Tuesday, 27 September 2005

What Makes a Senior?

It is time for the semi-annual performance reviews again and a few questions raised during the reviews made me do some thinking. As a young, growing company, we find ourselves defining many things on the spot. Many things which may be well defined in larger, established companies, we do not find appropriate for Exoweb. One of these is the definition of what is a senior.

First, a little background - Exoweb has roughly 3 broad levels of software developers - junior, mid and senior. There are finer distinctions within each broad category, but those suffice for now. In general, what defines whether a person is either a junior or mid level is pretty clear - it is based on their ability to complete a task. Juniors normally require supervision and guidance, including being pointed in the right direction and perhaps some tutoring, in order to complete their tasks according to Exoweb standards. Mids are relatively independent, able to complete a task independently. It is defining what separates a mid from a senior that is tricky.

The problem is that our seniors have varied skill sets and roles. Although Exoweb knows very clearly who are the seniors within it, it is not always easy to articulate what makes them seniors. We do not look at education, expertise in any technology or years of work experience. There has never been a need to define the separation, perhaps because every senior that we have is clearly above and beyond the mids that there was never a need to define the role. We just knew.

However, people normally aspire to improve themselves and advance their careers. In order for Exoweb's mids to advance and join our critically important pool of seniors, it becomes more and more important to define what it is so people can work towards achieving this goal. In my mind, it comes down to one critical factor - trust.

We have to be able to trust our seniors to achieve the job. Exoweb defines its job (right now) as "delivering projects to our clients and ensuring they are happy with them." Simple enough. With that definition, the job of a senior is simple enough to define - we have to be confident that a senior, given a task and often a team, will achieve the task. That is all.

It does get a lot more complicated though, as you look at all the different aspects of delivering a project to our clients. There are multiple different aspects:

  • Problem solving - This is just a general catch all for anything not covered below. The ability to see problems and ensure that they are resolved is another key quality we look for in a senior. They do not have to resolve it themselves, if it is not their field of expertise. However, they do have to spot problems before they negatively impact performance and ensure that they are resolved, one way or another. If a user interface is clunky and cumbersome, either resolve the issue or find the in-house usability expert to consult on the problem.
  • Quality - We take great pride in our work. It hurts us when we are forced to rush out shoddy, buggy software. Even though it does happen, it should be something to be avoided where at all possible. The enforcers of excellence, when it is lacking among team members, are the seniors. They are the final, last chance to catch any defects before they hit our customers. This particular aspect of being a senior is often a thankless and tedious task. Yet someone must do it.
  • Technology - The senior must understand enough of the technology to oversee the team and ensure that they are not going off a steep cliff. Besides knowing what technologies work well together, they must be able to spot and stop common pitfalls, bottlenecks and problems normally produced by less experienced team members. Or in some cases, depending on where their strengths lie, the senior must know where their limits lie and be intelligent enough to call for the assistance of another senior when they are out of their depth. This happens often as no one person can know every single technology.
  • Project management - Someone has to manage the project and this typically falls to one of the seniors in the team. The person must be able to scope out the work, make estimates, allocate resources and monitor progress. Should any problems arise, the problems must either be resolved internally or escalated to more senior staff. Preferably the former.
  • Leadership - Management is more than just looking at tasks and watching numbers. It is also about motivating people. Motivating intelligent, opinionated and confident team members is no easy task. People are far more unpredictable than computers. Yet someone has to do this. Leadership is a crucial resource in ensuring that a team of people are far more effective together than spinning their wheels individually. Leadership in this area can be either or both technology leadership and team cohesiveness.

Most seniors do not have every single aspect mentioned above. Some seniors have limited technology skills. Others are hopeless at motivating fellow team members. But part of being a senior is also knowing where one's weaknesses lie and compensating for them, either by teaming up with someone who has complementary skills, or putting in processes that compensate for this shortage.

In summary, seniors give Exoweb peace of mind. It is the knowledge that when something is passed to them, it will be done without problems. Attention can then be turned to other areas, such as growing the company and ensuring that Exoweb achieves its goal of becoming the workplace of choice for everyone here.

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