From junior to senior

It came to me as a realization in the last few days. There is really a huge gap between juniors and seniors as programmers. It’s commonly said that there is a 1:20 variation in our profession, but how much is really associated to experience? That alone can account for an order of magnitude. It’s not a matter of not being smart. Juniors just waste time and don’t realize it. There are multiple reasons for it, but most of them are related to not asking for help.

The specs are unclear, but they don’t ask questions. Specs are always unclear. Just discussing the issue with anyone can help clarifying what has to be done. A junior will either sit idle and wait until he figures it out on his own or pick a random track and waste hours on it. In most cases, there is no right answers. It’s just a judgment call that can only be made by someone who knows the application throughout , understands the domain of application and the use cases. This takes years to learn, so just ask someone who knows.

They don’t have the knowledge necessary to go above a hump. The natural response when they don’t understand a piece of code is to search google for an entire day, even though someone a shout away could have provided the answer within 45 seconds. Sure the interruptions are bad and learning by yourself is a good skill to have, but wasting that amount of time is never a good deal. It takes a while to become comfortable with all the technologies involved in a non-trivial project.

They spend hours on a problem while they could have solved more important ones in less time. Prioritizing work is probably the most important aspect of being productive. Especially when you work in an old application that has countless problems, at the end of the day, you still need to get your objectives done. At some point as a programmer, you need to trust “management” or “technical direction” that the task that were assigned are probably the ones that bring the most value in the project, regardless of what you stumble across along the way.

All of this can be solved fairly easily. Before you begin a task, figure out what the real objectives are, how much time you think it’s going to take and how much time those who assigned it think it’s going to take. Unless they are technical, most managers have no clue how long something is going to take, but aligning the expectations is a key to successful projects. If you think it’s a one week effort and they thought you would only need to spend 2 hours on it, it’s probably better to set the clocks straight and not begin at all.

Even when money is not involved, either you are working for a governmental organization or an open source project as a volunteer, time remains valuable. All bugs are not equal. Not everything is worth spending time on and what should really be judged is the impact of the effort.

Even though most HR departments turned the concept of a time sheet into a joke by forcing all employees to report 40 hours of work per week, a real, detailed time sheet with tasks and how long they took to perform is a great tool for developers to improve their efficiency. Was all that time really worth spending?

At the end of each day, it’s a good thing to look back at what you worked on and ask yourself if it was really what you set out to do.

Once you’re half way through the allocated time, ask yourself if you’re still working on the real objectives. If you’re not, the solution is obvious: get back to it. If you’re still on the objective, but feel you are circling around, how about asking for help?

Once you’re past the allocated time, consider cutting your loss. Ask around. Maybe the request was just a nice to have. It’s really not worth spending too much time on. It may be more economic to assign it to someone else. Just inform about progress and expectations. It allows direction to re-align and support. There is nothing wrong with admitting failure. It just saves time and money in most cases.

One thought on “From junior to senior”

  1. Good observations all, and the recognition that time is the most valued resource is golden. This may not be appreciated or acknowledged in cubeland, but is crucial for ISVs” survival, not to mention success. Capital can be thought of as labor in the form of ice cubes, stored for later use. A broad experience is the best way for them to be accumulated.
    Chuck Brooks
    FutureWare SCG

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