Junior, Middle, & Senior Software Developers

A simple take on some seriously complex job classifications

What’s the distinction between junior developers, senior developers, and those who are somewhat in the middle? Is it technical proficiency? Years of experience? A commitment to coding?

Not surprisingly, every company has their own definitions of ‘junior,’ ‘middle,’ and ‘senior’ developers (or engineers, programmers, etc.). What is surprising is that awesome coding skills plus a lengthy tenure at a renowned company don’t always qualify someone for senior-level positions. There’s actually a lot more to it than that.

Let’s break it down into very simple terms, but keep in mind that standards vary from company to company.

Junior developers

Job level: entry
What they do: coding tasks (supervised)
Focused on: creating code, developing communication skills, adopting best practices

Typically, junior developers are fresh out of school. When they become part of a development team, they’re not quite prepared for their new environment. Sure they’ve got some hard skills related to programming, which are critical to success in their position, but they have so much to learn about the development process, daily best practices, expectations vs. reality, etc.

Most of the time, junior developers are not included in design discussions or high-level meetings simply because they don’t know what they don’t know.

Because there’s a lot to take in, junior devs are usually assigned to perform coding tasks that let them put into practice some of the things they learned in school. They’ll write basic functions, copy/paste known bug fixes, and sometimes create files from scratch. However, junior devs need a lot of supervision and guidance from more experienced team members.

Aside from coding tasks, junior employees acquire and develop new soft skills. They learn company ethics and acceptable behaviors, as well as communication skills. They learn which channels are appropriate to use for communicating, and they develop a better sense of how to effectively provide input that’s valuable to the rest of the team.

Much of the junior developer’s experience is about absorbing how their organization works and adopting best practices to become a valuable part of their team.

Middle developers

Job level: middle/intermediate
What they do: coding tasks (little/no supervision)
Focused on: creating software

Middle developers make up the bulk of the development team. Through their experience, they’ve gained a good understanding of the development process and how they contribute to their team’s efforts.

Middle devs can be trusted to work with little or no supervision. Their hard skills have been honed, allowing them to build features and craft the majority of a project’s code. They provide valuable insight and are often included in design discussions. They also bring a substantial set of soft skills to the table, so they know when to raise design or code issues, pass tasks to their counterparts, and voice any concerns they have.

Whereas junior devs see the code itself as their mountain to climb, middle developers understand that it’s the software that matters. Instead of focusing on creating the code, middle devs focus on creating the software solution that’s right for their client.

Senior developers

Job level: senior/experienced
What they do: design solutions, manage development teams, delegate tasks
Focused on: solving problems

Senior developers have a very thorough understanding of themselves, the development process, and how to create valuable solutions for clients.

Senior devs generally have plenty of hard skills related to their respective stacks. They can design effective solutions because they’re familiar with the work required to build specific features and systems, and they know which platforms and technologies to use.

But what really sets them apart is their complete understanding of their environment, and their ability to lead their teams thanks to the soft skills they’ve acquired over time.

Senior devs know the strengths and weaknesses of themselves, their colleagues, and their organization. When it’s time to build a solution, they know which tasks to assign to each team member, and which tasks they can accomplish themselves.

Speaking of solutions, senior developers don’t focus on the code or the software. Instead, they know that their client has a problem that needs solving, and this is their focus from start to finish. They know that throughout development, new problems will arise and it’s their job to find solutions along the way. Rather than examining an issue on the surface, senior devs examine the root cause of a problem and develop a fix from there.

Senior developers are crucial to have on any software project, since they’re the leaders with the skills to envision the right solutions and motivate their teams to build them.

A common duty that middle and senior devs fulfill is communicating with teams and clients. Though senior developers are typically more involved, both roles frequently collaborate with project managers and other internal teams. They gather requirements, disclose development updates, discuss bugs with Quality Assurance, set up meetings, and more. And because of their expertise, they’re commonly tapped as valuable sources of helpful information during discussions with clients. Project managers often bring a few middle- or senior-level devs when they meet with customers.

At every job level, developers adapt to new issues and find ways to make work better overall. Sometimes this means modifying everyday tools to improve efficiency; sometimes it means adopting new tech to help solve common or recurring issues. This all becomes part of the job as developers strive to build and maintain new skills.

Additionally, every developer finds it important to keep up with modern development practices and technologies, because clients demand modern solutions. It’s no small task, especially since technology advances so quickly, but junior, middle, and senior devs know that to be valued in their profession they’ve got to have what it takes to meet current standards.

All three position types bring value to the development process and complement each other. Some tasks are better left to junior developers to promote skill building and growth, while heavier, mission-critical tasks are better left in the hands of more experienced devs. Great companies understand that this fosters the creation of great solutions as well as professional development on every level, so they employ a healthy mix of junior, middle, and senior developers.

Regardless of the job level, ‘experience’ is measured by more than the number of years a professional has under their belt. Granted, skills can only be honed over time, but developers with an appetite for advancement can find plenty of opportunities to grow no matter how far along they are in their career. All it takes is the desire to learn and the willingness to succeed.