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What's the Difference Between a Senior Developer and a Junior Developer, Anyway?

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The average base salary for a senior developer in the United States is $100,679, with additional compensation equalling about $5,000 per year. The average salary for a junior developer, in comparison, is $66,684, meaning that a senior developer typically makes about $40k more per year than their junior counterpart. If you’re wondering what exactly the difference between a senior developer and a junior developer is, we’re here to supply you with an answer.

Oftentimes, we get this question when a company is building out their hiring requirements for a new IT role opening up within their organization. As they determine their candidate “must-haves” for a developer position, some recruiters have to ask: are they looking for a junior or senior developer, or does the distinction even play into their needs at all?

Stereotypes, Soft Skills, and the Measure of Success

One Medium article explores the difference between junior developers and senior developers. Their input? “Like them or hate them, these labels are useful to help managers fill important roles and determine fair pay.”

To vastly simplify a very nuanced issue, junior developers are often viewed as avid learners with some knowledge of the language and technology stack with which they work. Senior developers are considered to have mastered their language and technology stack and be knowledgeable about security risks, standard application protocols, and the like. Some believe that a person can call themselves a senior developer not when they’ve reached X number of years in the field, but when they can self-manage their projects and handle the entire development life cycle — end-to-end — while either leading others or offering guidance to those around them.

If a company wishes to place greater value on knowledge sharing and learning, there’s a stereotype that junior developers are more open to that than senior developers. Similarly, if an organization needs to find a developer to head a crucial business project, senior developers are seen as the “safer” option to choose. Be careful, though. On the one hand, a senior developer ought to have more extensive experience (and more time for their education and skill sets to have been tested) than a junior developer. On the other hand, an accumulation of hours doesn’t necessarily translate to a more talented developer. Generalizations, especially when it comes to the abilities of an individual, can only be so accurate.

In a StackExchange forum, one developer wrote: “I’ve worked with companies, who defined a senior developer as someone with five years or more of experience. There is no mention to the quality of the experience, just that they sat in front of a computer for five years. In working with these folks, many of them had not yet grasp object oriented programming — yet they were considered senior developers. There must be a better more objective way to measure the skill set of a software engineer.”

To add to the debate, there has, in recent years, been a seismic shift in the way in which tech talent is assessed. A candidate’s soft skills hold a considerable amount of weight: if they’re communicative, collaborative, a team player, creative, optimistic, patient, flexible — these traits can boost a junior developer into a position that may otherwise have been earmarked for a more senior developer.

Senior Developers vs. Junior Developers

Here at Esteemed, our team works primarily with developers. Different employers will come to us with different requirements. Progressive companies often weigh skill over experience, but many businesses still also look directly at how many years a developer has been working. Whether right or wrong, it’s still pretty prevalent, and everybody seems to have a bit of a different definition of what really constitutes “senior.” The rule of thumb is that a junior developer usually has 1-2 years of experience, a mid-level developer has 2-5 years, and a senior developer has over 5 years of experience under their belt. This range varies from company to company, so, again, take that as a general guideline.

  • Junior Developer: 1-2 years of experience
  • Mid-Level Developer: 2-5 years of experience
  • Senior Developer: 5+ years of experience

When our team works with clients looking to hire either a junior or senior developer, we make the conscious decision to evaluate candidates based on both experience and skill. Unless a role specifically mentions “Senior Experience” as a non-negotiable requirement, we recommend candidates based on their skill level. This way, we’re able to place skilled candidates in roles that will give them more experience. (And, to be honest, we got tired of recommending senior developers, who certainly had the necessary amount of experience, just for them to get turned down for roles because their skills weren’t the right fit for the requirements). We see the most success this way.

Just because our company’s screening policy allows us the freedom to emphasize skill level over years of experience for internal roles, doesn’t mean we automatically apply it to all of our clients. As we’ve mentioned, different employers will come to us with different requirements for open roles, and we don’t have much influence over what they say they’re looking for. That being said, if an employer finds a developer role difficult to fill, we’ll often advise them to tweak their requirements to open the doors for better-fitting candidates.

Choosing the Right Developer For the Job

There are several best practices in the industry which can land tech recruiters the right developer for the job. Rather than limiting your applicant pool by requesting either a junior or a senior developer, it’s better to build a candidate persona, screen candidates for position-specific skills, and work specialized recruiting into one’s hiring strategy. By taking these calculated steps, as opposed to focusing on titles, companies can more closely match talent to opportunities.

Looking to hire a developer? The Esteemed Talent Network and Esteemed Screening as a Service are two ways in which your organization can land top tech professionals (junior and senior, alike).

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