don't fear the junior engineer
“we were all a learner once”
is normally applied to learner drivers, but it also applies to the junior engineer. Just like learning to drive a car, there’s a gap, a void, that has to be crossed. For new drivers it’s passing a test and you are then deemed worthy or capable of handling a car on your own, for engineers there is no “Driving Test” to say you are now worthy. There are many different routes into the industry and most (if not all) of them suffer from this gap, or void.
The gap is between academia and the job. A gap that has to be bridged by all engineers. Even those with the most prestigious qualifications from the best institutions have to cross this bridge. For some the bridge is shorter or they travel over it faster, but everyone must make the passage. There’s a difference between academic learning and on the job learning, a difference between academic teachings and required job knowledge. I don’t blame the institutions; they have to teach fundamentals as teaching application of current technologies does not always leave students with the required knowledge or fundamental understanding to be able to tackle future tech or future problems on their own. In teaching fundamentals, institutions are not teaching job knowledge.
Junior engineers may be equally as smart as your best senior but they are lacking two things:
- Job knowledge
These are the day to day things that make it possible to do your job. These can be anything from basic unix commands to knowing how to choose between two different implementations. Understanding the application of modularity or extensibility or maintainability, and knowing when each is the most important.
Experience is harder to quantify, it’s the gut feeling that tells you that something looks wrong. That some code smells bad. That nagging voice in your head that say’s “what if…”. It’s the thing that helps you make a choice, helps you see where problems will crop up before they do. It’s knowing where the tech debt is and managing your acceptable level.
This doesn’t shine a very positive light on juniors, but there are positives. Juniors come without baggage, without bad practices, without strong (or wrong) opinions. They are smart, young, hungry, hard workers. They want to grow and build and contribute. They are malleable and keen, and harnessing this is the key.
You could argue that all engineers cost the same. This may not just be a monetary cost, but a sum of all costs. If you want all your engineers to be the best that they can be then there’s an investment that needs to be made. An investment in each individual, in mentorship, in learning, in time and space to grow and to flourish. This is a cost, but it may be a cost that is easier for your company or business to manage, handle or burden. Identifying what each engineers’ working style, approach, strengths, and weaknesses are and setting measurable goals in a mentor-mentee environment empowers junior engineers to improve and deliver more. Soon the investment that you have made will pay off, and your junior will have bridged the gap, and will be contributing back more than you had to invest.
Some engineers are lucky enough to have benefited from exactly this and are a testament to the process, the investment and the companies that try to empower them and expedite their crossing of the bridge. Do not fear the junior engineer.