How to become a senior developer

The title of this post should really be: "How to become a senior developer, from somebody who is one, relayed to you by somebody who isn't one".

I recently sat down with my employer Circular Wave's co-founder and CTO Ashley Rudland, for my end-of-first-year-as-a-developer catch up meeting. Amongst a whole host of things, one of the main topics we discussed was what it would take for me to progress from where I currently am, a junior developer with one year's professional experience, to becoming a senior developer. Ash is well suited to address this topic, having something like sixteen years of professional development experience under his belt.

After a discussion around what I personally thought would be the most important skills for a senior developer to posses, Ash wrote down his own well-considered thoughts around this, neatly separated out into 5 bullet points, interestingly listed in order of priority. Seeing Ash's list was quite eye-opening for me, I was especially surprised at how he'd prioritised the items on his list. As Ash explains it, some of these skills will naturally improve with experience, so generally aren't possessed at a high standard by many junior developers. However if a junior developer was to surround themself with more experienced developers, these skills could be acquired earlier than experience would usually allow for.

With Ash's approval I've gone into detail below on his list of the five most important skills required of a senior developer, in order (from most important to least).

Persistence, resilience & emotional control

This is the most important skill that a senior developer should posses. A good senior developer shouldn't get flustered by, or frustrated with their work. While a junior developer might reach a point of frustration with a task where they simply give up any hope of solving the problem alone and seek help, a senior developer should always have the confidence in their abilities, the resilience of attitude and the perseverance to keep working on the problem, until eventually it will get resolved. Even in the face of major adversity, a senior developer will find a way to get the job done. They're confident that they'll solve the problem eventually, no matter how difficult, so why get stressed in the process?

Semantic tree analysis & problem solving

While Ash has a demonstrably brilliant ability to solve problems, he'll be the first person to admit that this isn't due to a natural talent or some inherent ability, it's due to his structured and well-considered approach to problem solving. The human brain has incredible potential to consider and find solutions for some very complex problems. However the human brain draws its roots in an evolutionary history that has left it not only incredibly capable, but also incredibly flawed, easily overwhelmed and liable to approach problems in incorrect and ineffective ways. Without a clear framework laid out to help tackle complex problems, the pressure of cognitive load can lead to the human brain's tendencies to fall back on its less effective traits taking hold, derailing any attempts at productive problem solving.

Once you're able to exercise the ability to remain calm under pressure as described in the previous point, you also need a system to help rationalise problems and overcome your brain's natural limitations. Many developers, even experienced developers may never even consider their approach to problem solving, keeping it in a largely unaltered state throughout their careers. While honing your problem solving ability can be a slow process taking potentially years to see substantial improvement, with practice you can reach an almost unconscious level of incredibly high competency, whereby your problem solving abilities can be sped up dramatically, by as much as a 10x to 30x improvement in Ash's estimations. Mastering this ability can push you into the top one percent of developers.

Semantic tree analysis provides a problem solving framework that we can use. It is the art of continually stepping backward from a problem, to a higher level of encapsulation. When considering a piece of buggy code for example, a good senior developer won't necessarily focus on that line of code for long, but will instead 'step backwards', to consider the issue from further back. "What is this code, what is it trying to do?", they might ask. "Can we use something else entirely here?" This will oftentimes lead to several further backward steps, each reframing the problem as a smaller component part of a larger 'tree' of parts.

Continually stepping back from the nuts-and-bolts of the issue in this way leads to viewing the issue not in isolation, but from a much wider point of view which reframes the problem in different ways, and which may make solving the problem suddenly seem trivial. This method may suggest fixes which would have been difficult to consider when only looking at the lower-level code implementation of the problem.

Shipping product fast & customer value

I liken this skill to having the ability to remove yourself from the current situation, from deep within the coding trenches, and view it from 10,000 feet above instead.

There have been times where I've personally been handed a task to complete, and that task may eventually have proven to be much more difficult to complete than anybody had initially accounted for, due to one of a whole host of reasons. As a junior developer, my mind has naturally moved toward "how can I get this working exactly as specified?". I've wanted to complete the tasks that I've been given in exactly the way that they've been specified, because anything less feels like giving up, or asking for help with something that I should be capable of doing alone. Several times Ash has eventually gotten involved once it's become clear that I've been having difficulties, or that the time estimate has started running too far over. Many of these times, while I've been deep in the code, surrounded by broken functionality that I'm trying hard to fix, Ash would say something like: "Okay this has turned out to be much more complicated than we thought it would be, why don't we try this instead. It's a different solution, but will be just as useful from the customer's point of view".

What I'm referring to is the senior developer's ability to view things from a different perspective, and ask themselves what the customer actually wants or needs, and how can we quickly get an approximation of that to them. It's asking the big questions, not just "how can we build this feature as specified", but "should we be building this feature at all? Is there a simpler way to produce a broadly similar result for the end user, that will save a lot of time and money?".

Tech ability

I was surprised at how low tech ability rates in this list, because I gave it the top spot in my own estimates. From my perspective as a junior developer, one key skill that a senior developer should absolutely possess is a very high level of technical ability. To my mind a senior developer would rely very little on documentation, because all of their years of experience should have filled their knowledge banks with enough real world examples that they just know how to do things.

While this is true to a certain extent, Ash actually lists it as one of the lower priority skills, because a senior developer should just be able to pick up technical abilities when needed. Once a certain base level of proficiency is reached, a senior developer should just be able to pick up anything else they need to know along the way, whether it's something that is slightly familiar, or a new concept entirely. Senior developers don't need to have all of the answers in their heads, they just need to be good at finding the right answers when they need to, and executing quickly and efficiently on those answers.

Architecture / Foresight for roadmap

A senior developer should always be keeping one eye on the underlying architecture of their product. There are often methods available for speeding up, simplifying or optimising the architecture of a code base, and these methods can often provide a far larger benefit than simply trying to optimise the existing code.

A junior developer might try to write code that works. A mid-level developer might try to write code that works, and is well optimised. A good senior developer might write the same code as the junior developer did, and then focus not on code optimisation but on ways of hosting their product in a more optimal environment, and delivering it to the end user is the most streamlined way possible. Optimising code can have a big impact for the better, but getting the architecture right can do so with an exponentially larger effect.

Foresight for roadmap means essentially keeping an eye on the future requirements of your product. Don't build something in a particular way simply because it works for the current task, instead consider the tasks that you'll also be working on in the months and years ahead, and make sure that your current tasks are designed and built in such a way to work with, or at the very least to not hinder those future plans. A senior developer should instinctively be thinking about the future, rather than only looking at their short term tasks.

Conclusion

As discussed, some of these skills naturally come with experience while others can be 'hacked' earlier than experience would usually allow, by exposure to a certain way of thinking and working. The key take away for me, is that now that I'm aware of these requirements, I can keep them in mind, and consider them throughout every task that I'm a part of going forward. This will not only benefit those tasks, but my own personal development too.