Expecting people to become ‘Senior’ Engineers in 3 years is ridiculous.

Becoming a ‘Senior’ engineer in three years is a ridiculous concept. Programming is a complex enough endeavor that you can’t learn the basics of most areas in 3 years of work experience. By the 3 year mark great programmers will have achieved a high level of expertise in one programming domain. For example 3 years might be enough time to master web development with Django. But web development with Django is just one of many domains within computer programming. Mastering Django does not require a software engineer to learn anything about operating systems, low latency computing or graphics computing. In some environments web developers might not have any involvement with DNS or how their software is made available to users as deployment is handled by a infrastructure as code team. 

 In my case I was promoted to ‘Technical Architect’ and team lead in under three years at my first job. I was really good at my job and worked well in the consulting business. At that point in my career I knew a lot of stuff application development, frontend development, automated testing, devops, etc. But I felt under qualified and wanted more money so I ended up taking a demotion to move to FAANG. 

Why can people get promoted to ‘Senior’ Engineer so quickly in the software industry? The main reason is the expansion of the workforce. With double digit employment growth each year, there are a lot of inexperienced programmers in the workforce. Having three years of experience is a big deal in an environment where a large portion of working programmers have under three years experience. 

The issue is that three years is not really enough time to master software development. Honestly, in three years you are more of a ‘journeyman’ programmer than a senior one. You wouldn’t expect a three year senior to be able to bootstrap a new engineering team or to set the engineering culture at a new company or division. There is simply too much to learn about how software works. 

In my particular case, I felt that my ability to deliver projects was great. But when it came to designing software abstractions or building software architecture, I felt like I didn’t know enough to do a good job. I had read books like ‘Domain Driven Design’ on software design patterns, but knowing patterns and actually designing software are not the same thing. In my opinion software agency work is not the best place to learn software architecture design. You simply don’t stay embedded on projects long enough to see the longterm costs and evolution of your designs.