Return of the Senior Engineer

To paraphrase Mark Zuckerberg, there is a widespread feeling that young people are smarter and senior developers are not needed. But, when you look inside most businesses, you see businesses that are being held back by a lack of senior developers.

What did the founder of one of the largest tech companies mean by this?

Many new startups typically take a year to produce something that is ugly, full of bugs, inflexible, poorly written and practically (but not absolutely) unusable. Then, in year 2, they re-write the entire product which is 10x better yet is plain, still full of bugs, still inflexible, poorly written in a different way and somewhat usable. Finally, in year 3, they re-write the entire product for the third time and, before it is delivered, the investors give up, the startup runs out of money and the startup folds.

This is one reason (but not the only reason!) that startup failure is so high. The startup built the wrong thing in the wrong way and paid the price in years of development time and millions of dollars of venture capital.

Differently, in the biggest tech corporations, the product just slows down and creeps along. After years, the product is reasonably attractive, has a “big” codebase and is not very flexible. New features are small and mundane, and, in the worst cases, simply visual (“a new coat of paint on an old car”). Developers add to the mass of code but simply don’t have the technical ability to see into the codebase and make the changes necessary to make big, new features possible.

First, is it reasonable to expect one senior developer unwind 2 years of design and code chaos, bring to heel a 10-person team of non-senior developers who continue to produce code and whip the product into shape in 6 months? Is it reasonable to hire Michael Jordan to lead your team of rookies in the mid-season and expect him, by himself, to win the NBA championship for you? Yet that’s what a lot of companies expect: that they can hire ONE person to supercharge an entire team or even turn nothing into something amazing.

At a startup, it’s possible that the right senior developer(s) could get the startup to year 2.5 in 1 year. Instead of having your developers finally producing a sell-able product just when it’s too late to matter, you can save a lot of time and some money.

At a big company, the right senior developer(s) can clean up your code base, make it possible to produce big, new features and actually produce big, new features. The focus should be placed on hiring those software engineers who have “experience” dealing with the software problem(s) you have and less about tossing warm bodies at the problem.

Author: Richard Soares

Director of Software Development & Senior Technical Project Manager