We Need to Stop Being Short Sighted and Start Hiring Junior Software Engineers Now

Adel Smee
Adel Smee
Feb 28, 2017 · 6 min read

Last year as I was working on a conference talk, I came across this labour market research conducted by the Australian Department of Employment on IT professions. The research found the rather shocking statistic that 45% of all senior “Developer Programmer and Analyst Programmer” positions are going unfilled while that number was 47% for senior Web Developers. While we don’t feel this so badly at Zendesk given our amply stocked kitchens, juicy technology challenges and strong focus on a pleasant and respectful working environment, it is never a given that hiring at that level is going to be fast or easy. What really got me in the report though, was this sentence:

graduate outcomes for students studying in the field of Computer Science (which includes the vast majority of students studying in the Information Technology field of education) have been declining for four consecutive years

I spend a bit of my professional life visiting schools and coding bootcamps. Encouraging budding software engineers to work hard, get into the industry and enjoy the many benefits of working in technology in the year 2017. So I was a bit horrified to read this sentence and look at the supporting data as it directly contradicts the rosy story I have been telling students.

Apparently only 26% of companies that employ engineers offer graduate roles!

This creates a world in which only 53% of Computer Science graduates manage to get a job in the field. The other 47% become disillusioned at the lack of available entry-level jobs and take their brains and talent off to do other things.

An unpleasant symmetry

Just last week I was chatting to a young lady that I mentor through a local university. She is in her final year of Computer Science and had been told by her lecturer in Web Development that there were no jobs in the field because Wordpress and other such WYSIWIG offerings had made the job virtually redundant. Now the reason is exactly wrong, but the lecturer wasn’t too far off by saying there are no jobs. We as an industry have an incredibly restrictive entry pathway, almost half of IT graduates are forced into other industries and yet we can’t fill our Senior roles. What self-defeating, short-sighted thinking.

Looking at the expected growth in the industry over the next few years -significantly higher than other employment sectors - and the largely flat number of enrolments in Computer Science (it’s increasing slightly for male students but basically a horizontal line for women), we aren’t going to be able to continue the wasteful practice of squeezing junior engineers out of the industry. We are cutting off our own air supply. It’s time to stop seeing junior developers as optional extras and start recognising their worth, both short- and long-term.

Of course this doesn’t mean we all go out tomorrow and hire new teams composed entirely of juniors. We need to be intelligent and strategic about how we do it. Here’s a short list of things to consider to make it work for everyone:

Keep a Sensible Ratio of Junior to More Senior Engineers

Have a Strong Onboarding Process

Create a Strong Pairing Culture

Create Internships

At the end of an internship you’ll have a junior engineer who is already an expert in your tech stack, can hit the ground running and feels like part of the team. And if the intern isn’t what you are looking for there is a natural end to the relationship, making it a much lower risk than a permanent hire.

Focus on the Positives

As an industry that will soon be facing even greater shortfalls in available engineers (100,000 in Australia by 2020) we can’t only focus on the next sprint, or the next quarter or even next year’s deliverables. We need to lift our heads, take a peek at the future and start to change course so that we feed our industry with vibrant, clever new minds. And we need to start now.

Thanks to Tim Cuthbertson, Steven McPhillips, and Ryan Seddon for taking the time to review this post.

Zendesk Engineering

Engineering @ Zendesk

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