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I am a software engineer with experience primarily in web technologies. I started learning HTML around 1996, and added CSS/PHP/Javascript around 2000, Java in 2001. I've been working seriously, full-time with all of these technologies since 2003.

I have noticed that it is fairly difficult to communicate this seniority in web technologies, even though the current set of relevant technologies (CSS, Javascript, HTML, Java, PHP, and others) has essentially grown up and matured since after I started with them — and I've focused on them throughout that time.

So I have pretty near the maximum amount of time you can find with these technologies (I know, I help hire, too). Those who actually have more experience, say from 1998 or 1999, are usually CTOs and directors of engineering.

But when it comes to applying for senior positions (technical lead, principal engineer, architect), I can't get people to look past my relatively short career; either that or I'm doing something majorly wrong on my resume. The feedback I get from technical interviews is always very good, and I often feel like they don't ask difficult enough questions to really test my limits.

This is primarily an issue on hiring/internal movement — when a company or team doesn't really know you yet, or has only seen your resume. Within my teams, I've always performed well at various levels of responsibility up to team management and lead architect.

I'm unhappy with the level of tasks and systems I have to work on currently; my team lead knows this and just doesn't have anything else to offer. As a result, I'm becoming worried that it is impossible to find a team/job that knows how to measure my skills appropriately and place me in a position where I'm actually challenged.


Two typical scenarios:

  • I will send a company my resume, and they will look at it and say "we're looking for someone a bit more 'deep' or 'senior' experience in server technologies". (I ask the HR contact what this means; they never know.)
  • I will pass all the technical interviews a company throws at me, but after meeting me, they want someone more "senior" for their senior or technical lead positions. They ask me to join as a mid-to-senior individual contributor.

(I haven't really had any problem getting offers as what they call a "senior" in-name-only individual contributor, but have had trouble getting offers as principal/lead engineer, architect, development manager, etc.)


I'm sure there are other things I have yet to learn — and maybe it all has to do with current title. But what I want to say, as humbly as possible, is this: if you are looking for a Senior Developer with technology experience in Java, PHP, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, REST, etc. experience, you're not going to find better just by looking for more years*. In some cases, you are going to end up finding "senior" (older) engineers who were actually late to learn those newer technologies.

* If you do, you're going to pay for it, big time.

Maybe large, older companies just don't get how to measure seniority in these fresh technologies, and that it's no fault of the engineers, but regardless, I'd like to know what I can do differently.

What is the best way to communicate (resume, on GTYK calls, interviews, etc.) that one actually has senior levels of experience — because they've focused their (relatively) short careers directly to the technologies involved?


Note: I've seen this question and I feel like it's a similar question but this case is when engineers do have the years of experience listed, but are still young.

  • 5
    It is not clear to me what kind of position you are looking for - senior, yes, and the jobs you listed are usually that, but with the added requirement of leading/managing/running a development team. Nothing you have posted tells us about your experience with team leading. So, are you trying to get that added responsibility or not? – Oded Aug 17 '12 at 20:10
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    @Chad Thanks for the feedback. I struggled to get the point across without removing important detail. I will try to think about it. I would also welcome any editing. As for the note -- just wanted to say I am familiar with some rules of this site, and am happy to integrate feedback to improve the question since I know it's not perfect as-is. – user2343 Aug 17 '12 at 20:33
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    "we're looking for someone with a bit more 'senior' experience in ..." is the "Its not you its me!" speech hiring. It probably tells you very little about the actual reason you did not get the position. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Aug 17 '12 at 20:46
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    @user2343 I think you are setting your sights a little high. The bar for experience to come into such an important position as Principal Architect is absurdly high because hiring somebody off the street is inherently risky. We have all hired that guy who seemed perfect on the interview then turned out to be a complete joke of a human being. Positions like Principal Architect are inherently political, so unless you were an Architect at Google or you are Jon Skeet, they are probably going to look internally for aptitude loyalty and trust... – maple_shaft Aug 18 '12 at 14:24
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    ... because in the end it is certainly a trust issue and an enormous investment of time and money. Management needs to trust the solutions being proposed by the architects, and they would rather hire the senior SE who has been there loyally for 6 years and where they truly know that persons abilities and limitations. Senior SE positions are nothing to shake a stick at, and are the stepping stone to the next level of your career. – maple_shaft Aug 18 '12 at 14:28
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My resume shows about 14-16 years technical experience combined, from internationalization and QA work (generally as a lead) during my first years out of college, to Senior Software Design Engineer in Test for a few years, to Senior Software Developer pretty much immediately after that. I've never had anyone doubt my "senior" experience, though occasionally people wonder how much of my specific experience applies to developing software (for them) and building teams (for them). They tend to lose that doubt after talking to me, with maybe an occasional exception. I've been cold pitched on VP Engineering roles, oddly enough, and I haven't been featuring much team leadership work in recent years on my resume, but I think a lot of shops have some picture in their mind of what kind of person they are looking for, and for whatever reason, my resume and demeanor resonate with people that want senior people.

If you're going in for an interview (or phone screen) for a "technical lead, principal engineer, or architect position" on the strength of your resume, and you're getting told that you're not senior enough after the interview, then the problem is probably you, not your resume. I can usually tell if someone is "senior" by talking to them, and my definition of senior has little to do with the amount of time in any one (or several) technologies, and more to do with maturity, intellectual curiosity, meta-awareness of the craft of building software, combined with depth and problem solving skills. I can usually get an impression of leadership aptitude fairly quickly just by listening to the way that the candidate thinks about problems, their confidence in explaining the strengths and weaknesses of their solutions, and so on.

To fix the "don't sound senior enough", spend more time learning how to be analytical and reflective about your successes and failures, how you'd do things differently if you had a chance to go backward in time on one of your projects, and read books on software craftsmanship and methodology and try to convince your coworkers to implement some of those ideas. When you've been able to convince your coworkers to try a new technique or approach to a problem, chances are you can convince a stranger that you're capable of leadership. For architectural work, try playing architectural katas with coworkers and get better at articulating proposed solutions.

If you've done that kind of thing and you still can't convince an interviewer that you're a fit for a more leadership-focused role, maybe you should be focusing on working at a place where the technical problems will be easy for you and hard for their existing staff, and just grow into the role by taking an interest in organizational and strategic problems.

On the other hand, if your resume is the actual weakness, and you're not even getting phone screens for lead or architect roles, maybe you should emphasize your leadership on projects in your resume, even if you aren't "the boss"; emphasize your contributions, not your role.

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    This is a great answer to a question that, at this writing, is still trying to find its formulation (I know the OP is trying!). The advice to find a place where the OP can leverage technical expertise into time and space to think about and work on organizational and strategic problems is especially good. – jcmeloni Aug 17 '12 at 21:38
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    "When you've been able to convince your coworkers to try a new technique or approach to a problem, chances are you can convince a stranger that you're capable of leadership" - that's where true seniority starts indeed – gnat Aug 17 '12 at 22:20
  • Oooh. ... maturity, intellectual curiosity, meta-awareness of the craft of building software, combined with depth and problem solving skills. Best concise description of a "senior" role I've seen. – Bobson May 28 '14 at 20:39
  • Why can't I upvote this 9001 times??? – YetAnotherRandomUser Feb 7 '18 at 0:58
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Is it possible that you are barking up the wrong tree with this emphasis on technical experience?

While technical expertise is important, a Head of Department type role typically places more emphasis on non tech related skills.

What we (your mileage might vary) tend to look for are soft skills when it comes to these positions since we do not actively expect you to get your hands dirty anyway. In other words, what tends to be more important is stuff like:

  1. Will you make a good team player?
  2. Can you provide the required leadership and relationship management?
  3. Can you get your teams to produce?
  4. Are you technically qualified
  5. etc, etc.

If you emphasize too much on your technical background, they might get the impression that you don't really understand what the role requires and this might backfire.

9

It's hard to know where to start, but I guess I should start with a caveat that I don't acutally know what experience you have or what the jobs you are looking for require. So some of what I say may be applicable and some may not. It may also be somewhat scattershot as I'm really basically brainstorming.

First, are you getting past HR? In that case it is very likely that you are are experienced enough for the postion and if they tell you otherwise, something else is going on.

Next, there is a huge difference between ten years of experience and one year repeated ten times. People looking for seniors are trying to decide which of those you are. So help them out. In your resume and in your interviews, emphasize accomplishments not technical qualifications (well put enough technical stuff in there to get past HR!). If I'm looking for a tech lead or an architect, I want evidence that you are someone who gets things done and solves hard problems.

Another thing to do is network and start writing blog entries and giving presentations at conferences and smaller local events or even writing a book. Many of the better, more challenging advanced postions are filled by somebody they know or know of. Time to get famous.

Finally, consider consulting rather than large bureaucratic organizations. Or consider start-ups.

  • +1 for "huge difference between ten years of experience and one year repeated ten times" – Peter M. Apr 25 '14 at 23:32
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But is your focus on Java, is my first question? There's a bajillion Java devs out there running around. Enough for people to believe they're going to find somebody in the piles of resumes on their desks that has Java experience going back to its origin and web experience back to its origin.

And they will do silly things like cull resumes with single-property filtering schemes like StanfordOrStanfordEquivalent === true or "asked for a coffee when I offered one"

But it sounds like you're getting past that and into the interviews you need to be in. Assuming you don't have a giant purple mohawk (That would actually be bonus points in my book), or you're not wearing a silly hat with a propeller on it (major bonus points) and maybe it's not overemphasis on getting those Java $s, it sounds like you're face-planting on something at the interviews so I'll ask the following:

edit: good point. I'll number these.

  1. Are you very nervous at these things?

  2. Do you come across as younger than you look on paper?

  3. Are you giving careful consideration to what they're telling you about the more general problems they're having and trying to give examples of how you've dealt with those in the past?

  4. Do you feel content to be perfectly honest about every question or do you try to guild the lily a bit in areas where maybe you haven't been strong or have as much knowledge as you'd like even though these aren't necessarily important to the role?

  5. Are you maybe applying for work at the wrong sorts of companies where they've got an exciting household name but aren't really good at anything, especially gauging and challenging talent?

Additional, following comments: Well, two things. One, it wasn't really clear from your question that you're mostly getting stopped at the resume at first which is an odd detail to miss. You might be having trouble on the communication front on the what-the-other-party-needs-to-know front, which isn't uncommon at all among tech folks including myself occasionally.

The other thing that strikes me in your replies is that you don't seem to have any opinion on what you're great at or natural inclination to be working with a given technology suite at this time. Don't get me wrong, I think it's great for people to branch out and build expertise in multiple fields. I also think there are plenty of generalists out there who enjoy it all, but Java, PHP, and JS are like three different planets. Most of the guys in JS chat would rather get root canals than get stuck writing Java for a week and I don't doubt there's a lot of mutual sentiment from the other direction.

I wonder if maybe you've got an answer for every question but maybe that some of those answers might be a touch dusty owing to being spread a bit thin or not having the kind of interest in at least one of them that would have you geeking out a bit on the latest developments in your free time.

But I'm really just speculating with what I've got and mean no offense. I could easily be wrong on both counts.

Another possibility to consider is that you're picking bad targets. Are you just going for larger household-name companies. Sometimes it's hard to get to somebody in those scenarios that actually knows enough to properly evaluate you before finding some silly reason to slam the gate shut. I would try thinking about the kinds of places you apply and ask yourself if maybe you should try new environments where you're not as likely to get overlooked over trivial details you don't control. And what's really motivating you ultimately in terms of interesting work and leadership roles? If it's strictly more practical concerns, rather than the sorts of "technology/leading people in technology is dreamy" stuff they'd love to hear everybody gush about whether they feel the same way themselves, it may be a little more obvious than you realize.

On the honesty thing, it can only be bad if you don't realize you're giving the wrong answers with confidence. Check your answers when you get home from those interviews. Make sure it's more recent stuff you're checking against.

  • To answer your bullets as numbers: 1. No not really. 2. I look young but I believe communicate maturely/confidently for the most part. 3. Maybe I'm not bringing up examples of my own enough. 4. I am usually entirely honest (is that bad?). 5. Yes, quite possible. (I've only applied to one, others have been recruiters seeking me.). Also most of my issues have been at the resume stage (being bumped down a notch before even first phone screen or technical test). – user2343 Aug 18 '12 at 4:54
  • How about the Java thing? Is that the thrust of your technical expertise or are you as-focused on PHP and generalist web dev needs? – Erik Reppen Aug 18 '12 at 5:01
  • I give pretty equal weight to my skills in Java, PHP, and Javascript/front-end. I don't target any, really, mostly I've just responded to interesting jobs from recruiters on LinkedIn, and they are pretty evenly divided PHP/Java, but usually don't talk about language too much. I did fall on my face on a C++ interview though :) – user2343 Aug 18 '12 at 5:03
2

"It's not me, it's you."

The problem that you're running into is that you've no experience as an architect or a team lead, so they're unwilling to take the risk on you. You lament:

I'm unhappy with the level of tasks and systems I have to work on currently; my team lead knows this and just doesn't have anything else to offer.

That indicates to me that the folks who know you and have worked with you are, thus far, unwilling to give you architectural responsibilities. They're the ones that know your work better than the interviewers, so when you relate what kind of work you're doing, despite having a decade of experience in the technology, the interviewers probably wonder why you're doing stuff that doesn't challenge you.

It's a difficult position to be in, but one you're stuck in. You need to break out of it by demonstrating your talents more broadly. Write a blog, posting code snippets or architectural ideas that demonstrate your brilliance. Participate in open source projects, preferably with an eye toward leadership roles, so you can demonstrate your ability to lead projects. Get out into the technical community via social media, conferences and user group meetings. Maybe look into becoming an associate professor at a local college.

Right now (or back in 2012 when it seems you submitted the question) you're a developer with a lot of years of experience but no public acknowledgement of anything other than writing code that doesn't challenge you. Change that perception internally and externally. You might find that if you start doing it, your current position might change to provide you greater challenges and opportunities.

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A profile in StackOverflow (as show in the profile in Careers 2.0) seems to be a pretty good way of presenting your level of experience and expertise in anything to do with programming. I also like the fact that it shows the engagement you've had with other members and different communities, which gives them a good indication about your other characteristics and skills.

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