to the company culture and are recognized as leaders by their peers. These engineers regularly mentor other developers both internally and externally.
They have a deep knowledge of various frameworks, libraries, and architectural patterns backed with significant experience and wisdom. These developers work with team stakeholders to define new features and project strategy. Not only can these developers lead team processes and meetings, but they embody a spirit of process improvement.
These developers are focused on how to embrace quality and consistency across different project teams. They are capable of operating as the technical lead of multiple projects or the technical and project manager of a single project. These developers can manage and grow successful teams with little supervision. With their mentors, these engineers are focused on strategy, relationship management, and entrepreneurship.
Architect - World View At the moment, architects are the highest level in the engineering ladder at This Dot Labs. Eventually, it might become necessary to split the role up into more granular levels. However, developers at the Architect level contribute regularly and significantly to the company culture and represent the company in a public capacity.
These developers regularly mentor other engineers (both internally and externally), including senior engineers. These engineers have subject matter expertise in technologies, methodologies, processes, and/or patterns critical to the success of our customers. These engineers are responsible for contributing to the sales work of the company including the scoping of new contracts.
These developers are responsible for driving process improvement at an organizational level. They can operate as the technical manager, project manager, or client relationship manager of one or multiple projects. These engineers are able to drive organizational initiatives to success with little supervision. With their mentors, these engineers are focused on senior leadership, strategy, relationship management, entrepreneurship, and sales.
#Conclusion Having documentation like this on-hand is critical to the success of our mentorship relationships at This Dot Labs. People have a better understanding of what is expected of them, what they can expect of those around them, and how they should focus their goals and work to reach the next step in their careers.
We hope that this look into the engineering team at This Dot Labs will spark interesting and useful conversations on your team. If you like anything that you’ve seen here, please feel free to reuse any of our descriptions.
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