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Background:

I am junior developer (about 1 year of experience) who was recently hired at a company smaller than 150 people less than 6 months ago. The web software team is made up of less than 5 people, and everyone in it is focused on front-end web development besides the senior who does all the back-end work to keep the website running.

The senior engineer has been with the company for more than 20 years and wrote most of the website and all of the back-end framework code that we use to serve the website (without which the website would break). I generally try to avoid asking him questions because I can tell he is stressed, and from his body language, replies, and tone I have interpreted that he finds my questions very annoying and a waste of time.

Main issue:

Today I was trying to fix an issue with a web page I was updating, and this page was not showing any information from the database. I was asking a coworker (not the senior) if they could look at my code to see where I was making a mistake.

They started to explain what I was doing wrong, at which point the senior engineer walked over from his office, and started to ask me questions about the code I had written into the page and what the mistake I had made was. I tried to answer all of his questions but he was getting angry because I was taking a long time to explain.

When I explained the mistake, he angrily yelled at me and said "If you use a comma delimited string as a SQL parameter on the website again, I will beat you senseless". I replied that I understood and will not use it. He then told me to look up another object type to pass to the database and then he left.

I understand that I am a junior developer and that I need to respect and listen to the more knowledgeable superior. However after the discussion I felt very sad and angry because what he had said to me. I felt like quitting right there. I am afraid that the senior engineer might ask for me to be fired (he said he has done it to others in the past), which would look bad on my record. But I feel like quitting so soon could be bad too.

Should I stay and accept that I need to write better code to avoid events like this? Is what the senior engineer said normal?

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    Another thing: The senior colleague has been there for 20 years and has written most of the backend and large parts of the frontend for your organization. You have a bus factor of 1. You'll find something better eventually, don't worry, you won't be a lifer like this guy. – rath Jun 29 at 0:36
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    @rath, I am located in the USA. I don't wan't to pursue anything legally as I heard it can hurt future employment prospects, and I don't have any proof that he said anything. But thank you for your advice. – M0giddo Jun 29 at 0:41
  • Not to condone his behavior, but was he really physically threatening you, or was he just emphasizing how disappointed he was? This type of talk was more common 30 years ago, and he may have trouble breaking old habits. Fortunately most companies won't tolerate it anymore and should support you if necessary. If I was in this situation, next time it happened I would say "please don't threaten me". If he reacts with more anger, then I would be worried and consider switching jobs or complaining to HR or higher management. – Mattman944 Jun 29 at 3:15
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    @M0giddo did you get any other than "I will beat you.." reason from him for not using comma separated string as a parameter to a query? Do you know why is that bad? The way you have described it it does sound really bad and sounds like a completely wasted opportunity to educate you ("Because I said so" is the worst reasoning). However the issue could be something else. Maybe you need to ask for help and reasoning in such cases. Remind your colleague that you are fresh from school and need help to understand the things. Don't get immediately defensive or but indicate that you are learning. – AlexanderM Jun 29 at 4:16
  • Why do you as a frontend developer decide about datatypes? – Bernhard Döbler Jun 29 at 10:30
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When I explained the mistake, he angrily yelled at me and said "If you use a comma delimited string as a SQL parameter on the website again, I will beat you senseless"

This also makes me sad and angry. A teachable moment between you and the senior developer that was completely wasted. No mistake deserves this kind of treatment.

It's completely inappropriate for him to hint, suggest, or imply violent behavior, even as a figure of speech. It's abusive and unacceptable.

I felt like quitting right there.

Sometimes it pays to listen to your gut.

The senior engineer has been with the company for more than 20 years and wrote most of the website and all of the back-end framework code

Sounds like everyone considers this engineer irreplaceable, and he's taken advantage of that situation to create his own little dictatorship.

He may be burned out. In any event I do not see him moderating his behavior anytime soon. People like this generally get forced out at some point, and look out when that happens.

Is what the senior engineer said normal?

No. It happens too often unfortunately, but is by no means behavior you should accept.

Should I stay and accept that I need to write better code to avoid events like this?

Everyone needs to write better code as part of becoming a better developer, but not for the purpose of warding off abuse.

No code you write will ever be good enough for this person. If he enjoys belittling people, he will continue to find mistakes, no matter how small, and make you feel bad about them, to make himself feel superior.

I would stay only as long as it takes to find a new job, in one of the many places that value, teach, and encourage developers no matter their level of experience.

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    Thank you for your comment. If I am able to get an interview for a new job, and the interviewer asks why I want to leave the job I am currently at, how do you think I should respond? Will saying that I left because of what the senior engineer said make me seem insubordinate, or rather that I cause drama? – M0giddo Jun 29 at 3:42
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    @M0giddo There are lots of good questions/answers on this site exactly about that, like How to respond to why are you looking for a new job. If you don't see a question you think fits, feel free to create that as a separate question. Good luck! – mcknz Jun 29 at 3:51
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I was in exact same situation where a senior engineer used to always yell at junior folks and I also was under his verbal attack once. I will just advice what I did in my own situation.

What should I do?

Immediately talk to your manager and HR if needed. Tell them you are uncomfortable with his tone and language.

Should I stay and accept that I need to write better code to avoid events like this?

This is bordering or even crossing workplace harassment. You should feel safe and respected at work irrespective of your coding style and performance.

If the manager or the company cares about happy employees they will do something about it. If you do not get any help from them, it is time to move on.

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    I agree with this in principle, but this company seems too small to have an effective HR. The fact that this senior engineer has been around 20 years yelling at people and getting them fired suggests that someone is enabling him. – mcknz Jun 29 at 3:56
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"If you use a comma delimited string as a SQL parameter on the website again, I will beat you senseless"

This was not a physical threat. This exact phrase "I will beat you senseless" is commonly used in a hyperbolic way for comic effect. I believe this is generally understood by native English speakers. It probably didn't occur to the senior that it would be taken seriously.

The only thing that concerns me is your statement that "he said he has done it to others in the past".

I would be concerned if he had insulted your competence or intelligence -- that is bullying. I suggest you ask other colleagues about this exchange. They have worked with him for a while and can help you interpret his comments. No one here knows him.

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    I don't think the senior engineer meant it literally either, but he was "angrily yelling" at the OP. The phrase "beat senseless" has not aged well as a joke, especially as workplaces have grown increasingly violent. – mcknz Jun 29 at 16:13
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    I don't think many people would interpret this phrase as "comic" or "joke". Google doesn't seem to think so either: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=beat%20you%20senseless – Hilmar Jun 29 at 16:36
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    @Hilmar: The quote in the Urban Dictionary definition: "Quit being stupid fool, or I'm gonna beat you senseless!!!" illustrates the hyperbolic use of that phrase as I described and does not support your assertion. – kevin cline Jul 1 at 3:53
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    We weren't there, and the senior may have had an overly emotional reaction to the poor coding practice. The threat to have the junior fired is more serious but it still sounds like a case of miscommunication between an older native speaker who frequently employs irony or hyperbole, and a non-native speaker who is unfamiliar with both American idiomatic speech and such rhetorical devices. – kevin cline Jul 1 at 3:57

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