Is remote work hurting junior developers? - Technical.ly

Professional Development

Apr. 13, 2021 4:45 pm

Is remote work hurting junior developers?

Companies struggle in helping entry-level technologists adapt to their workplaces remotely, making it harder for juniors to get a foot in the industry door.
Mid-Atlantic technologists discussing tech industry trends.

Mid-Atlantic technologists discussing tech industry trends.

(Screenshot)

For technologists, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed some things for good, not least of all the industry’s attitude about working from home.

When workers were required to work from home during the lockdown, many technology-based businesses found that, despite some misgivings, working from home works for them. Some, including Baltimore-based dev agency SmartLogic, even closed their offices for good.

While employees have varying attitudes about WFH — ranging from desperately missing the office and all of daily rituals that go with it, to embracing the remote lifestyle and intending to continue it indefinitely — it will, without a doubt, become far more common in the future “post-COVID” world than it was before the pandemic.

And, though industries that have pivoted to WFH for their workers have adapted in many ways, there are still growing pains.

Consider, for one, the junior software developer.

While it’s true that many companies are hiring devs on all levels, including right out of school or bootcamp, onboarding and establishing a junior developer entirely by remote has been challenging for some companies. Some, after a year, are still waiting for things to get “back to normal” before hiring juniors, a decision that has narrowed the field for entry-level developers over the the past year.

At Technical.ly’s all-markets stakeholder meeting in early April, a small breakout room discussed the issue — and what can be done.

"While this new model is better for the industry overall, it is absolutely worse for junior developers."
Aaron Brooks, Mastermnd

“I hired a team of junior engineers in October,” said Aaron Brooks, founder and CEO of the technical talent pipeline company Mastermnd near Baltimore. “I’ve been an engineer for over 10 years and have done tons of mentoring. I can say that, unequivocally, while this new model is better for the industry overall, it is absolutely worse for junior developers.”

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“As a junior developer, you’re forced to learn on your own,” said Anthony Putignano, the former CTO at WizeHive near Philadelphia. “Juniors need a lot of attention.”

Brooks fears that it will widen the gap even more and increase the bar for people getting into the industry, as some companies have been avoiding hiring juniors until things go back to a “normal” that may never come.

“We need junior engineers, but they are actually parasitic to the organization when they join — and that’s OK, we need to talk about that,” he said. “They take up time from more senior engineers, but this investment is important. It has to happen, or the industry will collapse upon itself.”

Companies, Brooks said, will need to create programs dedicated directly to supporting junior engineers: “There’s going to have to be an open Zoom room that they can hop into and get feedback constantly,” he said. “These engineers are fighting on three fronts: They’re trying to improve technical skills, they’re trying to learn how these skills fit into the company, and they’re trying to learn company culture and who they can ask questions to.”

In some organizations, Zoom is already being used to ease the challenges of supporting newly hired junior developers working remotely. Annie Rose Webb, web director with tech education nonprofit Hopeworks Camden, works with a constantly rotating junior team.

“The thing that has been most helpful has been [Zoom] sessions where a team of juniors and I will just all be on a call, and none of us are necessarily watching each other, we’re all doing what we’re doing for two hours,” Webb said. “If I look over and someone has left a comment [asking for help], it’s much easier for me to just look at their screen the way we would if we were in the office and chat back to them or unmute myself.”

"We establish pair programming sessions, not only with their manager but also with another mid- or senior-level engineer."
Sundi Myint, SmartLogic

Webb also gathers teams virtually for game breaks about once every week or two, which can make juniors more comfortable opening up during work sessions: “We’ll play Pictionary or Among Us, something completely irrelevant to our work, and even though it’s a goofy exercise, everyone is aware of each other’s presence, having fun and talking, and I have seen, slowly but surely, every week they are more likely to reach out in a group chat.”

Another method of supporting juniors is pair programming, said Sundi Myint, developer at SmartLogic.

“We don’t necessarily view it as ‘we have a junior on this project so we’re going to have to train them,’ we essentially say this is a task that will take this person longer,” she said. “We establish pair programming sessions, not only with their manager but also with another mid- or senior-level engineer, that way they don’t feel like they’re bugging somebody constantly because they know a pair session is coming up and they can save their questions for the designated time.”

The extra support, the stakeholders agreed, is essential.

“Since we’ve been remote, if I’m not on a call with them, I’m gone,” said Webb. “The load to reach out to me becomes much bigger, because they have to send me a message and ask me to get on a Zoom call or they have to command more of my time then they otherwise would, which I think can be really nerve-wracking” for a junior developer.

“Companies are going to have to be very intentional about putting resources directly to this, which I ultimately think is a good thing,” Brooks said. “If they aren’t, it will be one of the worst things to happen to junior developers ever.”

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Are you a junior developer who started a job remotely in the last year, or a senior developer who has worked with juniors virtually? Tell us about it by tagging us at @technical_ly or emailing Managing Editor Julie Zeglen at julie@technical.ly to be connected to a local reporter.

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