In this article, Mad Devs Customer University addresses the main factor in the cost of software development: the software developer seniority level. The hourly rate of a top-level developer can be dramatically different from (sometimes even a few times higher than) the rate of an entry-level one. Here, we want to help you figure out what these levels are and how they affect the price.
The problem: no universal rules to define a seniority level
Picture it: you have a project in mind, but you have no idea what software developer qualifications are required for it. Some IT contractors offer you Senior developers (so the rate and the price immediately soar), and others suggest that Mid-level developers or Juniors will do just fine. How do you know what’s right?
Your best interest is to make sure that the team working with you does not have underqualified or overqualified professionals in it. If they are overqualified, you’ll end up paying more than necessary. If they are underqualified, the development will take longer than it could, and you’ll end up, again, overpaying.
The problem, however, is that the qualifications you’re interested in are not easily defined. The widespread hierarchy goes: Junior, Middle, Senior, Team Lead. But there are no universal criteria in the industry for who falls into which category. Each IT company has its own understanding of what knowledge, skills, competencies, and experience a developer must obtain to climb up this ladder.
The absence of clear definitions for seniority levels may leave the customer perplexed. If you try looking up “seniority definition,” you’ll find lots of similar or not-so-similar descriptions, but you won’t find, say, a plain list of software developer qualifications that a developer of a certain level must have. Let’s look into it.
Hard and soft skills
This distinction is crucial in understanding seniority levels. You as a customer may need more hard-skilled or soft-skilled people on your team. But first, definitions:
- Specialized education / training
- Abilities confirmed by exams / certification
- Efficient coding
- Proficiency in programming languages and frameworks
- Use of specific software and tools
Importantly, hard skills are quantifiable and testable. Hard skills encompass technical knowledge and abilities:
- Effective communication
- Critical thinking
- Conflict resolution and problem solving
Soft skills are interpersonal and creative abilities that help build relationships and find solutions. Soft skills may be hard to measure or even identify right away. Yet they are treasured, especially in software developers, because it takes good soft skills to find creative solutions and make collaboration with customers fruitful.
Again, the difference between software developer levels isn’t cast in stone: there are no industrywide standards. Still, the general descriptions below can help you figure out what kind of professionals you’re looking for.
The gradation (Junior, Middle, Senior, Team Lead) reflects how experienced a developer is, how much they know how to do, and how fast and effective they are at solving problems.
Juniors are beginners who are just learning how to develop software in real life.
- Recent graduates with little to no experience in the industry
- Entrusted with rather small non-strategic technical tasks
- Focused on the minimum viability of the code: the central task is to merely make the code work
- Often don’t know what they’re doing and may thus produce questionable code
- Work slowly when faced with non-standard tasks as they grope for solutions
Juniors are just obtaining hard skills. However, they are not necessarily complete newbies in coding. If they’ve been hired by your contractor, it means that they do have certain hard skills. This is why it is absolutely okay to have entry-level developers working on your project: there will probably be tasks for them to handle.
Juniors’ main soft skill is the ability to learn. Also, as they’re going to encounter certain development problems for the first time, they will need to find solutions as fast as possible. That is, they need to know where to go for advice (online and offline) and how to formulate correctly the problems they’re having.
What Juniors contribute to the overall value
They are the workforce that continuously completes tech tasks and keeps projects going.
Mid-level developers can solve development problems but still work closely with more experienced experts.
- More independent than Juniors in their work
- Review other team members’ code
- Work with uncertainties and propose solutions
- Consider risks, vulnerabilities, and possible future complications
- Propose proactive measures
- Code concisely and efficiently (the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid!) and DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself) principles)
- Have years of experience in communicating within the team and with the customers
- Consult top-level developers for guidance or technical advice or both
Mid-level developers are often as good as Seniors in terms of coding. This is why “Middle” in the developer classification doesn’t mean “mediocre.” Their technical abilities are often sufficient to tackle even difficult development problems.
If a developer has reached the Middle level, it means that they have proved themself to be responsible. They are better than Juniors in terms of time management and meeting deadlines. Also, they often mentor Juniors, and this creates positive dynamics of improvement in a team with developers of different levels.
However, Mid-level developers are not normally required to have an overall vision for the projects. In other words, they lack the skills of strategic planning, which are the realm of Seniors and Team Leads.
What Mid-level developers contribute to the overall value
They safeguard the technical side of projects and make sure everything’s done on time.
Seniors are problem-solvers who take on tasks that other developers don’t know what to do with.
- Work with ultimate uncertainty, where the desired result is not clearly defined
- Before intervening with new solutions, consider how those will affect other functions and the entire project
- Calculate costs for the customer
- Plan how to achieve maximum results with minimum costs
- Specify and list tasks for other developers
- Set standards for code quality
- Highly experienced in problem solving, decision making, and customer communication
- Coordinate the work of the team and its composition
- Participate in decision making related to business development
- Mentor other developers and generate educational guidelines for them
Undoubtedly, Seniors are expected to be technical specialists who make few mistakes and produce robust code. However, you should remember that they have specializations, too. No matter how highly rated a developer is, he or she cannot be proficient in every technology there is.
Soft skills are the Senior developers’ strength. Most importantly, they know how to translate the customer’s requirements into specific development tasks. Also, they know how to adopt the customer’s perspective on the project. They won’t talk to you about the technical complications they’re having. Instead, they’ll talk to you about your business and propose solutions that will be best for it.
What Seniors contribute to the overall value
They ensure the efficiency of development and high quality of products that meet the customer’s requirements and needs.
Team Leads are leaders accountable for the overall development and the final results.
- Plan projects
- Assess weaknesses and patch them up
- Look for win-win solutions on the large-scale level
- Mentor seniors and educate other developers
- Resolve disputes
- Set strategic goals
Team Leads are experts who not only know how to use various technologies and frameworks but also introduce new ones for their teams.
Team Leads shape the vision for projects by working closely both with the customer and with the team. They need to know how to negotiate and convince effectively. Along with Seniors, they look for solutions where everyone else (including perhaps the customer) seems stuck.
What Team Leads contribute to the overall value
They take responsibility for the wholesomeness of projects and development.
The higher the level, the higher the rate. In the same company, the time of a Senior developer can cost twice (or more) as much as that of a Junior.
There’s nothing unfair about it. Top-level developers are better qualified to deliver solutions to you. Moreover, they are necessary in any nontrivial project. If your project is about something more than creating a landing page, you probably won’t do without Middle-level developers or Seniors or both.
And the opposite is true, too: you don’t want too many top-level developers. The too-many-cooks principle works with them, too. It all depends on the scope of the project, of course, but usually, when you add to a project a Senior at a time, there will be a point where adding yet another one won’t bring value proportional to that developer’s rate.
So how to find the balance of seniority levels in the team to avoid overpaying?
As a customer, you won’t always be able to answer this question with certainty. Unless you are a technical specialist yourself, you may not fully understand what qualifications and solutions will be needed in the project.
This is why team composition is largely done on the side of the contractor. But let’s say they offer you high-level developers (which means the rate will be high, too), and you want to make sure that your money will be well spent.
- They focus on your costs and calculate how much you will end up paying.
- They propose ways to spend money and time more efficiently.
- They talk about the prospects of the product they will be developing for you.
- They don’t simply promise to do everything strictly according to your requirements; instead, they critically discuss what solutions will be optimal.
Here are ways for you to check if you indeed are working with a top-class professional:
These are signs of a contractor you can trust. Most importantly, such a contractor won’t fail to explain to you their seniority level choices for your project.
Entry-level developers are worth having on the team, and top-level ones are worth the price. The seniority levels are not about dividing developers into bad ones and good ones. This system of levels creates a classification showing who is good at what. This is how tasks can be distributed with more efficiency.