When it comes to hiring engineers, it seems to me that most companies subscribe to the “conventional wisdom” of hiring experienced (a.k.a senior) engineers. They want people that “have been there”, “done that” and who can “hit the ground running”.
While there is nothing wrong with hiring senior engineers, the fact remains that there are more job openings than there are senior engineers to fill them. This scarcity leads companies to “cannibalize” on each other’s resources while overlooking a perfectly legitimate pool of high quality resources.
In the past couple of years I was fortunate to work with some really bright “junior” engineers and I decided to sit down and summarize that experience and why I believe that hiring up-and-coming engineers is not only a viable alternative but in fact an advantage.
Experience is overrated
While having extensive experience using the language of choice in your company can be helpful, it represents a fraction of the knowledge required by the engineer to perform their job duties. Any engineer you hire is going to have to spend a fair bit of time understanding your business particularities. No two businesses are the same. Not even within the same industry.
Remember those 12 legacy systems you have that don’t really talk well to each other? Yea, so they’re gonna have to understand how they work. Remember that huge monolith code base that is severely lacking in documentation? Right. So they’re gonna have to spend a fair bit of time wrapping their heads around that one. That’s where the real learning curve is!
What you want is somebody that has problem-solving skills. Someone who is a quick learner. Someone that can get the ball rolling without you having to sit there and hold their hand. Not someone that have some meaningless number of years writing Java code on their resume.
Motivation is underrated
Just like toxic attitude is contagious, the opposite is also true. Junior engineers are typically a very enthusiastic and motivated bunch. They have just discovered the beauty in what many of us take for granted: having the ability to convert your ideas and dreams into real-world, living, breathing computer programs.
This breath of fresh air has an uplifting effect on the moral of the rest of your team and promotes an atmosphere of help where your more senior engineers are suddenly taking on more responsibility by mentoring the more junior engineers. (Assuming your team is not solely composed of egomaniacal a-holes).
Likewise, motivated people will compensate for what they may lack in knowledge with sheer determination in order to achieve results. I’ll hire that kind of person over any senior engineer you put in front of me with indifferent attitude any day.
They are not as “clueless” as you think
In the past year I trained two junior engineers with almost no experience writing professional software. In both cases, I was able to ramp them up within days to start contributing meaningful, production code to our core platform.
My approach was simple but effective: treat them as professional adults, give them just enough to get going on the task at hand and check up on them every now and then to see if they need any help. That’s it.
The “overhead” in training them (which added up to maybe a couple of hours per week) paid itself many times over as these fledgling engineers became more and more productive and were able to tackle bigger and bigger tasks.
This is not an isolated case. In another team within the same company I witnessed similar results: within 3 months of hiring 2 new junior engineers to their team, they have doubled if not tripled their output.
Decent people feel the urge to reciprocate when treated kindly. This translates to loyalty to your company, evangelizing your business and company culture, referring colleagues to work for you and generally having a fan on your side.
If your company has policies that forbid hiring junior engineers, it may be time to revisit these policies. Be as picky as you like in your hiring process but don’t let past experience be the main drive behind your hiring decisions. Look for bright, promising candidates who can compensate with their attitude for what they lack in experience.