The Role of a Senior Software Developer
November 17, 2021 / Katarina Rudela
Reading Time: 10 minutes
A software engineer applies engineering approaches to the design, development, maintenance and testing of software. These techniques have historically been applied to physical engineering disciplines, but their use is becoming increasingly common in the creation of software. The terms “engineer” and “programmer” are often used interchangeably to describe someone who creates software, although the term “programmer” implies a lack of engineering discipline or skill.
The software development process includes phases such as requirements definition, implementation, assessment, management and change. Both junior and senior developers may be involved in all of these phases, but senior developers are more likely to manage configurations by controlling configuration changes, maintaining their integrity and tracing configuration through the software life cycle. These tasks are becoming more critical to software development as projects make greater use of versioning to manage changes.
The most common roles of a software developer include the research, design, implementation and management of software programs. They also analyze user requirements, test programs and evaluate them to see how well they meet those requirements. Additional roles of software developers include the identification and development of revisions in existing software to better meet user needs. This role also involves making recommendations about upgrades of those systems, along with performing software maintenance to ensure the software's current features continue to operate normally.
Software developers may also perform roles not directly related to building or maintaining code. For example, they may develop quality assurance procedures and evaluate the software's operational practicality. Furthermore, they may develop metrics, processes and tools for this purpose in addition to working with other developers, as well as other roles involved with software such as business analysts, systems analysts and user interface (UX) designers. Senior software developers can also create diagrams, models, or other visualization tools to show other developers what an application's code needs to do. Many developers spend much of their time documenting software for future purposes such as maintenance and upgrades.
Stakeholders in the IT industry such as hiring managers and HR recruiters routinely classify software developers according to their experience levels. These systems most often use categories like junior, mid-level and senior developers. The criteria used to place developers and roles into these categories include level of expertise, years of work experience and scope of responsibilities.
The responsibilities of a senior software engineer can be quite similar to those of lower experience levels, including the research, design and implementation of software. However, senior engineers with more than four years of experience are more likely to have additional responsibilities such as greater managerial oversight, including the supervision of entire projects and mentoring junior developers. Software engineers with senior job titles are usually experts in specific languages, technology stacks and other aspects of software development. They may also act as project leads, where they're expected to contribute significantly to a project's success by improving architecture and infrastructure rather than simply creating lines of code.
Many stakeholders are particularly interested in defining the differences between junior and senior programmers, as software developers are often hired on the basis of their knowledge of programming languages. In addition, an organization that's starting a new project will hire many developers at different experience levels. The terms “junior” and “senior” are often used in different contexts, further adding to the confusion on this issue. For example, the same programmer may be considered junior in HTML5, while also considered senior for .NET development.
Developers can also differ greatly in their expertise of different aspects of the same general technology. For example, a developer can have a detailed understanding of a complex platform like J2EE without possessing any practical experience in any specific version of J2EE. Such experience augments theoretical knowledge since the primary purpose of one version of an application may be to resolve a persistent problem in a previous version.
The expertise of software developers can be so context-specific that the people assessing them must remain flexible in their judgments, especially when it comes to comparing theoretical knowledge and practical experience. Both are useful in providing a developer with a picture of a language or platform, but they also make it difficult to accurately assess that developer’s level of expertise. The following diagram helps illustrate the differences in mindset between junior and senior developers in addition to placing formal constraints around those differences:
The above chart describes the differences in behavior between junior and senior programmers as the time spent and task size increase. A senior programmer writes scripts to successfully automate a task once it reaches a size, while a junior programmer continues performing the task manually and eventually fails. Junior developers are still acquiring the skills that are already well-established in their senior counterparts through perseverance and experience. These skills can’t be acquired in the classroom, as they're based on real-world experience. As a result, junior developers are typically given tasks to perform, while senior developers are generally given projects. For comparison, tasks generally don't take longer than more than a couple of weeks to complete and aren’t delivered in a customer-ready state, whereas projects require months or even years to complete and are usually delivered to a customer.
Junior developers often don't receive details on why they are performing a certain task, nor do they interact with customers in anything more than very limited circumstances. Furthermore, junior programmers don't feel comfortable training other developers nor do they lead teams. In development environments with version control, administrators usually don't provide junior developers with the authorization needed to delete or overwrite the work of other developers. Junior developers may be well suited to handling specific tasks, but they generally are qualified to provide solutions to business problems that are ready for customer use.
In contrast, senior developers work on projects that can last up to six months and include the gathering of user requirements. They are often part of a team that interacts directly with customers on a regular basis, allowing them to propose solutions to problems and explain them to customers. Senior developers also guide their juniors and provide career paths that will help them continue acquiring knowledge. Senior developers usually have delete and modify privileges on version control systems, so they can identify and correct errors. They also focus more on designing software rather than coding it.
When given a task, junior developers typically begin writing code immediately. Senior developers will complete the system architecture first to ensure the code works as needed. They can also write missing documentation on the architecture, while junior developers are less likely to see the need for this task. In addition, the code that senior developers write should be more maintainable over time.
Senior developers are also better at estimating the time needed to develop code because they can visualize the code in their heads without needing to write some of it, unlike junior developers. Senior developers can often provide time estimates in increments of less than one hour and design the code before starting to write it. Junior developers will need at least a week to provide an estimate and will ask many questions to ensure their understanding of the user's requirements. Senior developers also know how to motivate other coders to complete the project on time without sacrificing the code’s quality.
Junior developers have a strong tendency to think that users will only use software as intended, while senior developers know that some users will abuse the system. Senior developers also ensure that software fails gracefully instead of crashing by eliminating single points of failure. They use their experience from many failed IT projects to write code once and use it as many times as possible. Senior developers often write code in more than one way to determine the best solution and optimize it for the current requirements.
Senior developers can improve the performance of software running on multi-core processors, which requires knowledge of abstract and concrete classes. Developers at this experience level understand the appropriate conditions for creating an abstract class to use as a prototype and how to create concrete classes based on that prototype. Senior developers are more likely to establish naming conventions for classes, having previously learned the value of this practice in class management. In addition, a senior developer should also know to flag a project when no one has specified class naming conventions, whereas a junior developer will see the need for this requirement. Other differences between junior and senior developers include the senior developer's greater reliance on test-driven development and more stringent unit testing.
A junior developer could be tasked with maintaining a specific software library because this task doesn't require knowledge of the entire application. The APIs in that library should already be constrained and specified, so the junior developer would only need to ensure that the library functions as intended. However, a senior developer would be needed to engineer the library because this project requires the developer to define the APIs and their parameter lists, and understand the classes and other libraries that can call those APIs. In addition, a senior developer could design classes with multiple parameters and ensure these parameters are in the correct order.
UML provides another opportunity to distinguish between the capabilities of junior and senior developers. Junior developers don't need to interpret the UML for an entire system, but senior developers must understand its architecture. Senior developers also need to understand the methods and relationships for each class, often relying on visualization aid such a sequence diagrams and use case diagrams to develop new classes for a system. Junior developers are generally expected to create private classes that won't affect other modules. Senior developers can also determine how to specify access modifiers for classes based on their use and function.
Junior developers usually have meaningful experience in one or two frameworks, so they can decide on the best one to use based on an application's functional requirements. They know how each framework forms, and what their strengths and weaknesses are. However, a junior developer often hard codes values and binds them to widgets in frames, making the code less localized. Senior developers understand that a high degree of localization is needed for systems to remain useful for a long period. Junior developers can read UML but need a body of knowledge with which to form questions, whereas senior developers are comfortable in reading UML and interpreting it into code.
Junior developers may only need the skills such as programming languages, but senior developers require a balance of hard and soft skills that allow them to interact with customers and other project stakeholders.
Most software developer roles are complex, even for junior developers. They typically need multiple technical skills based on over one million job postings listed in the last year, which were analyzed by software. The results show that the top technical skills for software developers of any experience level include the following:
Hard skills are only half of the job requirements for senior developers. They must also have a variety of soft skills that transfer to positions outside of software development. Creating programs that solve a user's problem requires developers to identify problems and determine the best solution. Programming by itself requires problem-solving and troubleshooting skills, but senior developers must also think strategically when fixing bugs.
People outside the field often assume that software developers remain secluded at their desks without any contact with the outside world. While this is often true of junior developers to some extent, senior developers actually spend a considerable amount of time working with people in other roles to create the best product for users. These activities require great communication skills, including empathy and the ability to collaborate.
The process of writing code is somewhat like solving a mystery because you need to look at the big picture and determine the steps needed to achieve that goal. You also need to select the best solution from multiple candidates, which often involves considering performance metrics like run time. Developing software can be tedious work, so it's important that senior developers not get bogged down or discouraged when their first attempts fail. People who are strongly motivated to complete a task once they’ve started it stand a good chance of succeeding as a software developer.
Software developers may serve a variety of roles in creating or supporting an application. These roles generally require the developer to have a thorough understanding of architectures, systems and algorithms, but the emphasis each role places on these areas of knowledge can vary greatly. Common roles in software development include the following:
The following chart shows the demand for these roles by candidate search volume:
Note that the roles of web developer, software engineer and software developer account for the majority of software jobs. Junior positions make up only a small minority of roles, indicating most employers are looking for software professionals who already have experience.
Indeed reports that the average annual salary of software engineers in the United States is $109,330 as of 2020, with annual salaries for entry-level positions averaging $86,000. The following chart shows how average salaries vary by location:
The above chart clearly shows that the salaries of software engineers are considerably higher in large cities, especially those with a large technology-based workforce. The following three cities have the highest average salaries for software engineers:
San Francisco: $158,246
New York: $138,127
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that software developers held about 1.8 million jobs in 2020, including quality assurance analysts and testers. The largest employers of these positions by business type are as follows:
The table above shows that computer system designers are currently the largest employers of software developers by far. The BLS expects the employment of software developers and related professionals to increase by 22 percent from 2020 to 2030, which is much higher than the average growth rate forecast for this time period. Analysts also estimate that about 189,200 positions in these fields will open each year during this decade, many of which will replace workers transferring to a different field or leaving the workforce entirely.
The demand for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets is one of the biggest driving factors behind the growth in software developer positions. Industries like insurance and healthcare will also need new software to support the increasing number of people desiring digital access to their accounts, especially automated response systems like interactive voice response (IVR) and chatbots that don't require direct human intervention. Additional opportunities for software developers over the next decade include the manufacture and support of devices using software for the first time, especially consumer electronics. Rising concerns over cyber crimes will also increase the investment in security software to protect networks and other IT infrastructure.
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