Measuring seniority

6 minute read Published: 2022-02-21

Sometimes I think about what "senior" means when I read this word in job titles. There are some obvious implied connotations and others not so obvious. Sometimes companies mean the former and overlook the latter. Let's have a look at the not so obvious ones because they are more interesting.

When I read job postings the general meaning I infer for a senior role is the expectation that this person has provable experience in the field, has accumulated at least years of learning and practice and be able to anticipate and "autocomplete" the requirements of a situation by intuition. There's no magic about this, just the skills acquired by repetition: anyone paying attention to what they're doing will recognize patterns and (thanks to how our brain works) learn to anticipate them. Taken to the extreme, given any amount of time and the same environment probably anyone can become a rocket scientist if stubborn enough.

Job postings then underline other traits they expect from a senior, such as "can focus on the product and not too much on the details", meaning they don't want a person spending too much time overoptimizing an unimportant piece of code or working without the general overview in mind. Finally, since companies don't want to hire dicks, they write something along the line of "a good team player". This is a bit more vague and it is sometimes detailed with "good communication skills" (or other phrasing I can't come up at the moment).

What does that actually mean? What would a senior team player do? Is this a quantifiable quality? Yes and no. But when the right time comes, this will become apparent and you will finally understand if you've hired a dick or a good team player.

Working in a team is a social experience. It's sharing pains and gains, it's working together towards dismantling a problem in little pieces and attack them in group. It's also being happy to start the working day with a person you find inspiring and you know you will have constructive discussions, that person will not feel you attacked and the progress to the solution of a problem is not a "dick measuring context" but a honest drawing on the table and test together what works and what does not.

Going further into the unquantifiable, there is empathy. The capability of recognizing behavioural patterns in other persons and tune the approach to avoid frictions. It's not being manipulative, it's trying to speak the other persons' language. It's also the analysis of the unintended consequences of actions. Let's expand on this with a couple of fictional examples.

Say that at some point I'm facing a problem that I'm not able to solve by myself, so I will raise a flag. This action may have intended and unintended consequences. The intended consequence is to let the others know that I am at a roadblock. Maybe also to check if anyone can help. But what can the unintended consequences be? It depends! And that's the secret sauce for empathy. It requires to:

  1. parse the current team status to the best of my knowledge
  2. analyze options
  3. summarize the situation and extract possible outcomes

If I am at a roadblock and (1) those who can help are off-duty (because teams are unfortunately not Swiss clockworks, so that can happen) I should probably realize (2) that (3) pinging those people in the support channel won't help. Pinging the team leader, that has no power to snap fingers and make people appear out of thin air (i.e. not (3) a possible outcome) probably won't help either.

But that will have unintended consequences. Example, other team members may finally perceive a situation escalating and decide to reluctantly try to help by interrupting something else or provide support off work time and cancel a pizza with friends. The team leader that received a signal that someone from the team felt blocked could also rediscuss the situation the following day and tell everyone in broad strokes to be available also when they're not scheduled.

Another classic is "who wrote this shit": if I don't try to exercise some empathy, the unintended consequence could be that I will probably offend someone. Perhaps someone close to my desk.

It's easy to shield this behind a "but I didn't mean it", it implies a lack of forethought and analysis for the sole purpose of throwing away a potential hot potato off of my hands; and here we see how a lack of empathy will make someone look like a dick, even though they didn't mean it.

Clearly, if these behavioural patterns are recurrent, one can also think that some people behave like dicks simply because they're ... dicks. There's little unintentional in this case.

These are just a few examples of what a not so good team playing can look like. A person who can have a "senior" role may lack good "team behavioural patterns" but it's difficult to figure that out in an job interview, it's part of the surprise package you receive.

§ Conclusions

Of course, a generic situation as outlined above is so faceted that it's easy to counter argument with IFs and BUTs. Each motivation why this happens can have a counterattack to solve the issue. But the reality is that sometimes you just have to work with assholes trying to voluntarily or involuntarily put the blame on someone else and there's not much you can do about it.

The point I'd like to bring home is that being senior is, in my point of view, a spectrum that encompasses many traits. Some traits are visible at face value (technical skills), others may or may not be visible and you discover them (or lack thereof) too late, when the new element has already joined the ship and is creating friction inside the team. Sometimes the situation is recoverable, sometimes not: especially when it's subtle and the team leaders are too focused on checking progress graphs and moving cards in the task board and don't notice people leaving the ship.

(Team leaders detached from the psycological aspects and the mental well-being of the team are a topic for another day)