What I look for in a senior software engineer

In: Blogging|Essays|Software Craftsmanship

1 Mar 2020

So it’s that time of the year again. Hiring season. The company I work for is looking for a (full stack) senior software engineer. As Lead / Principle Developer I will be interviewing candidates hoping to get their foot in the door, most of which fail the 5 minute mark.

Before I continue I should define what I term a senior software engineer and why most candidates who apply don’t exactly match that description.

The top rated answer on Stack Exchange sums it up nicely: When you should call yourself a senior developer

However that’s not quite what I’m looking for in a senior developer either. That is however the foundation of a senior software developer, or the starting point.

Most people applying for senior positions are hoping to progress from mid level but lack an understanding of the requirements of the role or position. Alternatively they’re senior in age and experience, however have never progressed past the coding conventions of 20 years ago. God classes, copy and paste everything, and testing code in production.

Here’s what I’m looking for when I’m interviewing candidates, and why.

  • S.O.L.I.D. understanding of software architecture & object oriented design.

    Dealing with legacy software is almost always filled with technical debt, compromising code, poor architecture, dirty hacks, bad design, code smells the list goes on. This requires strategies to not only work effectively with legacy code but to identify what’s broken in the existing architecture , and design solutions to correct it. Continuing to slap mud into a big ball is not a solution a senior developer should make.

  • Deep understanding of common design patterns.

    When asked the question “what’s a design pattern that you know or have used” most candidates cite “singleton pattern”, and I shudder. Yes it has it’s place however it’s also considered an anti-pattern and can sometimes do more harm than good. Refactored code will often contain some of the common design patterns and could take some time to get your head around them if you’re unfamiliar. Let alone be expected to improve upon them. The primary goal of touching any legacy software is to leave it in a better state than when we started. I’m not going to list the design patterns that you’ll need, I’ve already written articles on this topic already.

  • Clean Code, Architecture and D.D.D.

    A follow-on from the first point, clean code and architecture is a requirement for writing maintainable and easily testable and understood code. Any software project should strive to keep their code base maintainable whilst reducing any pain points when needing to introduce change to the architecture or design. As as aside here I’d add passing knowledge of Domain Driven Design, the concepts of bounding contexts and having a domain is more of an implementation detail of how to keep a clean architecture but is one of the tools that I use to separate architectural concerns along with clean architecture.

  • Deep understanding of & for Integration, Unit testing and Test Frameworks

    I personally don’t follow the strict Kata that Bob Martin evangelizes, however I agree wholeheartedly before you create a pull request, you should have a Unit / Integration test that proves the code you’ve just requested to be merged. One of the biggest problems often with legacy software is a lack of unit or integration tests, requiring all developers to have unit and integration tests around their software is one way that I can slowly chip away at the lack of code coverage.

  • Reasonable understanding of functional programming.

    Preferring “pure” functions over writing procedures gives us an opportunity to lessen the chances of introducing defects into what is mostly and imperative code base. John Carmack the co-founder of id-software and lead programmer has this to say about the subject. Does that mean that my code bases read like F# or Haskell or some variant of Lisp? No.. but where appropriate you will see functions declared so as to minimize global state and unexpected side-effects.

  • Understanding Async and Multi-threading

    Most popular O.R.M. tools are not thread safe. Understanding thread safety and how this will affect the behavior of the software application and architecture is an important ability. This may be somewhat subjective, not all developers have experience working with Async or Multi-threading, however most will have some experience even if it’s via MVVM view models running code on the background threads to avoid locking the UI on WPF or Winforms apps. Performance matters, being able to write safe non-blocking performant code is often as important as knowing operational complexity of an algorithm or data structure, and how to debug and write tests for such code is just as important.

The lists above is far from comprehensive, these are the key items that I look for in assessing the suitability of a candidate for a senior software engineer role. For me a senior engineer should be capable of handling end to end software development. Developing appropriate solutions that fit in with the overall architecture goals of the applications. Write well maintained, clean, readable, easily understood, tested, testable code. Writing code that performs, is scalable and is able to pass on knowledge to mid level and junior developers.

I have close to 20 years of experience writing software, I have first hand experience of what happens when you DON’T do any of the above. Hard earned experience forces us to look for answers to problems of the past to improve ourselves, recognize our mistakes, and iterate towards better outcomes. The items I’ve listed above are key skills that I couldn’t live without, how about you?

The industry today is in such a better shape than it was 20 years ago, I look forward to seeing how the industry is going to evolve in the future.

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About Justin


Justin is a Senior Software Engineer living in Brisbane. A Polyglot Developer proficient in multiple programming languages including [C#, C/C++, Java, Android, Ruby..]. He's currently taking an active interest in Teaching Kids to Code, Functional Programming, Robotics, 3D Printers, RC Quad-Copters and Augmented Reality.

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Software Engineering is an art form, a tricky art form that takes as much raw talent as it does technical know how. I'll be posting articles on professional tips and tricks, dos and donts, and tutorials.

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