This question comes to me again and again. What does it mean to be senior? This question became more important to me a few years ago when I started working in seniority roles. But the question became a recurring one for me after my friend told me a story about one encounter with her manager. To make it short, he wanted her to do some straightforward task, and she gave following response: "I have no problem with doing that, but are you sure it is an efficient use of senior time? Especially when there are juniors for whom that would be an excellent learning experience?"
This exchange was coming to me again and again, echoing in my mind. This one question. "What does it means to be senior?" There are tones of articles discussing seniority. But the truth is we all have our context, so none of those articles has completely worked for me. Same with this article, it may now work in your context. I think I came to answer that works for me, at least for now.
So let’s start:
Who is senior?
In short, it is an experienced worker who can tackle problems, faster, more efficient and is much more self-sufficient. Let dissect them.
Lets discuss the experience.
In the past, I was strongly arguing a case that the experience and years of work are not strongly correlated. I was giving examples of people who had over ten years of experience and were stuck on an elementary skill level because they weren’t improving.
There is one problem with the above statement. At best, it is anecdotal evidence. Statistically, with more years, you had more opportunities to gain experience and learn something. More importantly, you had more time to polish your skills in practice. Yes, having ten years of experience doesn’t automatically mean you are expert but statically chances are much higher than you are, then if you have only two behind your belt.
Similarly, it also works another way around. The fact you work as a tester for only two years also shows where is a soft cap of your skill. Yes, if you were grabbing every opportunity, had challenges projects your skill level may be higher.
Time needed for mastery.
There is also an old concept that you need 10 000 hours to learn the skill. Here is the thing. This is semi-true. In his book Outliers Malcolm Gladwell estimated that to achieve the top of the field sportsmen need to spend around 10k hours of "effective training".
That’s a lot. Assuming in the actual world, you won’t be training 8 hours every day. (even in work condition where you use your skill I would say at best you get 3 hours of practical training) you get around ten years to become one of the best.
Here is the thing the author was writing about becoming one of the best in highly competitive sports. In my opinion, "the best" is higher than the master. You don’t need 10K hours to acquire skill; you can do it much faster (some say 20 hours is enough) Another thing is I had found no research about knowledge skills, how well Malcolm statement suits intellectual work.
I bring this point here for one reason. 10K hours maybe too much, but mastery comes with lots of practice, and our job is not one skill but many. To name a few: Testing (web, mobile, security, performance), Planning, Communication, Agile methodologies, etc.
So years of experience matter. Yes, you will find people with lots of years and little skill, and you find reverse cases, but they are not the norm. You cannot blindly trust age but ignoring it is as unwise.
Last but not least, with age comes maturity. And this is also important for senior roles. Yes, in this case, I mean physical age, not years of experience. But usually both are related.
I am hesitant to put a number, but I would say seniority start around 7-8 years of experience. I got my first senior role around 5th year, and now, from the perspective of time, it was too soon.
Senior Knowledge Worker.
Do you remember my youtube experiment? I was talking about knowledge sharing and knowledge workers. We are knowledge workers, and we need to learn new things to stay in the game. Although here a young age has an advantage because it gets a new skill faster. With seniority, another skill comes to play adaptability. With experience, you can adapt to the new, unfamiliar situation fast. If the team starts to use new tools, frameworks approach, it is expected that seniors will figure out how to propel ways to use them. And that they will figure out how to solve the problem. How will they do it? Usually, by making an educated guess, either buy knowing what the right question to ask google is. I am not joking.
At least once a month, I resolve someone’s problem by asking google right question. It is not like they didn’t try to google. They just didn’t know how to ask for what they need.
You may not like it, but IT is work based on communication and knowledge sharing. Which means Teaching others is also part of senior responsibility. No that doesn’t mean you have to lead training or making a presentation. (although you should this is good training, you don’t know how much I had improved my knowledge and skills by preparing to teach others). But when you see someone in your team struggling, you should know when to resolve the problem for them and when to give them the advice to help them, do it on their own and when to explain stuff to them.
Tactical and Strategical thinking.
In some places, there are architects, principals. But usually, when there is something to plan, seniors are the one doing the bulk of planning, bids, etc So you have to have at least a tactical understanding of what is important. Not only for you but also your team and project. Basically, you need to look further than your current task.
Time management and assertiveness.
Seniors time is always in high demand; you have your work to do. Others need your help to do their job, and there are a lot of other activities that require your attention. That why not only you need to be good at prioritisation. But also at time management and assertiveness. Some times you have to say no. But even some times you have to say much more.
Note going back to quote of my friend from the start. As a senior, you still can and will do a task that may be simple and better for other roles. Because those task needs to be done and there is no one else who can take it. Part of seniority is also being able to recognise that and do them instead of being prideful. Again, you need to know when it’s better to leave the task for others and when to do it. She understood it quite well.
So as usually one of the most experienced members of the team, you often will have to raise your concerns. Explain your ideas approaches and some times even explain stuff to clients. So Communication is an important skill.
Actual practical Skill.
I never state it clearly, so I will do it here. You need to be actually good at what you are doing. All other stuff is important, but you were hired to do a specific job (testing, programming, etc.). It is assumed that you are good enough to deal with more challenging tasks or are much more efficient.
To put it all together. What does it mean to be senior?
Today we did quite a lot. Time to sum it up! Being senior for me is about perspective, and balance of doing your work, and help others. It is also about having enough maturity and insight to know when you need to do your job, when you need to help others or teach them. To do all this not only your core competencies have too strong but side skills too! To name a few: Communication, Adaptability, Time management and Assertiveness.
I haven’t touched on responsibilities from the job description and how seniority is understood by your company.
Last but not least, I don’t think all this skill have to be developed to an expert level to be senior. Hell, my time management and assertiveness definitely need more work.
That all for today? What about you? How do you understand seniority?
March is a month under Coronvirus pandemic. I hope whenever you are and whoever you are that you, your friends and family are in good health.
That why I would like to wish you: Stay Healthy, Stay Safe and keep learning.