I’ve been at my current job for three years, and I am suddenly, accidentally, the most senior engineer on the team. I spend my days handling things like bootcamps, mentoring, architecture, and helping other engineers carve off meaningful work. This has taken a huge toll on the kind of work I want to do as an IC. I still enjoy writing and shipping features, and I am not a manager, but now I feel like I spend my days conducting meetings, interviewing, and unblocking others constantly instead of writing code myself.
What should I do? How can I deal with this situation in an effective manner? How can I keep from getting burned out on zoom? How can I reclaim more of my time to write code for myself, without sacrificing my influence? Should I get a new job? I have thought about going out and getting a new job, but I really like having a say at a high level. Here I get looped into all of the most important decisions and meetings. If I get a new job, how can I avoid starting over at the bottom of the heap and just taking assignments from other people? P.S., this is my first job.
Get a new job.
Yes, you will reset your seniority and have to earn it all over again. Yes, it will be uncomfortable and your ego will be cranky over it. Yes, you will be at the bottom of the heap and take assignments from other people for a while. Yes, you should do it anyway.
What you are experiencing now is the alluring comfort of premature seniority. You’re the smartest kid in the room, you know every corner of the system inside and out, you win every argument and anticipate every objection and you are part of every decision and you feel so deeply, pleasingly needed by the people around you.
It’s a trap.
Get the fuck out of there.
There is a world of distance between being expert in this system and being an actual expert in your chosen craft. The second is seniority; the first is merely .. familiarity
Deep down I think you know this, and feel a gnawing insecurity over your position; why else would you have emailed me? You were right. Treasure that uneasy feeling in your gut, that discomfort in the face of supreme comfortable-ness. It will lead you to a long and prosperous career as an engineer if you learn to trust it.
Think of every job like an escalator — a 50-foot high escalator that takes about two years to ride to the top. But once you’ve summited, you stall out. You can either stay and wander on that floor, or you can step to the left and pick another escalator and ride it up another 50 feet. And another.
In my mind, someone becomes a real senior engineer after they’ve done this about three times. 2-3 teams, stacks, languages, and roles, over a 5-8 year period, and then they’re solidly baked. There are insights you can derive from having seen problems solved in a few different ways that you can’t with only a single point of reference.
You don’t become a senior engineer at the 50-foot ascent, no matter how thoroughly you know the landscape. You become a senior engineer somewhere well over 100 feet, with a couple of lane changes under your belt.
The act of learning a new language and/or stack is itself an important skill. Experiencing how different orgs ship code in vastly different ways is how you internalize that there’s no one blessed path, only different sets of tradeoffs, and how you learn to reason about those tradeoffs.
And it is good for us to start over with beginner eyes. It’s humbling, it’s clarifying, it’s a cleanse for the soul. If you get too attached to feeling senior, to feeling necessary, you will undervalue the virtues of fresh eyes and questioning, of influence without authority. It is good for you to practice uncertainty and influencing others without the cheat codes of deep familiarity.
Nobody wants to work with seniors who clutch their authority with a white knuckled grip. We want to work with those who wear it lightly, who remember what it was like in our shoes.
Ultimately, this is a strong argument for building our teams behind a Rawlsian veil of ignorance concerning our own place in the pecking order. Starting fresh yourself will help you build teams where it is not miserable to be a beginner, where beginners’ contributions are recognized, where even beginners do not simply “take orders”, as you said. Because literally nobody wants that, including the beginners you are working with on your teams today.
After you have gotten a new job or two, and proven to yourself that you can level up again and master new stacks and technologies, that fretful inner voice questioning whether you deserve the respect you receive or not will calm down. You will have proven to yourself that your success wasn’t just a one-off, that you can be dropped into any situation, learn the local ropes and succeed. You will be a senior engineer.
Get the fuck out of there. Go. <3
8 thoughts on “Questionable Advice: The Trap of The Premature Senior”
Is there another option of assisting your manager recruit the senior / lead you want to learn from? Obviously if the manager can’t or won’t then your proposal of leaving may be the best option,
Sure! This can work in some environments, if there is budget, and a good manager who understands these things, etc.
[…] This post by Charity Majors of Honeycomb popped up in my feed today, and really resonated relative to our somewhat in-bred world of process automation. She is talking about the need to move between software development teams in order to keep building skills, even if it means that you move from a “comfortable” position as the project expert to a newbie role: […]
Great thoughts. If you care to know, I am posting this comment from Prishtina, Kosovo. <3
How do you deal with this situation on a resume? I was called a senior engineer and lead by by company so that’s what I put on my resume, but like this post addresses, it was because I just became the most senior on the team. New members on the team were all new to the field and I was the most familiar with our systems. When interviewing for new jobs it feels like people expect a lot out of me because I put that title on my resume and it’s hard to get a lower level job, such as a mid level eng because people would be like why are you applying for a lower position.
Alice, would you mind if I quote you in a follow up post?
Nope, go ahead! (Also I noticed a typo in my original comment, should be “by my company”)
[…] In addition, around March-April I got an additional position at company wide level and I felt quite rewarded by the recognition and trust of some of our global management team. Unfortunately I was already burnt out, I felt I was a technical lead but I struggle with the little time I had to develop my technical skills, some of my thoughts are very well summarized in this blog post by Charity Majors: “Questionable Advice, the trap of the premature senior”. […]