The Catch-22 of Being “Too Junior”

Recently I was laid off for being “too junior” after four months of work. The company’s founders said they’d be replacing me with someone “more senior”. I asked for feedback on my performance. They said there were no complaints — I was just too junior. When I prodded for more, the founders told me that they just needed someone more senior.

Throughout my time at said company, I expressed insecurity about my abilities. Coworkers (including the founders) alleviated my worries by saying that they knew I was “junior” when they hired me and expected me to build up my skills while working at the company.

My reviews were consistently good with minor feedback about what skills I should focus on. I spent time inside work completing my assigned tasks and outside work trying to learn those skills to better my working knowledge.

After the layoff, I spent time asking myself what I could have done better and why they hired me in the first place if I was “too junior”. And then I realized I hit upon a catch-22. Without a job, I can’t gain more working experience. But without that working experience, I can’t get a job. So where do I go from here?

I decided that rather than question what went wrong, I would focus on what could be done right. So here is my advice on what to do (and don’t) when thinking about hiring a junior developer.

Consider Your Resources

Don’t hire a junior developer if you don’t plan on investing in their future. What happened to the idea of apprenticeship? The idea of training an inexperienced worker and helping them build their career. When you hire a developer, imagine yourself working with them for the long haul and helping to shape their future at the company.

Don’t hire a junior developer if you don’t have the resources to mentor them. I cannot emphasize this enough — do NOT hire a junior developer if you do not have resources to do so. If members of your team cannot take 5–10 minutes a few times a day to sit down and explain a problem or concept, you do not have the resources.

Don’t hire a junior developer if you can’t afford the time expense. People still in the process of learning new skills go slowly. If you’re in a time critical situation, make sure to account for the extra time it might take for a new developer to understand new concepts.

Do It For the Right Reasons

Don’t hire a junior developer as a marketing effort or PR stunt. This reason only considers your company’s best interests rather than those of the candidate. If you’re doing this, you probably haven’t read anything I mention above or below this paragraph.

Don’t hire a junior developer to do your grunt work. Doing so will prevent them from learning… anything. If you consistently assign the same type of work (especially boring or undesirable work) to one person, they’re unlikely to develop new abilities and unlikely to stay at your company. Giving new developers projects that aren’t time sensitive and just outside their comfort zone is one of the best ways for them to learn.

Be Prepared

Do assess what “junior” means to you and your company. The term “junior” is used loosely and widely in the tech industry. But there’s no standard skill set that describes this title. Try creating a standard or list of skills that your developers need which you can compare potential candidates against. That way, you’ll have a better sense of what level of developers you can hire.

Do set up, at the very least, a loose mentorship program to ensure your developers are learning. Pair programming is a great way to help both novice and expert developers grow their knowledge. Short workshops or lectures can supplement any learnings from day to day tasks. Scheduling set times for such activities and regular check-ins provides structure and assurance that your new programmer is developing new expertise.

Do have a support system in place for your developers. When a developer has a question, who should they go to? Whether it’s a person, group, or team on rotation, establishing a support system will increase the collaboration and flow of ideas. Developers should never feel too scared to ask questions, so make it a point to ensure someone is always available.

If there’s a shortage of developers in the tech industry, what do we do? The pool of existing “senior” developers is fixed, so you can’t just continuously try to recruit them away from their existing positions.

We’re just going to have to make senior developers. Following the above advice puts you on the path towards hiring and cultivating junior developers the right way. By doing so, you provide solutions to both sides of the Catch-22 — a job to gain experience and experience to gain (and keep) a job. It takes patience and dedication, but it’s worth it.