Can someone become a Senior Engineer after only three years of experience? The short answer is no. However, years of experience alone are not always a good indicator of seniority level. What does it take to become a senior, then? Let's try to find out.
To become a master of any craft, you need to practice it daily, which takes time — lots of it. But more important is the ability to learn from mistakes and improve. That is why years of experience are not the only indicator of seniority. Some cooks have been cooking for decades, yet their food is average at best.
I have seen developers with decades of experience who were not seniors. However, I am still waiting to see someone with only three years of experience whom I can confidently say is a senior.
The Characteristics of a Senior Software Engineer
Good software engineers are language agnostic, but it takes time to get to that point. Most of us start with a specific tech stack and become experts.
Someone might be an expert in a specific stack or language, but more is needed to make them a senior.
Senior has a profound understanding of software development principles and practices, is proficient in at least one tech stack, and has good soft skills. Let's explore this in more detail.
The Path to Seniority: Technical and Soft Skills to Master
Becoming a senior is not a one-size-fits-all process. It's important to remember that everyone's journey is unique, and what may take one person ten years to achieve may take another person 8 or 12 years. We all have different learning speeds and abilities.
Let's explore which technical (hard) and soft skills you need to become a senior.
A Roadmap to Full-Stack Web Development
I began my career as a web developer, but these days it's more common to say - full stack developer. I have gained experience in various areas throughout my career, including frontend and backend development, databases, and infrastructure. I've worked with clients, written both functional and non-functional specifications, and done automated UI and performance testing, among other things.
Roadmap.sh, a popular career roadmap for developers, doesn't have one for web or full-stack developers, so I will combine two: frontend and backend developer roadmaps.
Here are some of the technical skills needed for a (senior) web developer:
- Knowledge of how the internet works: protocols (HTTP, gRPC, DNS, email)
- Frameworks (ASP.NET Core, Ruby on Rails, Laravel, Angular, Vue, React)
- Package Managers: NuGet, npm, yarn
- Version Control System (VCS): Git is the de-facto standard. TFS, Subversion, and Mercurial are some of the others; GitHub or Gitlab, branching strategies
- Databases: relational, NoSQL (document, graph, key-value, real-time, time series), scaling databases, optimization of queries, indices, full-text search
- OS: good understanding of how Operating Systems work (Windows, Linux, macOS)
- Scaling: horizontal and vertical scaling
- Caching: client caching, server-side caching, CDNs
- APIs: REST, SOAP, gRPC, GraphQL
- Security: common algorithms, authentication, and authorization, Identity Providers, OAuth, JWT, CORS, best practices
- Design and development patterns: Gang of Four Design Patterns, DDD, TDD, CQRS, Event Sourcing
- Testing: unit tests, integration tests, end-to-end testing, automated UI tests (Cypress, Playwright, Selenium)
- Architectural patterns: Monolith, microservices, serverless, service mesh
- Web servers: IIS, Apache, Nginx
- Cloud: AWS, Azure, GCP, Digital Ocean, Containers (Docker), Kubernetes, Docker Swarm
- CI/CD tools (basics): GitHub actions, Azure DevOps, Jenkins, TeamCity
- Infrastructure as a Code: Terraform, Pulumi, …
- Logging, instrumentation, and metrics
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the skills. Head over to roadmap.sh and check our roadmaps. However, speaking from personal experience, it's what you need to become a senior full-stack (web) developer.
It's highly unlikely to master every item on the list and excel in them. Instead, I recommend focusing on learning fundamentals and developing a comprehensive understanding of some technologies that will eventually lead you to become an expert. These are commonly known as T-skills.
The Importance of Soft Skills
Technical skills are only a part of the equation. Engineers often try to improve their technical (hard) skills but often neglect soft skills like:
- Communication: Effective communication skills are crucial for software engineers to succeed. They must effectively communicate with their team members, stakeholders, and clients. This often includes explaining complex technical topics in a way that non-technical people can understand. While modern tools like Grammarly or ChatGPT can help us express ourselves in writing more efficiently than ever, good communication also involves verbal and non-verbal skills.
- Teamwork and collaboration: Software development is almost always a team effort. This means that we work as a part of the team to reach a common goal. There is no place for 10x developers who have only their best interests in mind. Good traits of a team player are compassion, empathy, kindness (emotional intelligence), readiness to help your team member(s), and ability to receive and provide feedback. Share your ideas and knowledge with the team.
- Adaptability and flexibility: Software development is an ever-evolving field, which has never been more true. We must learn to use new tools, languages, and technology quickly and efficiently. If you can adapt, it means staying ahead of the curve. This has never been more true as AI has quickly changed how we work — those developers who have yet to be ready to embrace it risk staying behind.
- Time management and organizational skills: We all get the same 24 hours daily. It's essential to know how to organize and spend that time well. Seniors should have mastered estimations to the level where they can confidently provide a project timeline and understand and manage risks.
- Leadership: Only some people aspire to become a leader. That's okay, but it's common for seniors to teach and share their knowledge or mentor juniors.
Becoming a Senior Software Engineer is not only a function of years of experience. It's improbable that you can be a Senior after three or four years of experience, as it takes some time to master the skills I wrote about. However, there are better approaches than repeating a single year too.
A good way to become a Senior is:
- Become an expert in one tech stack (.NET, for example)
- Go in-depth, but also width → T-based skill set
- Never stop learning
- Focus not only on hard but also on soft skills
- Be humble
- Teach and mentor
- Repeat for several years 🙂
Good Engineers are language agnostic, meaning they can apply what they learned to multiple programming languages or stacks. They are polyglots who usually know several languages well enough to be productive and have a positive attitude and open mind to learn new ones.
Working in software development means lifelong learning, and having said that - we are all students.