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This post was updated in October 2017 with new information.

Take a look at any job board and you’ll see a slew of profiles and listings with the title “Senior Developer” in them. But what exactly makes this employee Senior? Usually, someone with this word in their job title has been in their field for a certain amount of time or has a specific amount of work experience. So we were a little shocked when 30% of developers we surveyed in 2016 that identified as a “Senior Developer” were in their 20s. We assume that for many people, seniority is more about expertise within a topic and scope of responsibility, not just pure years of experience.

While doing further research, it became apparent that the topic is highly debated among technical hiring managers and developers alike (like this thread on the Programmers Stack Exchange). Some companies (like us here at Stack Overflow) don’t believe in using the title within our engineering team.

Here are a few of the common responses we found when we asked: “What defines a senior developer?”  

Has X Years of Programming Experience

The characteristic we found the most consistent among those we interviewed was that a Senior Developer should have X years of experience minimum. “X” could really be any number, but most developers and hiring managers we spoke to agreed that 10 was a good number.

It’s important not to base this decision solely on years of experience. You also need to take into consideration the quality of that experience. What did they learn over the last decade? What challenges did they face and then overcome? 

Exhibits Leadership Skills

Senior Developers are also often required to have extensive leadership skills. As leaders, they have fellow developers look to them for ongoing guidance.

Alex Sopinka, CTO of Tasytt, puts it well, saying, “To me, a Senior Developer is someone who has a track record of success including understanding project requirements and delivering on them. He/she will have started to exhibit leadership skills and the ability to delegate and manage.”

Can Handle the Entire Software Development Life Cycle

Senior developers should ideally be able to manage the entire software development life cycle, from start to finish. As our own Developer Marc Gravell puts it, “They should be able to get on with projects without needing micromanagement at the technical level.”

Zeel Jadia, SVP of Engineering at Events.com, agrees, saying, “A senior developer is someone who is experienced and has the ability to handle large projects from end-to-end.”

Supports Junior Developers

Often a Senior Developer will be promoted from a Junior Developer, thus being assigned more managerial or mentoring duties throughout the team. Hannah Lincoln, Lead Solutions Consultant at Itas, used this principle when describing what a Senior Developer should have. She says, “A Senior Developer is one who has many years of experience, who acts as a mentor and supports the junior developers.”

Understands and Respects Team Dynamics

George Hilak, VP of Technology at Duffy, says, “To me what defines a senior developer is someone with experience not only on the technical side, but also someone who has the ability to deliver in a team environment. A Senior Developer is someone who understands team dynamics and respects the other disciplines needed for delivering great software. I have worked with too many software developers that believe tech is “king” and the other team members (QA, Design UX, PM, etc.) are secondary. A Senior Developer who can work with a team and utilize all their skill sets have usually worked on many projects and learned you cannot do it all by yourself.”

For further reading, check out this excellent post from Matt Briggs and this article on how The Guardian splits up their development team.

2017 hiring landscape

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