When Can I Call Myself a Senior Developer?

What separates a junior developer from a senior developer? Uncover the distinctions and find out how to advance your career to the next level. By Renan Benatti Dias.

Leave a rating/review
Save for later

If you’re a software engineer looking to advance your career, you might set your sights on gaining a senior developer title. This role conveys a level of expertise, experience and leadership within a company. However, it’s challenging to know when you’re ready to take on this level of responsibility. Which skills and experience do you need to have, and how can you demonstrate that you’re ready for this step up?

Person working on the workflow for an app
Are you ready to take more responsibility in your dev career?
Photo by Campaign Creators on Unsplash

In this article, you’ll learn what it means to be a senior developer and which skills you’ll need for this role. If you’re not quite there yet, you’ll also learn how to prepare yourself to step into the position.

What You’ll Learn

  • Typical career levels for software developers in tech companies.
  • What a senior developer and which skills and responsibilities they have.
  • Steps you can take to target a senior developer position.
  • Identifying the roles you want to pursue.

The Career Levels of a Software Developer

Being a senior developer is not all about having a lot of years in a position. Going strictly by its definition, a senior developer is a more experienced developer who can handle a variety of development tasks and challenges.

Colorful rendering of the four stages of a typical dev career.

As with many other industries, companies in the tech industry have typical career paths: A set of positions and roles a software engineer can progressively take within the organization. The most common career paths have at least three levels:

  • Junior developer
  • Mid-level developer
  • Senior developer

Junior developers have just started in the Software Engineering world. They are inexperienced and still in the process of learning good practices. They often need assistance from their teammates to complete tasks.

Mid-level developers should be able to handle their regular work on their own, but they might need support when using and designing more complex systems.

Senior developers have more time and experience on the job. They are capable of planning and executing even complex projects. They are also able to help and mentor their peers, lead a team and delegate tasks.

Some organizations have sub-levels for each of these levels, like Senior L1 (Level 1) and Senior L2 (Level 2). This allows companies to create more elaborate career paths and be more specific about what they expect from developers at each level.

It’s a common practice for companies to hire developers that rank as seniors in other companies, but who aren’t as experienced as an L2 Senior in their organization. This allows them to level new hires within the company. This tactic is cost-effective for the company, while giving employees opportunities to grow and develop within their current organization.

Now that you know what the common career paths for developers are, you’ll learn about the responsibilities and skills of a senior developer in the next section.

What Makes a Developer “Senior”?

Senior developers need more than just good tech skills. Sure, having a strong technical foundation is important; to do a good job in this role, developers need to plan projects and create solutions that are scalable and bring great value to their company. But there are also many soft skills that senior developers must have.

For example, senior developers are expected to help their peers on projects and tasks in a supportive way that helps them learn and grow professionally, so they need a solid mentoring mindset. They have to be able to communicate well, so they can effectively delegate and collaborate with other teams and team members. This is crucial in large teams where the work must be split into many teams.

Senior developers set an example for the rest of the team, leading projects and delivering results. They help maintain good practices and identify and propose solutions to bottlenecks in the process, so problem-solving skills are vital. And just as important, they help their peers grow professionally and do a good job, so they need leadership and empathy.

If you want to move into a senior developer role, look for ways that you can demonstrate that you have the soft skills, as well as the technical skills, for the role.

At this point, you have a good grasp of the skills you need, so it’s time to learn what you can do to walk the path of a senior developer.

Practical Steps to Become a Senior Developer

If you’ve looked over the skill requirements above and want to position yourself to qualify for a senior developer role, here are practical next steps including ways to gain technical expertise, build experience and develop essential soft skills. Whether you’re just starting in your career or looking to advance to the next level, following these steps can help you achieve your goals and become a successful senior developer.

  • Build a strong technical foundation: Creating complex projects that are scalable, maintainable and bring value to the company is vital to being a senior developer. To qualify for the role, you need to ensure your skills are strong and you’re up to date on the latest best practices.

    If your company offers a learning stipend, use it to the fullest to study with books and videos and to attend courses, lectures and conferences to deepen your experience and keep your skills sharp.

  • Concentrate on strengthening your soft skills: As covered above, you can’t be a good senior dev without soft skills like risk management, leadership, problem solving and more. Software engineering is a team job that requires you to collaborate with your teammates and other teams to complete projects.

    It’s helpful to purposely work on improving your soft skills. To track your progress, keep a running list of specific examples of times you utilized soft skills in the workplace. This will also let you showcase your interpersonal abilities when you go after your senior developer role.

  • Take project ownership: Stand out on your team by taking ownership of projects, thereby demonstrating that you’re eager to assume new leadership roles. Taking ownership of the project means assuming responsibility for the project’s deadlines, goals and overall success. You’ll have the opportunity to show off your management, communication and problem-solving skills, all of which are transferable to a senior dev role.
  • Look for opportunities in your company: Actively seek out different projects and different roles in your company. Understanding how projects work and how different parts of the company run will give you a different experience and help you get a bigger picture of the role you can play. This will also give you more opportunities to impress people in your company who could promote you or give you references if you seek a senior dev role with another company.
  • Work on side projects: Working on personal projects can help you learn new practices and new technologies beyond the opportunities you have at work. Plus, you can improve your personal branding by creating a GitHub repo to share your work. This speaks well for you when you try to move to the role of senior developer.
  • Subscribers, get more information about setting up your GitHub account to build your personal brand in the Building in Public chapter of Kodeco’s book, Hack Your Job Search. If you’re not a subscriber yet, what are you waiting for? Get access to thousands of premium tutorials today!

These are just some steps you can take to become a senior developer. The most important takeaway is to keep learning and taking on new challenges. Technology is always evolving; keeping up with new trends will put you in the best position to advance your role.

Finding Job Listings for Senior Positions

The tech industry is full of opportunities — big tech companies are always looking for new, talented people to make their teams stronger. That means that you have many opportunities to find senior developer roles.

However, when you apply for jobs, you might be confused by the variety of titles companies use when listing senior developer roles. You might see job listings for senior engineers, lead developers, principal developers and more — all of which could refer to the role you’re seeking. Therefore, it’s helpful to look at the qualifications instead of focusing purely on the title in the job posting.

Here are some common qualifications for a senior developer role:

  • Years of experience with a programming language: Senior developers need to have deep experience in their chosen language, and this usually comes with time. Although the exact amount of time varies depending on the company and the tech stack, five to eight years is a common requirement.
  • Experience working with frameworks: It is important to know how programming frameworks work and how to leverage their solutions.
  • Foundation in Software Architecture and Design Patterns: A strong foundation in software architecture and design patterns is a universal requirement for senior developers. Even if you haven’t worked with the programming language or framework a given job post is looking for, you’ll still be a strong candidate if you have this knowledge.
  • Kodeco has a number of books, videos and articles to help you brush up on your design pattern skills.
  • Good communication and collaboration: As a senior developer, you’ll be expected to take a leadership role. That means collaborating and communicating with others. Even if you have a strong tech foundation, having even stronger soft skills will be a tiebreaker in your favor.
  • A bachelor’s or master’s degree in Computer Science: Many job postings list a degree or an equivalent amount of experience as a requirement — but don’t be afraid to apply, even if you don’t have the degree. Many great developers in our industry never completed their formal education. If you demonstrate you can do the job, you won’t need the degree. If you don’t have the right skills, a degree won’t save you.

While many job postings for senior developers list requirements like these, don’t feel discouraged if you don’t meet all of them. Recruiters sometimes add many more requirements than the job needs as a way to filter candidates for that role. If you have knowledge gaps, you’ll quickly close them on the job as you see how your new company gets things done.

What’s Next for a Senior Developer?

Becoming a senior developer doesn’t mean you’ve reached the peak of your career. Your company might offer positions for staff engineers and principal engineers. These positions are even higher in the software engineering hierarchy, and they require you to take a more specialized role, working with multiple teams in creating solutions to complex problems.

The way most career paths go, as you become more experienced and take on new challenges, you’ll face an important choice in your career: whether to take the executive path or the technical path.

This decision is known as the Y career model, which says that as you progress in your career, you’ll eventually become either an executive or a specialist.

At this point, you might also decide to try new challenges and take on a managerial role. A few roles in the managerial path include:

  • Team Leader or Engineering Manager
  • Director of Engineering
  • VP of Engineering
  • Chief Technical Officer (CTO)

For the technical specialist path (also known as being an IC, or individual contributor), some roles include:

  • Principal or Distinguished Architect
  • Chief Engineer
  • Senior Technical Specialist

Before you decide which path to follow, consider the sort of career you want, because the career path diverges here. Do you want to manage other people or have an engineering role?

Remember, though, that it’s never too late to change and find the best fit for you, no matter how long you’ve been working in a position.

Reflecting on the Perfect Role for You

As a great uncle once said, with great power comes great responsibility. Becoming a senior developer also comes with great responsibility — and you might not want that. If you’re not interested in leading teams or being responsible for big projects, that’s OK. A career where you feel fulfilled and content in your professional life is just as important.

Throughout this article, you’ve learned what it takes to be a senior developer. But although a fairly common career path involves moving from junior to senior dev, that doesn’t have to be the path you follow.

You can have seniority as a developer without leading teams and managing projects. You can find positions where you’d be more focused on solving problems. It is important to understand what you want professionally and not feel pressured to follow any other path.

Where to Go From Here?

Now that you know what a senior developer is, check out Evaluating Job Offers: How to Decide If a Company Is Right for You to make sure you’re choosing the right company for you.

It’s also a good idea to read about Why Personal Branding Is Vital for Software Engineers so you can stand out from other senior developer candidates.

Key Takeaways

  • Companies have different criteria to define what a senior developer is.
  • Senior developers aren’t just good technically; they also excel at communication, collaboration and leadership.
  • When looking for senior positions, don’t be afraid to apply if you don’t meet all their requirements. You might be a great fit for what they are looking for.
  • It’s important to consider whether you want the responsibilities of a senior developer. Career paths are not necessarily linear, and you’re allowed to experiment and find a position that suits you best.

Have any questions, suggestions or ideas about how to become a senior developer? Feel free to share in the comments below!

About the Author

Renan Benatti Dias was a mid-level developer for quite a while, even though he thought he was qualified enough for a senior position. He spent a lot of time wondering what it takes to be a senior developer — and how to position himself for that role. After learning about the skills and responsibilities he needed to gain, he found his true position as a Senior Software Engineer at AirTM, where he uses his skills to help his peers and improve their work experience.