We often discuss relative skill levels using the terms “junior” and “senior”. I would like us to stop, for two very different reasons:
- Internally in an organisation, it makes little sense to calcify skill differences in titles.
- There’s a better vocabulary to indicate skill differences, drawn from guild terminology.
One Team, Different Skills
People have different amounts of experience in different things. I would be hired as a senior software engineer, but a junior Windows administrator. I would not even get an internship in private equity! Yet if I work with Windows software development for a private equity firm – am I senior, junior, or an intern? What if the mix of each of those components in my work changes over time, because different aspects of my skill are needed at different times?
This happens even at smaller scales: I have worked with software developers who are absolutely amazing at taking a complicated legacy codebase, putting it under test and refactoring it aggressively. Others have their strength in writing fast and configurable prototype software. These differences are definitely large enough to consider each “senior” in one thing, but “junior” in the other. What should their titles reflect?
The easiest solution is to not calcify skill differences in titles. We can accept that people are good at different things, and dynamically adapt within a team based on the tasks at hand. If I work with someone who is great at Windows administration, I don’t need to hear they have “senior” in their title to respect their knowledge and learn from them.
That said, sometimes we do need to talk about someone’s ability to do their job. As we see from the reasoning above, this is usually context-dependent and changes from project to project. There exists a better set of words than “junior” and “senior”, used in some of the research on expertise, and borrowed from the terminology of medieval guilds.
I think the most important of these terms are apprentice and journeyman – these are the two skill levels where we find most people we work with. The difference between the two is that a journeyman is experienced and reliable to the point where they can execute a day’s work unsupervised. Note the very operational nature of this difference! While people disagree heavily on what counts as junior and senior, the difference between apprentice and journeyman is quite clear: can they do their daily work unsupervised?
Another benefit of this set of terminology is that it’s finer grained and covers a wider range of skill. This is the full list:
- No involvement with the profession at all, sometimes does not even know it exists.
- Committed to learning the profession, but has had minimal exposure to it.
- Started learning the profession, maybe at the level of having taken a few introductory courses.
- Started translating their basic knowledge into work, assisting more skilled professionals. Needs guidance to perform daily work. This phase can last anywhere between a year and a decade, depending on person and profession.
- Executing a day’s work unsupervised, though still taking direction from someone more experienced. Skilled and reliable and trusted to deliver by customers. Many people are journeymen for life.
- Highly regarded among journeymen. The one other journeymen go to for the tough problems. Frequently one is an expert in a subdomain, and a journeyman in the broader field.
- A leader in the field. Capable of training experts.