The Difference Between Senior, Middle and Junior DevelopersMay 04, 2022 • Andriy Obrizan • 14 min read
The classification of junior, middle, and senior developers is based on several criteria that include experience, skills, the person’s ability to plan and execute tasks, as well as the quality of code they produce. Companies also measure seniority in terms of autonomy: junior developers need more guidance and oversight, while senior developers make decisions and solve problems independently.
On top of this, as developers move up the career ladder, they become more involved in communication with clients and can accept higher levels of responsibility.
So, it’s always a combination of qualities, not a single characteristic, that defines a developer’s level as junior, middle, or senior. That’s why you need to look at each metric in detail to see the big picture and make sure that a developer is a good fit for a particular role within the team.
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You can’t get experience without working in the field, but you can’t get a job unless you have actual experience. Luckily, completing an internship can take care of that. But what happens next, and what are the requirements for each career level?
Typically, a junior software developer will have up to two years of experience in a specific tech domain. Some stay at this level for a bit longer, but working for five or eight years as a junior dev doesn’t look on anyone’s CV. Only paid work done for a company, not on personal projects, counts.
Middle developers have two to four years of work experience on average. At this level, particular attention is paid to experience with specific types of projects, not only the total number of years.
As we get higher up the scale, the importance and meaning of experience change. Senior developers can have anywhere from four to seven years of experience, but the numbers can cross into double digits for some. Senior status is about so much more than years spent in the industry, and it takes a different amount of time for people to reach that threshold.
The experience math is pretty straightforward. Let’s move on to other less obvious criteria.
There are no two ways about it — efficient communication is key for successful teamwork. Developers should be able to communicate both within the team and with the client, but their skills can vary significantly. Here’s what is expected at each level.
Junior software developers need basic communication skills since most of their interactions take place with their team members. A B1 level of English is enough for clarifying details of the task at hand, getting feedback from the test team, or being present during calls.
At this level, developers can no longer afford to be passive during internal and client meetings. They become more engaged in the project and often feel compelled to speak their mind and make suggestions. The role of a middle developer involves more responsibilities than that of a junior, so they should be able to express themselves better. B1+ English is a definite asset.
We go up another level, and the situation changes drastically. Senior developers often need to stand their ground and convince others but should also be able to handle criticism in a constructive manner. They are actively involved in communication with the client, so knowledge of English at B2 or higher is a must. Not only that: a senior developer needs to build strong soft skills in order to avoid and resolve conflicts. Among other things, it means learning to listen, empathize, and compromise.
By the way, the next quality we’ll talk about relies heavily on communication.
Autonomy and Ownership
If you look at any project, you’ll quickly see that junior, middle, and senior developers carry very different shares of weight. Higher “ranks” need more space to make their own decisions, and they have the right tools to handle that freedom. Let us explain.
To handle their tasks, junior developers require the support of their more experienced colleagues. It’s absolutely normal for a junior dev to ask questions and avoid making decisions without consulting with their superiors or team members. In this case, lower autonomy is a benefit since too much of it could lead to unnecessary risks.
At the middle developer level, the need for autonomy is naturally higher. A middle dev still needs supervision and advice but can already manage coding minor sections of the project without having to confirm every little detail. Those with more experience can even handle small projects.
Senior developers own medium-sized projects or portions of large-scale ones. Autonomy isn’t an issue at this level — it is expected and encouraged. Senior devs are able to communicate freely with the client, receive feedback and make the necessary adjustments to the code. If something goes off track, a senior developer can most likely fix the problem on their own.
However, to achieve that level of independence, developers need to grow their knowledge and hone their skills.
Knowledge and Skills
Software companies hire developers for their expertise, and everyone wants to be sure they’re getting what they pay for. So, how do you tell a junior developer from a middle or a senior one based on their skills? Let’s dig right into it.
A junior dev should be able to write fairly clean and stable code and be able to debug it when necessary. And even if their code isn’t perfect yet, junior developers on your team should be eager to ask questions and learn.
Middle devs have had more experience and are usually far more versatile in terms of their technical skills. That gives them an edge when coding entire features and fixing issues. They have a clear understanding of why a particular code design was used and can optimize their code according to specifications. Middle developers are good at debugging, but they can also nip problems in the bud at the planning stage.
With senior developers, you don’t have to worry about the need for supervision or a lack of knowledge. They’re there to reduce and eliminate technical debt, not to add to it. A senior dev could probably write code for your entire app if need be. But instead of overloading them with routine tasks, you want to use their ability to prioritize and apply their knowledge where it really matters.
A senior developer is fluent in their chosen language but is also proficient in at least one other tech domain. These people are motivated, they constantly improve their skills, and eagerly share their knowledge with those around them.
There is another important skill we’d like to bring to your attention.
Planning and Execution
The ability to efficiently plan tasks and activities is what sets junior developers apart from senior ones. Middle devs naturally fall somewhere in between. Here’s how it works on an actual project.
Junior devs can manage their time with moderate efficiency. Their estimates are relatively accurate, and they usually complete tasks within deadlines. Since junior developers work under the command of more experienced team members, they don’t do a lot of their own planning but mostly follow existing procedures and timelines.
Middle developers, on the other hand, can plan their own time, because they have the skill and the authority to devise complex software features without supervision. More experienced coders, middle devs provide more accurate estimates and are capable of delivering their work on schedule. Middle developers will also need less time than junior ones to complete similar tasks.
Senior developers have a deep understanding of the project’s specifics and a broader set of coding tools at their disposal. They are experts in time management and can split tasks into smaller subtasks and deliver them in increments. Senior devs set their own timelines with great accuracy and follow them without fail.
So, if the development process is carefully planned and executed, does it result in consistently flawless code? Let’s see.
The quality of code a developer can produce varies greatly across the three levels.
You should probably lower your expectations when it comes to code written by a junior dev. When learning a language, it takes time to master its grammar and build a vocabulary. Junior developers don’t always have the experience needed to create code that looks good and runs well. Their code works, but it needs polishing — debugging and optimization. Be prepared to see occasional bugs and inconsistencies that junior developers will likely miss during unit testing.
Middle developers have a better command of programming languages, but they also work on more complex tasks, so the probability of bugs remains high. However, the code that middle devs put out is well-optimized and easy to maintain.
Seasoned pros of this level can write state-of-the-art code. Having done a lot of mentoring, senior developers know how to avoid clunky constructions and create code that’s easy to scale and integrate. They develop features and entire solutions with future-proof methods, always keeping an eye on the big picture. Bugs are very rare, as senior developers are exceptionally good at testing their own code, often with automation techniques.
Experience, knowledge, autonomy, and quality of code are all essential qualities that help define a developer’s level. But there’s another angle we haven’t discussed so far. Developers work in teams, and there’s a unique role that each individual member plays in the collective success.
Role in the Team
Let’s say you’re building a remote team. You’re well aware of all the benefits, the time difference is bearable, and it’s time to pick your developers. The idea of hiring only junior developers may sound very appealing (more savings on salary!), but what about time constraints and the level of expertise that’s required?
OK, so should you stick to the same budget and hire fewer senior devs instead? Or fill the team with middle developers and get the best of both worlds? Hint: none of the above. Let’s look at how roles relate to the experience.
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You can assign routine tasks to your junior devs, taking the burden off the other team members’ shoulders. It’s a good way to onboard junior developers, let them practice their craft, as well as to improve their planning and time management skills. For example, they can learn the ropes by working on the backend, developing simple features, and testing minor bugs. The motivation of the junior ranks imbues the team with new energy and keeps everyone on their toes.
Middle devs are more versed in programming, so they can take the bulk of the work as far as coding is concerned. They can also mentor your junior members of the team, help clean up their mistakes and optimize their code. Middle developers are usually more involved in planning, creating test plans, and shaping objectives for junior devs. The middle rank is the glue that holds it all together — they can cover tasks that junior devs can’t complete independently and also fix problems that senior developers shouldn’t spend their time on.
Senior devs are the elite performers of your team. They set the tone and the tempo of the development process by composing specifications and helping to manage the lower ranks. Senior developers take on the most complex portions of the project, and they could probably pull it off alone. But their time is expensive, and you should think twice before throwing them at routine tasks. Your junior and middle devs will take care of that, freeing your “seniors” up, so they can put their superior skills to better use.
We’re almost there. One last thing we need to address is the hiring process. How easy is it to find developers of each level that would fit into your team?
The Hiring Process
Let’s briefly discuss the specific challenges of hiring junior, middle, and senior developers.
There’s an abundance of junior developers on the market. Finding one is relatively easy:
- Time required to close a position. Usually 2 weeks to 1 month.
- Availability on the market. High — there’s usually no shortage of junior developers who have just completed their internship or first project and are looking for a job.
- Specific challenges. Finding a candidate with the right level of expertise and the motivation to keep learning and acquiring new skills may be difficult. Poor performance may surface within the first month. A technical interview is a must.
As a rule, it takes time for the junior candidates to prove themselves in battle, working on actual assignments and interacting with other members of the team.
Middle developers are still available:
- Time required to close a position. On average, 1-2 months.
- Availability on the market. Medium — most skilled middle devs are already taken, but many are looking for a change.
- Specific challenges. Finding a developer with the specific technical expertise your project requires isn’t always easy. An in-depth interview with technical tasks will help reveal the true level of proficiency, as well as communication and problem-solving skills.
Finding middle developers with the right expertise is one thing, but their technical aptitude for your project isn’t guaranteed. Since this level covers a wide range of skills, you’ll have to spend some time sorting through the very different CVs of middle developers.
Finding a good senior developer is always a challenging and lengthy process:
- Time required to close a position. 2 months and up.
- Availability on the market. Low — everyone’s after senior developers, so don’t expect to find yours quickly.
- Specific challenges. Senior devs are usually picky about projects and may have already found their perfect one. Something has to really click for an experienced senior developer to undertake such a major change. You’ll have to outbid the competition and make a strong case.
A senior developer with the experience and technical background that fit your project’s needs will be an invaluable asset. You can’t build a strong team without key players, and great senior devs are worth the wait.
There’s a reason teams need developers of different levels to function efficiently, and that reason is balance. Your team is a living organism. It needs to be flexible and self-supporting.
It makes total sense not to overburden your best performers with mundane activities, so they can quickly solve problems others would spend weeks on. It stands to reason to foster a strong work ethic among the middle developers who are working hard on their tasks and supporting their junior colleagues. Finally, it’s absolutely essential to have an influx of new blood, and junior devs can bring just the right kind of young energy to your team while completing simple tasks cheaply.
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