Are you considering growing your career and becoming a senior software engineer? Or maybe you're planning your next steps and can't tell whether the role is for you?
At this point, you're probably wondering what it takes to become a senior software engineer today. What skills do you need to succeed, and how to advance your career? In this article, we take a closer look at this coveted role in the tech industry to show you what a senior developer actually does and how to become one.
Table of contents:
- Who is a senior software engineer?
- What is the career path towards becoming a senior software engineer?
- How to become a senior software engineer? 6 expert tips
Who is a senior software engineer?
A senior software developer is a professional with anything from 4 to 10+ years of experience in the field. But it's not just about how much experience a developer has on their back. It's also about how many things they get to learn by participating in real-life software development projects.
Here are a few characteristics of senior software developers:
- They are competent in the core technologies used in their company.
- They used to specialize in one technology or area, but it's changing – recently, senior developers are fluent in several technologies and open to learning new things (technology agnostic).
- They have a firm grasp of high-level architectural concerns and design.
- They're skilled problem-solvers who are experienced in building real-world solutions.
- They know how to actively mentor and coach other developers on their team.
To sum it up for you, a senior software engineer is someone who:
- knows how to solve difficult technical problems,
- is a good communicator and team player,
- and has real-world experience that provides them with key context during decision-making.
Putting all of these elements together, you get a professional who can become a real team leader.
What level of knowledge does a senior software engineer have?
A senior developer's skills are shaped like a T. What does it mean? That the developer has a fundamental understanding of many different topics – this is the top, horizontal part of the T. However, there exist one or more areas in which they have in-depth knowledge and skills – these make the vertical part of the T. Senior developers know a lot about the tools and techniques that can be used to solve specific problems. We can refer to these elements as the breadth of knowledge and depth of knowledge respectively.
Senior software engineer – knowledge breadth
Here's an example of what the breadth of knowledge means for a senior software engineer:
The developer might have no experience whatsoever in building a production-ready distributed microservice system. However, they are aware of what kind of problems this architectural method solves. They also know all the different ways to start thinking about how to structure them.
Even if the developer didn't have any direct experience with the technology or approach, they still know what kind of problems it can solve on a higher level. Senior developers know what kind of solutions are available to common or recurring problems in programming.
Senior software engineer – knowledge depth
Let's go back to the T. What is the vertical part of the T? It's all about knowledge depth. The idea here is that a senior software engineer has one or more areas in which they are very skilled and knowledgeable. Oftentimes, this type of expertise directly relates to their specific role in their company.
A senior developer is an expert in something, but they continue to expand their knowledge to other areas as well. This could be an area like system architecture, a programming paradigm, a specific programming language, a set of technologies, a subject like cybersecurity, or even knowledge of a specific industry.
What is the career path towards becoming a senior software engineer?
Here is a short breakdown of the steps professionals usually take on their way to becoming senior software developers.
Junior software developer – characteristics
A junior developer usually has 0 to 3 years of experience. Junior developers can write simple scripts and have some preliminary understanding of the application lifecycle, services, and databases. They might not be comfortable in every part of building complex applications.
Junior developers are those who have just started their programming career and might feel out of their depth often or not sure how to go on about building a large and complex application.
The key characteristic of a junior developer is a lack of experience. Even the smartest and fastest-learning developers out there don't have the experience that comes with just being exposed to enough code, real-life problems, and edge cases. It all comes down to knowing software design patterns. A junior developer can read all the books they want about these patterns, but nothing helps them to learn like life lessons such as writing bad code or breaking things.
Mid/regular software developer – characteristics
A mid software developer has 2 to 4 years of experience and has already participated in several software development projects. At this point, the developer is competent in some or all stages of the lifecycle – from analysis and design to development, testing, implementation, and documentation.
The developer usually has some methods in place for solving problems, basic debugging skills, and code revision competencies. They can set up a development environment on their own and mentor a team of junior developers.
Senior software developer – characteristics
A senior developer has from 4 to 10+ years of experience on the job. They're capable of writing complex applications and have a deep understanding of the entire application lifecycle, services, and databases. They are comfortable working in any area of the application.
This is a role for people who have already spent some time in developer positions and have become really good at building entire applications at scale. In reality, a lot of programmers spend most of their careers as senior developers. This role is especially loved by those who hate management and prefer to code instead.
However, becoming a senior software developer can also be a good jumping point for another place on the ladder. For example, once you understand the technology landscape well enough to become a senior developer, you probably already have the technical know-how to become a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or technical founder of a startup. Or a lead developer/architect.
Lead developer or architect – characteristics
A lead developer or architect has 7-10+ years of experience and comes with the same skill set as a senior developer. While a lead developer is a role that can help a person transition into a mid-level manager, an architect is commonly a final technical role on the ladder.
So here's what it takes to become either of those:
After seven years or more of coding apps, you probably know whether you like management or not.
If not, becoming an architect is probably the highest rank left for you on the technical career ladder. As an architect, you will still be writing code, but most of your time will be dedicated to designing complex systems implemented by teams of senior, mid, and junior developers. Your job will be to use your technical wisdom and create structures for a successful software project. An architect is a person who knows all the right ways to build and scale an application.
Contrary to software architect is the position of lead developer. Many senior software developers choose this path because they like to mentor and coach junior developers. Lead developers coordinate the work that needs to be done in the project and are the key decision-makers for important implementation decisions while working on code. While they don't hire or fire programmers, they, in fact, perform many similar tasks to managers.
How to become a senior software engineer? 6 expert tips
Gain a broader view of the tech world
A senior software developer takes full responsibility for the software development project. In order to do that, they need to have a holistic understanding of how things work. That's why it's not enough to just know one programming language or framework really well. You need to understand the mechanisms behind the IT environment, data structures, algorithms, and other things that help teams to transform ideas into working software products.
Growing in this field isn't just about learning programming languages, frameworks, and libraries. It's important to know the pros and cons of all these technologies but never forget that they share similar principles.
Have a clear career path and don't ever stop learning
Learning is an essential part of any job, but it's even more important than the world of programming. That's because the technology landscape is constantly changing, and it's critical for software developers to keep up with all the innovations.
Smart senior developers know that and keep up with the recent trends in the IT industry.
It's also important to understand which area of expertise will become important and explore related topics more in-depth. This decision will depend on your interests or role specifics. This type of learning can take on many different forms – from online courses, books, blogs, and podcasts to conferences, meetups, workshops, pair programming, and hackathons.
However, to become a senior software developer, you shouldn't dedicate your efforts only to the art of coding itself. You need to explore multiple fields like team management, working methodologies, productivity, and all the other aspects that are part of building a digital product.
Become an expert
To score the job of a senior software engineer, you need to be recognized by other developers as a great team member and knowledgeable mentor.
Being recognized as an expert might mean different things in a startup and large enterprise. But most of the time, you’ll find senior developers playing the mentor role there. How did they get there? By gradually improving how they did their job, optimizing their performance, and delivering more code in less time and with fewer bugs. They simply figured out the smart way of doing things faster and better.
Moreover, developers who become senior are the ones who are interested in discussing complex problems and coming up with creative solutions. They not only bring high-quality deliverables but also contribute to the growth of the entire team, especially the less experienced developers.
They're the ones capable of becoming their companies' key technical knowledge carriers – and that should be your ambition as well.
Learn how to work in a team
Practically every software developer's career path involves collaborating with other people. Senior software engineers might be required to manage both the project and other people. That's why teamwork, emotional intelligence, and communication skills are so important.
To become a good senior developer, you need to work on soft and social skills.
Sure, you might be a great problem-solver – but your role will also be to make problem-solving easier for others in the team. It's essential that people feel comfortable about approaching you to discuss challenges or doubts. And that's the gist of becoming a senior software engineer. You need to realize how important these values are and play for the team.
You can't gain people's trust or develop killer interpersonal skills overnight. It's something that you need to work on right from the moment of launching your career.
Don't hesitate to share your knowledge
Don't become one of those software developers who keep all the knowledge to themselves because they think this makes them more valuable to their employers.
In reality, senior software developers are usually active members of their local communities. They contribute in many different ways like speaking or organizing meetups, giving talks at conferences, contributing to open-source projects, writing articles, and taking part in mentoring programs.
It's by sharing knowledge that you gain this status, not by avoiding doing it.
Senior software developers care about the external community but also the internal community at their organizations. They are the ones who promote best practices across teams, initiate discussions about project challenges, perform code reviews, and communicate to others what could be improved and how. They make a habit out of knowledge sharing – and so should you.
Learn how to interact with clients
Senior software developers can follow different career paths, but sooner or later, they might end up taking over the communication with the client or business stakeholder.
By now, you probably know that becoming a senior software developer isn't just about amazing coding knowledge but also your soft skills. After all, building software means creating products – so, a senior software developer needs to be able to interact with business stakeholders successfully.
Make sure to build your soft skills in this area. In particular, focus on areas like listening and understanding people's needs, explaining complex programming concepts to non-technical people, negotiating skills, and building long-lasting relationships.
We hope that this article gives you some pointers about how to grow your career in the right direction if becoming a senior software developer is your goal. Are there any other things that you'd advise junior and mid-level developers on? What did your path to a senior software engineer role look like?
Share your story in the comments! We look forward to hearing your career stories and seeing how you scored your dream job.
In the meantime, don’t hesitate to check out our job opportunities for software developers.