What makes a senior engineer “senior”?
In the lesser known play Romeo and Juliet Go to Bootcamp, Shakespeare tells the story of two star crossed lovers climbing the corporate ladder as they pursue careers in software engineering. My favorite line happens when Romeo is facing imposter syndrome and Juliet says to comfort him:
What's in a title? that which we call “Senior Engineer Romeo”
By any other title would have the same impact;
So “Senior Engineer Romeo” would, were he not “Senior Engineer Romeo” call'd,
Retain that knowledge of software development which he owes
Who said Shakespeare isn’t timeless?
In this line, Juliet is telling Romeo it’s really the impact, not his title, that defines the impact he brings to his team. But Romeo is at an interesting point in his career, as he’s recently attained the all too familiar “Senior” title.
This begs the real question: does “Senior Engineer” convey any specific meaning?
Unfortunately, in my many years as a hiring manager, I’ve found the short answer to this question is “not really,” at least when looking at the industry as a whole. I’ve met senior engineers who have built complex and successful products from the ground up, and others who seem to have barely left bootcamp. In past writings, I’ve tackled the wild world of engineering management titles, but I think it’s high time I offered my thoughts on the most common and misunderstood title of them all, “Senior”!
Luckily, at Ethena, we have a well-defined and impact-based definition of what the senior title means to us that I’d like to share with you all (note that we also publicize our salaries and compensation formula for each title to tackle the underpayment gap for existing employees at tech companies). I’m hoping it will help aspiring senior engineers understand what it takes to make it to the next level in their organization and offer ideas to other engineering leaders looking to make sense of this all-too-vague term.
Setting the stage
Let’s start with a thought experiment: imagine a quintessential Junior Engineer and Principal Engineer tackling the same feature. The Junior Engineer might need guidance to get started, require plenty of support from their more senior colleagues along the way, and ultimately build something that works–but that might require some bug fixes down the line. In comparison, not only will the Principal Engineer accomplish the task more quickly, they’ll also use a simple, resilient and future-proofed design. The resulting feature will require little maintenance and launch without bugs, and they probably didn’t need an ounce of help to accomplish it. The Principal Engineer also remembered to coordinate with the product manager on that other team, because they realized that in certain cases . . . you get the idea!
Most importantly, the Junior Engineer’s lack of experience doesn’t just mean that they’re slower at the same task or that their work may not have all the same bells and whistles, it also means that they are relying on their team’s help to accomplish the task at hand (and to be clear, that’s not a bad thing!).
But in this example, we’ve looked at two extremes on the seniority scale. What about an engineer crossing the boundary from “Software Engineer” to “Senior Software Engineer” who fits somewhere in the middle?
Finding the line in the sand
There is clearly some continuum at play, between the always-learning apprentice, and the often-teaching expert. And we expect to see both archetypes in an effective engineering team where more experienced team members are creating guard rails to empower their less experienced colleagues to effectively get things done. These guard rails take the form of everything from pull request reviews, to best practices documentation, to pair programming sessions and more. They can be about individual projects within a team, or the larger development landscape at your organization. The work of creating guard rails is extremely important to the success of engineering organizations because it’s multiplicative, which means that a single hour of time helping a junior colleague might unblock days of productive work from that person. It’s also incredibly risky. That one senior team member can have an outsized effect and if they themselves aren’t modeling best practices, your entire team is likely to struggle.
At Ethena, we define (publicly) a senior engineer as someone who is capable of creating guard rails for their less experienced colleagues and who themselves doesn’t need input or guidance to successfully own projects from start to finish.
This is an impact-based line in the sand, and exactly how each senior engineer surpasses that line will look different, as it takes a wide range of individual skill-sets to have this broad an impact. For example at Ethena, a frontend, technical-focused senior engineer may demonstrate the ability to set guard rails by creating helpful documentation about how to deal with dates in our react application, including new linting rules that validate these best practices on every pull request. A management-focused senior engineer may work with their product manager to task out a large initiative, thereby creating clarity for the junior engineers working on the project. Both engineers in these examples empowered the rest of their team to be more effective, and at Ethena, this is what it means to operate at a senior level.
So far, we’ve found that this bar is much higher than what some other organizations have for the senior title, but we also give our senior engineers the level of responsibility, compensation, and opportunity for impact we feel they deserve. For example, our processes require senior engineers to sign-off on PRs of a certain complexity, and we look to senior engineers to coordinate with their engineering managers on reviewing design documents and giving technical input on their area of expertise, to name a few. So if you’re looking to join Ethena as a senior engineer (check out our open roles!), we expect you to have strong opinions (weakly held of course) about how to build great software, be enthusiastic about mentorship, and be prepared to take on the responsibility that your title warrants!