I offered free advice as a 6+ year Senior Developer, here are my answers to the top questions I got

I have learned so much online over the last decade from others, here is my best shot at giving back!

Last week I made a post on /r/cscareerquestions titled “Anyone here need advice/mentorship from a Senior Software Developer with 6+ years?”.

Over the course of 7 days, I spent 15+ hours responding to over 200 questions from folks with varying backgrounds and experience levels:

  • 97 comments
  • 82 DMs on Reddit
  • 27 DMs on Twitter

My 5-second resume:

  • Graduated with a CS degree in 2014
  • Worked 2 years at a Software Consulting Company
  • Have been working at a 1,000+ employee Enterprise SaaS Company for the past 4+ years
  • Been interviewing candidates regularly over the past 2 years
  • Promoted to Senior SDE in 2019
  • Tech lead for a team of 10 devs, successfully launched our product earlier this year
  • Recently became dev manager for that same team

On to the questions!

1. What are your interviews like? What do you look for in a candidate?
I do both phone screens and on-site interviews.

My interviews are generally 1 hr and consist of:

  • 5-10 min on candidate’s resume/projects
  • 40-50 minutes on 1 or 2 coding questions
  • 5 minutes for candidate questions

For on-site interviews, we normally have 4 total technical interviews and the hiring manager is usually one of them.

When it comes to questions, I have about 8 different questions I personally like to ask that very in terms of topic (data structures, system design, OO programming, databases) and difficulty (SDE 1, SDE 2, Senior SDE).

I like to start questions out pretty vague and see how the candidate handles the ambiguity (do they ask good clarifying questions?).

My favorite question that I ask SDE 1 and SDE 2 candidates, is for them to implement a function that takes in a tic-tac-toe game state as an input and can determine if a player has won the game yet. I like the question because there are many ways to solve it, the most straightforward being a nested loop for rows and columns and then the diagonals. The best candidates will think of things like reducing code duplication and also notice areas where they can gain small optimizations. I don’t expect candidates to have a perfect, ultra-efficient solution in 30 minutes, but I do expect them to take feedback and guidance from me well and also have a good approach in terms of problem solving.

An example of good problem solving would be a candidate that is able to cycle through their knowledge of data structures to brainstorm potential solutions. They would also identify when a certain path they took is might need to be revisited (or at least talk through their concerns).

2. What is the difference between junior and senior developers? How do I advance to the senior level?

Junior developers generally require a decent amount of help to get their work done. I expect them to ask questions and require some upfront guidance when I assign them work. Good junior developers will be eager to quickly grow out of needed help. They will learn quickly and even though mistakes are definitely going to happen, they will learn from them and not repeat them often.

Senior developers are two steps above junior devs (there is a general “experienced developer” that falls in between them in my mind). They lead other developers and can take business requirements (non-technical specs on what needs to be built) and single-handedly figure out what needs to be done and how to implement it. Not to say that they don’t still get feedback and help from other devs, but the key is that they can work independently if needed. The other part is that they are able to mentor and guide other developers. They can help a junior developer become independent – not simply just tell them what to do, but actually help them to no longer need their help too.

If you want to progress from junior to senior developer, then I would recommend you follow these steps:

  • Talk to your manager about what they would like to see you do to advance to the next level. Make it clear you are wanting to work towards a promotion.
  • Learn from the awesome devs at your company. Ideally, get their advice and pick their brains. But if not, you can still learn from them by watching their code reviews and also seeing how they do code reviews for other devs.
  • Take on challenges and new opportunities that come up. The best way to grow is to be slightly outside your comfort zone. If your manager asks you if you’d like to take on a new project that sounds scary and difficult, I encourage you to take it on. It will be hard and stressful, but you will grow so much in the process.
  • Look for opportunities to mentor newer devs. Not only will this prove that you are able to coach and lead other devs, it will also teach you a lot about how to work with others effectively.

3. How can I improve my resume?
There are two main goals of your resume:

  • Appeal to recruiters so they pass you through their screening process
  • Help to set expectations for your interviewers, in some ways it sculpts your first impression with them

Each company and person will vary in terms of what they look for, so I will just share what I find are steps to making your resume more effective:

  • Get relevant work experience on there! Software jobs are of course the best to have. But after that, internship experience is excellent as well. If you don’t have those, then working on a good side project is the next best option. Check out some of the following questions for guidance on picking a good side project.
  • Update your resume so it appeals to the company you are applying for. Make your experience reverberate with items that are very relevant to the company your are applying for. Is their product a web application? Then make sure you clearly layout all the web technologies you have worked with. Make it easy for recruiters and interviewers to find the information they are looking for.
  • Education is important, especially early in your career. CS degrees are definitely still ideal, but companies are becoming more open to non-CS degree candidates. If you are going the non-CS degree route, I do recommend making sure you have a strong understanding of data structures, algorithms, and object-oriented programming if you are looking to apply to more traditional software companies.

4. How to prep for the coding interview?
First off, it is very important to just practice for the coding questions. I personally used “Crack the Coding Interview” and it was a fantastic resource, the most useful information for me was everything before the practice problems. Leetcode.com is a newer resource that I think is a great way to practice coding questions.

Dealing with nerves is another thing I was asked about a lot. I personally had trouble with nerves when I started interviewing for the first time after my first job. I completely bombed my first phone interview, as I was super nervous and under-prepared. I then set aside about 4 months to study and prepare. This helped a ton when it came to my next set of interviews, as I felt confident in my approach to most of the questions.

I also encourage you to do some live mock interviews to practice. Practicing problems by yourself or online is not the same as working on a problem on a whiteboard and with someone judging you. It is a lot harder and there is a lot more pressure.

Lastly, I want to remind you that there is a lot more than just getting the most efficient and most “correct” solution to the problem. Interviewers are looking to test how you approach problem solving and how enjoyable you are to work with. Keep that in mind as you practice!

5. How do I select a good side project?
Pick a technology or stack you are interested in working with (iOS apps, web app with ReactJS, etc). If this is your first project, then I recommend finding a good tutorial to get started. From there, you can expand upon it to make it your own.

Pick a hobby or interest you have and build an app or website for it. This is so important because your motivation to continue working on the project is key. Don’t underestimate how hard it is to push yourself to work on projects in your free time, make it as easy and low-friction as possible.

For example, I was really into Magic: the Gathering in college, so my side projects involved building apps and websites for that community. My first project was a simple iOS app that worked as a life counter that could be used during the game. I expanded it to store past games and to generate some basic stats and charts. My second project was a website where players could post and share their decklists.

I launched both of them with Reddit posts (please be kind haha):

Let’s say you love movies, you could build an app or website that helps people discover movies that they might like. This could start out super simple as a simple list of movies and their Rotten Tomatoes scores and then some other info (length, director, etc). Then you could expand it to recommend movies with some simple rules (latest movies with the same director/same genre/etc). Then you could add user accounts and further customizations of settings and recommendations. Each step of this process will make your project even more interesting to potential employers.

Another idea is to find a website or app that you use, but you wish had an extra feature that you want. Try to build a limited version of that app, but with the feature that you want. The key is to keep it simple, avoid complex things like user authentication or super fancy UI animations. Start small and expand from there!

6. Do you get burnt out? How do I keep my motivation up?
I have definitely run into burnout or developer fatigue. Sometimes you work too much or too hard and you just need a break. Talk with your manager about that, it is totally normal.

Sometimes it is due to the fact that you aren’t happy on your current project or team. That can be due to the work not being interesting anymore or your team not being a good fit. Either way, you should make actions to make your work more interesting and exciting, either by talking to your manager or switching teams, or starting to look for a new job opportunity (what I did earlier in my career)

7. I am a current CS student, what can I do now to prepare for getting my first job?
For me, I felt that the computer science classes did not prepare me fully for the work environment. I learned a lot of great foundational knowledge, but it took me a while to connect the dots between how “merge-sort” might actually help me build an application that customers use. So I think it is crucial to get as close to “real-world” experience as you can, as it really helps to put your learning from class into perspective.

The way I tackled it was:

Do some extra learning on your own; follow tutorials to build a fun little app that can be deployed somewhere. There are tons of great resources for this, and it is really great to see your code being applied to a tangible product/app.
Really try to get an internship. This means you should look as early as possible. Definitely go to your school’s engineering career fair if they have one. The better companies start looking for summer interns early in the school year. I think as early as October/November for some schools/companies.

If you are having trouble getting an internship, be sure not to get discouraged and give up! My first internship was at a cabinet company for $10 an hour. I didn’t even have a real desk. But I learned a ton still. Other than that, start side projects that map to your interests so you are motivated to continue working on them. Pick something small and easy and work your way up!

8. What kind of projects/experience do you look for in a candidate?
In rough rank order:

Relevant work projects – the best case scenario is to see that the candidate has already worked on similar projects at a company; that they have skills that will apply to the role they are interviewing for. This is ideal because it means: a) the candidate will require less time to ramp-up (this can be expensive) b) the candidate will probably have valuable insights on the project that will help improve the perspective of the team they are joining.

Professional software projects – The fact that the candidate has worked on software projects with a team in a professional setting allows employers to assume they know how to work with others and understand basic team dynamics. I also like to ask candidates about some of the more complex problems they worked on, so I can get a feel for how well they might be able to tackle the common types of problems we deal with on our team.

Intern projects – Intern projects can easily be ranked up with the above two cases if the company had the interns work on actual features that were shipped (my current company makes sure to do this). Sometimes, companies have interns work on internal projects instead. Even though projects that actually ship to customers may look better on your resume, both types of projects will teach candidates a lot and are very valuable experiences.

Completed personal projects – I am maybe a bit biased on these, as I think side projects that are actually launched show a ton of initiative and self motivation towards growth. Candidates with these are usually able to think through the business behind software requirements, which isn’t a necessity, but is definitely a nice to have. It also makes me more confident that the candidate will be able to learn new things with less guidance from other devs.

9. Are certifications worth it?
Software consulting companies will highly value certificates, but less so for software companies. Learning AWS is a very, very valuable skill, but I would personally pick working on a side project that I deploy using AWS vs studying for a certificate test. Mostly because it is way more fun to build something.

10. Is it better to have a specialization or to be a “jack of all trades”?
I’ve seen people be successful at both. Earlier in your career, I’d recommend exposing yourself to more stuff, mainly because you won’t know what you want to specialize in long term until you try out more stuff. Once you find a domain that you know you really enjoy and find fascinating, then stick with it. I prioritize my day-to-day happiness at work very much, so pick a path that will make you happy and excited to go to work everyday. And it’s totally fine if that changes over time, that is totally normal!

11. How important is it to have a mentor? Any tips on finding a good mentor?
It will always be helpful to have a mentor, even later in your career. Growing and sustaining a career is hard work and having people around you that you look up to will make that easier.

View it as a two-way street. They will help you with their experience and guidance, but they will also be practicing their mentoring skills more and gaining new perspective from teaching you.

I think it is easiest to find a mentor within your same company, as you can build trust by working with them. But understand that not everyone wants to be a mentor. Let it happen naturally but don’t be afraid of asking them if they have time for a 15-30 minute meeting, or try to pick their brain over a coffee run.

It feels good to help others, so as long as you are truly learning from them and not asking too much of them, I think you’d be surprised that it is not as daunting as it seems.

That’s it!

I hope some of you find this helpful! Please feel free to reach out to me here or on Twitter (@jstnchu)