March 3rd, 2017 · 15 min read
Last updated: October 29th, 2021
This is Part 2 of a series of articles for programmers looking to upgrade their skills. Part 1 took us through the very beginning stages where we set out to find the most efficient way to go from zero to an employable developer. Today, we are going to take things a whole lot further.
This article is for all the developers, coders and programmers out there who are looking to make a jump in their career after having had a few years in the industry (or maybe you're just starting out but would like to see the sort of path you that's ahead of you).
This article is for those with a simple desire: You want to be considered a Senior Developer and you want to excel in your field. By the end of reading this, you will have a set path with a list of the best resources for you to level up and become a Senior Developer. Woaa! bold statement. Hope I got you hooked. Let’s dive in.
Actually... just a quick disclaimer before we dive in:
As with all things in life, you can always set your own path. Of course, this path I provide you is not meant to be the only way. But it is the method that I have discovered in my own career and through the many conversations and interviews I have had in the past year with people that are considered senior and respected programmers in the community. I have assembled all of the commonalities and best practices for you into the path below. Underneath all of this is not just an article on how to become a better developer. It is a how to guide on optimizing your time with efficient and useful tools so that you get the most out of your life. You can take this sort of learning anywhere in the future.
Ok, for real this time. Let's do this!
We all strive to be better at our jobs. What the specifics of that statement may be is up to the individual person. However, I'm sure most people can agree on a few common things:
We don’t want to go through life being seen as ‘incompetent’
We want to be respected by our coworkers
We want to feel smart and accomplished
We want to feel appreciated
In order to achieve these, we can’t just rest on our laurels and expect things to come to us. Especially in the world of programming, where the technology is always changing and the amount of information available to us is overwhelming. We need to focus our attention on growing and learning, without burning out. With more and more developers coming out of colleges and bootcamps, we need to keep our skills sharp. And the way to set yourself apart is to be smart and efficient with your learning. Enough talk, let’s dive in. As always we will try and take the best approach.
No, being a polyglot who can code in 10 different programming languages and has built their own version of Jarvis does not make you a senior developer (although you are very talented). This is because a senior developer is someone who brings an incremental benefit to the table. A senior developer is someone that:
You can know all the cool functional programming techniques in the world but if you are unable to communicate well with your team or you don't focus on delivering actual value to a customer, you are not a senior developer. This is the important point: What value do you bring to your company/startup/business? If you are one of the few people who can bring an order of magnitude value (some people love the idea of 10x) to your company or business, you are a senior developer. Senior Developer is not just a job title, but rather, the ability to use your experiences to provide real benefit to the stakeholders.
This is the section you have been waiting for (or so I am imagining… maybe nobody reads this… in which case I’ll just keep talking to myself). Let’s dig in and see if we can make it through everything. Follow resources below and spend some time learning about each topic. If you are able to actively work on the skills below, you will be miles ahead of everybody else. I call this the Developer’s Edge. There will always be people with more experience than you in a field but you can work smarter and in a more efficient manner to accumulate different combinations of skills to set yourself apart. This not only makes you a better developer, it also increases your overall happiness because you are providing real value to people.
An often overlooked aspect of learning is that you need to specialize and focus solely on one thing. However, that's not how life works. It's very rare in life that you require just one skill. Especially in a field like technology where things are constantly changing (who knows what Machine Learning Engineers will be doing in 5 years?), you need to have a diverse set of transferable skills that will make you adaptable.
These are the 6 core skills you will need to be considered a senior developer:
This is usually the first skill that comes to mind for most people. Hopefully by this point though you are convinced that it's only a small slice of a much larger pie. Don’t get me wrong, you do need technical skills and you can’t fake it. However, you can be smart about what you focus on. Senior developers spend time understanding the WHY of a technology. Why does this problem exist? Why does this framework exist? What problem is this library solving? As a developer, you need to have a good sense of all of the tools and ideas that can benefit the development lifecycle and pick the tools that will have the biggest positive gain on a project. Instead of focusing on every single new release feature of this super fancy testing framework, they focus on the pros and cons of each testing framework when trying to solve a real problem for their company/client. They ask questions like ‘What can be improved in our Continuous Delivery process to provide a better product?”
If you have come out of a coding bootcamp or you don’t have a computer science degree, you need to start learning about data structures, algorithms and other computer science topics. Why? Because although frameworks and technologies change, the main principles in computer science (mostly) stay the same. By understanding these higher level topics, you are once again able to see that most software problems and good practices are generally constant throughout different languages and time. This book (Rob Conery) and this book (Gayle Laakmann McDowell) are probably the best tools I have found to level up your skills in this. Although they only scratch the surface, it will set the foundation for more learning in the future.
Start listening to podcasts like Software Engineering Daily by Jeff Meyerson so you can stay current on the present issues and future outlooks of the whole industry.
Finally, read this great article which goes through some subset skills from a purely technical standpoint.
This is an often overlooked skill. How do you work with team members? Are you brash and opinionated with PR (pull request) reviews and contribute to a toxic culture? Or are you considerate, cooperative and encouraging of your team members? Senior developers don’t have large egos. They know they are good and don’t need to prove themselves to others. They write clean, simple code rather than code to try and show off their skills which is unreadable and ultimately detrimental to the other team members and their company. They are willing to help others and they are willing to ask questions when they don’t know something.
Remember: how can you make those around you better? If you have 5 people on your team, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 should equal greater than 5 because you make those around you better (I'm getting evil eyes from math purists now… I shall move on).
If you are the type of person that any project you get put on, or any team that you are a part of, you are able to get along with your teammates and make others work well together, you’re already miles ahead of most people. You also make managers, directors, scrum masters, and CTO’s lives easier. Those are the people that get promoted, and more importantly, those are the people that provide the most value to a company.
Are you able to talk to a client or user and clearly see what their needs are? When they suggest something to you, do you understand what problems they are facing? A senior developer is somebody that can be left alone with a client and can be a great listener, and then offer advice on what the best steps are to move forward. They are great at forming relations. They are not a pushover, but they don’t push their opinions on the client. They understand that the goal is a non zero sum game where both client and developers gain from the interaction. Have a read through this book to work on this skill.
Finally, you need to be able to explain complex programming concepts to a non-technical person. Start developing this skill by watching great instructors break down complex topics. Here is my favourite instructor, and my second favourite. Although they are teaching difficult topics, you can observe some commonalities between them that make them both great instructors.
Senior developers are always learning something new each day. That doesn’t mean they spend 14 hours a day sitting in front of a computer reading articles. They are more efficient than that. They are always looking to speak to other developers, ask questions, or explore new topics. They don’t focus on just one skill set. You can be the best in the world at making one thing, but if you don’t know the whole spectrum or have a general understanding of what problem you are solving, you are no longer the best.
They have a growth mindset (believe that intelligence is malleable) and they believe in deliberate practice (just click on the link. It's pure gold). They understand that learning everything is impossible and they choose to spend their time on things they enjoy and things that matter most.
Senior Developers are able to get themselves in senior roles because they are able to communicate and sell themselves to people making those decisions. You are able to see the needs of your employer or business and you can instil confidence in them that you are the person to solve their problems. You’re confident but humble. Senior developers are also confident enough to take on those roles and be able to perform under pressure. They also know that if you never ask, the answer is always no. So they ask for promotions or roles that challenge them because they believe they are the right person for the job. Although sales and negotiation may be seen as sleezy to some, it is a valuable skill that you need to acquire. Ramit Sethi has a great article to get you started. Although it talks about salary negotiation, some of the principles can be applied to other scenarios.
Senior developers contribute to the developer community. Whether it be by doing tech talks, speaking at meet-ups, contributing to open source, or even writing articles. They are the type of people that share information with the industry. Instead of being in a closed off box of just their working space, they go out and communicate with people in other communities which allows them to broaden their horizons. It’s kind of like travelling: The more cultures you explore, the more you understand the similarities and differences between people, and the more you start to appreciate these similarities and differences.
If you are able to actively work on these six skills, you will set yourself apart immediately. However, I have left the most important topic out of this list: You have to enjoy what you are doing. If you don’t enjoy learning everyday about computer science and software development, you will never become a senior developer because you won’t have the drive to continue to improve over the long term. If you have ever read So Good They Can’t Ignore You then you understand that passion has been over-hyped. Real passion comes after you have mastered a skill. You have worked hard to become proficient and a leader in a field. You have developed those skills and now the respect and the benefit you provide to others pushes you to become better and better to get more of these good feelings. That’s how you develop passion for work that you do.
If you have learned to code and are looking for the next step in your career, you need to think differently. How are you able to stand out? How are you able to grow? How are you able to help people solve real problems and provide value? You become a senior developer not by doing the easy things. You do the things that push and challenge your mind and comfort level. You learn and you adapt day by day just like you did the first time your wrote that first piece of code. Each step will be small, but in a span of a lifetime, small steps turn into miles. Never stop reading and never stop learning, but also know what’s a valuable use of your time and what isn’t.
I've created a number of online courses, all of which you can find here. In The Complete Web Developer, I walk you through the entire steps I mentioned above if you want everything in one place, extra help or you just want to support my work. My courses take me an insane # of hours to make but I’m really proud of them and how many lives they've already changed. If you're interested, please consider checking them out and supporting by joining Zero To Mastery.
*October 2021 update: We’ve passed 600,000 students from over 196 countries who have enrolled in a ZTM course. Even more exciting is the amazing success stories and testimonials we've received over the past few years!
By the way, I left my full-time job as a Senior Developer to teach people to code, get hired and advance their careers in the most efficient way possible as the Lead Instructor of Zero To Mastery Academy. You can see a few of my courses below or see all of my courses by visiting the courses page.