Setting juniors up for success
TL;DR: Juniors are an investment. If you hire a junior and expect them to be a regular employee for a lower price — don’t hire them. Only hire a junior if it’s evident what the plan for them is, and you can provide the care they need to succeed.
Table of contents
- Why hire a junior?
- What is a junior in my company?
- Handling expectations
- Onboarding and getting started
- Making career plans
- Working in a team
- Dealing with stress and mental health
I’ve spent the majority of my professional career in various junior positions. For example, I was an intern, a trainee, a junior agile coach, and a junior web developer. Thus I had plenty of experiences being in this type of role and getting promoted out of it.
Why hire a junior?
I have worked in tech since 2012. It’s a fast-moving industry with a lot of opportunities. There are often jobs in tech that didn’t exist a few years ago. So taking the gamble and hiring a junior to let them grow into a role is a good investment. A company could hire a junior today and have an experienced mid-level professional with a proper talent development strategy a year later.
Another reason might be to avoid having an environment dominated by seniors. This kind of environment has undoubtedly the advantage of having a team of people who generally know what they’re doing. However, hiring a senior comes at the cost of having a costly and experienced person. It might be hard to mold them into someone who fits the company or a particular team.
Sometimes it comes down to the fact that juniors are, on paper, cheap in terms of hiring and salary. For example, when a company goes through a period of fast growth and hiring is done not only for the company but for increasing the headcount too.
These are some of the reasons why I was hired as a junior in the past. I cannot stress how important it is to know why a junior is hired. After consideration, it might turn out that there’s no actual need for them. Nevertheless, this is something worth figuring out before spending time and money on hiring and caring for an excited and ready-to-work junior.
- Do you know why you’re hiring a junior?
- Do you have the capacity to take good care of a junior?
- Is the team you currently working in dominated by seniors?
What is a junior in my company?
The work of a junior differs across companies. Some expect them to be self-reliant and able to handle their work end to end. This approach will work under the right conditions. This is probably not the case for the majority, though. Usually, and unless they were hired at the wrong level (“low-balled”), they will not just magically know what to do.
Figuring out what a junior is doing in a specific team or company is probably a good idea. For example, let’s say the company expects them to do a piece of work that they have never done before, from start to finish, by themselves. But, of course, this will only be possible if you have a person who can deal with this and if you have the right conditions.
During one of my first internships, it came to me as a total surprise when I was expected to handle legal contracts and deal with notaries. It was my third month living by myself in a foreign country. Needless to say that it was a big challenge I was nervous about. At the time, I wanted to prove that I could do anything, so I pushed through my insecurities and got it done. Looking back at it, this was a terrible idea. Making sure contracts are correct is a big deal, and this task should not have been entrusted to an intern.
On a more positive note, when I started my second job as a junior web developer, I was told right from the start that the platform we were working on was highly junior-friendly. I made my first pull request on my first day and had colleagues who were always there to support me. Additionally, there was very little chance I would break some functionality unnoticed, as almost everything was covered with tests. Not only did this give me some peace of mind, but it also taught me the importance of having safety nets in place.
- Do you have a person who is always available to answer questions?
- Do you expect them to work all by themselves?
- What is the smallest and biggest task you expect a junior to handle?
- Is there a recovery process if a mistake is made when performing these tasks?
When I signed the contract for my project management traineeship, I knew very well what was coming. During the interview, I was told that it would be a one-year journey. I would switch teams every three months to know how four teams worked while shadowing the scrum master or project manager. This year was possibly one of the best years for me in terms of learning. Whenever I joined a new team, I knew I had a few weeks to understand its process and challenges to actively support my mentor and learn from them the rest of the time.
As a stark contrast, when I did my internship as a Sales Associate, my job was very vague. I ended up dealing with contracts and getting them certified by notaries, talking to enormous and intimidating gaming platforms like GoG and Steam, doing customer support, etc. While I had a great experience overall and got to know many amazing people, it was not the best internship. Precisely because it didn’t help me learn about accounting or sales, which I was interested in at the time. Unfortunately, this wasn’t mentioned during the interview, nor did I bother to ask because it was my first internship, and I had nothing to compare it to.
The earlier the person knows about what’s expected of them, the better. If you are specifically hiring a junior, the job description should clearly state what the job is about, so candidates can decide if this position is for them. Suppose it’s still unclear what the person will be doing by the time of the interview. In that case, it’s worth considering whether the junior is needed at all. There is nothing worse than being hired only to have nothing to do.
- Are you able to clearly express your expectations early on?
- Do you know which team the junior will be joining?
- What is the fallback plan in case they can’t, for whatever reason, join the team they initially were planned for?
Onboarding and getting started
Onboarding is always tricky. The simple act of starting to work in a team you might not know or using tools you’re not used to is challenging. So it’s essential to get the onboarding right for someone who isn’t very experienced.
The biggest hurdle for anyone who starts a new job is surviving probation (unless we’re talking about a short internship). Set some time aside in the first week to discuss what the junior needs to do to pass probation. Ideally, you would have a checklist of all the things you expect them to be able to do at the 3- and 6-months mark.
When I was hired as a trainee, the expectation was that I would stay at the company after I completed it. Therefore, there was a very clear list of things I needed to do by the end of my probation. One of them was attending all my classes and presenting a topic related to project management / agile. The second one was getting feedback from my teams and mentors, ensuring I was picking up knowledge fast and was on track to handle a team by the end of the probation. Both of these were easy to measure, and I was always aware of what my outlook was.
In my first web developer job, I wasn’t explicitly told the conditions for passing my probation. Instead, it boiled down to writing code that worked and made it to production. On paper, this seems straightforward enough. For me, as a first-time junior, it wasn’t, though. First of all, the definition for “code that works” will vary from company to company. Does it need to be performant? Is it expected to be covered with tests? Should it be documented? Does accessibility play a role? I know this today, but looking back, I couldn’t have asked them to define it more clearly, since it was my first time writing code in a professional context.
- Do you know what the junior has to do to pass probation?
- Do you check in frequently to see if the plan is realistic?
- Do you have a plan if the person isn’t on track to pass probation?
During my first job as a web developer, I was assigned a “buddy”. In reality, there was little thought or effort put into it, and the person had only limited time for me. In the end, I picked a few people who were friendly to me and stuck with them. This allowed me to have a default go-to person, which ultimately made everything easier.
However, during my second web developer job, I got assigned a buddy, which was terrific. She cared deeply about me being comfortable in my job, which led me to make speedy progress during my first months. I still look up to her, ask her questions, and highly value her opinion even years later.
- Does the buddy have the time and skills to be a good buddy?
- Do you have a guide/checklist for buddies?
- What happens if the buddy doesn’t do well?
- Do you gather feedback and work on your buddy system?
Everything is overwhelming when starting a new job. There’s always a lot going on. There are many new people to meet and new ways of working to get used to. Having documentation regarding how things work is invaluable.
I remember during my traineeship, we had the best intranet wiki page. Everything was documented. We used to have classes and workshops, which were also meticulously kept track of. It made my life so much easier. I could always go back to classes that I needed and read through the notes again.
Good documentation enables people to be independent. There is no better feeling as a junior than knowing exactly what to do. When you see a piece of work and know how to tackle it, we need to cultivate this feeling in workplaces. The goal should be to give people the tools to do their work independently regardless of their level successfully. We all forget things, and there’s no shame in not knowing how to do specific tasks without looking them up.
Having docs in the first place and making it easy for everyone to contribute also encourages juniors to pick up this skill (or at least be aware of it).
- How difficult is it to find information?
- Is it clear how to contribute the docs?
- Could a junior get a good picture of their work environment by checking the docs?
- What is information you keep repeating during every onboarding that could live on a wiki page?
- What recurring questions do people ask in general?
work that fits the skill set
Nothing is more frustrating than being stuck with a task you cannot successfully perform. I’m not talking about fun, challenging tasks that brighten up your day. One day, everyone encounters work that is just beyond their skill set.
When I say “pairing” in the next bit, I don’t strictly mean pair programming. Instead, I refer to pairing in the sense of working together on a piece of work. For example, when I was a junior agile coach, I used to pair a lot with my seniors to come up with a plan for a retrospective.
During their first weeks, a junior will mostly pair with someone more senior on most tasks. This person must be willing and able to handle that. Pairing in this setup isn’t just about solving a problem. It’s about going with the pace that the junior needs to follow and answer questions.
It’s not enough to have a title that says “senior” or “lead” to do well in a pairing session. Some of my most horrible experiences were with people who were very knowledgeable but could not explain why we did what we did or didn’t have the patience to go at a slower pace.
Just because a junior is more comfortable in their work environment after the first few weeks or months doesn’t mean they should be left alone, though. Not every task has the same complexity. You need to make sure that the junior is up for the challenge to do work independently and always have someone to reach out to if they can’t.
- Is there a more senior person who is available to pair a lot in the beginning?
- Is it clear to everyone what a pairing session should be like?
- Are you able to assess the skills and pick work juniors can successfully perform on their own?
Making career plans
Given that the junior survives the probation and is willing to stay after that—the next step is making career plans. Ideally, there should be a clear guide on what the promotion process looks like within the company. However, even if this isn’t the case talking about career plans is always a good idea regardless of the title because it encourages one to work on their craft and improve their skills.
Planning a promotion and gathering feedback go hand in hand. My biggest fear in life is getting bad critiques. Whenever I receive feedback, I’m very nervous because I want to do well in my job. The only time when feedback wasn’t a big deal was during my traineeship. On paper, I received feedback officially every three months. In reality, I got feedback monthly and sometimes even weekly. Since the feedback was part of my daily work, I got used to it, and it wasn’t a big deal anymore. So when the time came to get a promotion at the end of the program, it was not particularly difficult. I received a lot of feedback, and I could easily demonstrate the progress I made.
Talking about promotion allows exploring what a person is interested in or naturally good at. For example, when I was working on a promotion to mid-level developer, I was asked to develop concrete and tangible goals. This was only possible because my mentors could assess my skill set and suggest what to work on. For example, I write many tests because I’m very anxious and scared to break the system. However, I did not know at the time that this could be a focus area of mine. My seniors noticed that, which allowed me to explore this field more and become better at it.
- Are there processes in the company that state specifically how promotions work? If not, is this something that could be worked out with the HR department?
- Feedback for some people is stressful. Is there a feedback process in the company that makes it less of an event and more of a routine?
- Do you monitor the juniors’ work continuously? Are you able to see what skills are they are naturally interested in and specialize in?
Working in a team
Creating great teams is a hard job. In the past years, I probably worked with dozens of teams. Among these, I’ve encountered a maximum of 5 teams that worked well. If possible, make the junior’s life easier by putting them in a stable team that has worked together for some time and has no significant issues.
I remember joining a team that, on the surface, was very friendly and well working. However, after some time, I learned that every small discussion in this team escalated. This was a tricky setup because my job as a junior agile coach was to make sure discussions were productive and conflicts could be moderated. Therefore, it is not surprising that I was rather happy to leave that team after some time. However, the atmosphere was not great. I didn’t necessarily have the tools to deescalate yet, and the learning experience was minimal.
If a junior agile coach is joining the company, don’t expose them to the trickiest team. Instead, give them time to get to know the company and the people and extend their skills to handle more complex situations.
Make sure a junior developer joins a team that has a good setup and processes. For example, the plan is to join a team that deals with a complex monolith with a tricky deployment setup and no tests. Of course, there is probably a lot to learn in this environment. Still, there are less stressful ways to introduce someone into a company.
- What is a team in which a junior could focus on developing their skills?
- What is a team in which the member can support a junior?
Dealing with stress and mental health
My junior years were very challenging because I had very high expectations for myself. I wanted to prove to my colleagues that I was smart and capable of doing my job well.
I used to think that people would say I was lousy whenever I ran a meeting as a facilitator, and the outcomes weren’t so great. Sometimes, I’m worried that my colleagues will think badly of me whenever I open a PR and people leave 50 or 60 comments. What I learned years later is: my work does not define me. If I do poorly at work, that doesn’t make me a bad professional. Everyone makes mistakes. I wish that my seniors told me this at an earlier point in my career.
It’s important to point out that making mistakes is okay. Taking the wrong approach or not handling a situation well happens to everyone regardless of their title. Being a junior means making a lot of mistakes, but this shouldn’t define who they are. The critical bit is the learnings that they take away from these situations and the seniors who can jump in to deescalate these situations.
- Are you able to support the junior when they’re not doing well?
- Do you have a safe environment where mental health isn’t a stigmatized topic?
- Does the culture in the company forgive mistakes and focus on the learnings instead?