The Muselet #32: Junior

“Junior” is probably one of the most unappreciated master pieces of the ‘90s Schwarzenegger era. Arnie pregnant. No, not his wife, him. Co-starring Danny DeVito, Emma Thompson. What’s not to love? Thinking about it still tears me up.

It’s almost too emotional to talk about, so let’s talk about a different type of Junior this week: Junior engineers. Or more specifically: interviewing junior engineers.

I did a quick Gmail search and it seems I’ve conducted at least eighty interviews in OLX. Out of those, just a handful were for junior positions. Given that we generally had head count (a lovely term) for generic engineering positions, we figured it would be best to focus our hiring on senior and mid-level positions. That only changed recently when the value of more balanced teams became clear.

We figured out that hiring more juniors solved a few problems:

First, it solves the “chicken and egg problem” of how engineers should get to a mid or senior level if they cannot get a job as a junior. That was usually solved by other companies hiring them first, training them up, and then us taking over. That works, but what we found is that we had to put a lot of effort into adjusting or “fixing” their mindset and approach. If you catch ‘em early, you can influence this much more easily.

Second, more junior team members are a healthy counter balance to the seniors for various reasons:

  1. If you have an extremely senior team with strongly held opinions, this can be unproductive at times. Everybody’s busy discussing, and nobody’s left to do the “actual work.”

  2. Tasks to be done are always a mix of highly complex and more straight-forward. What is straight-forward to a senior, is likely still fresh and educational for a junior. It’s a win-win to let them handle such things.

  3. People grow by teaching others, and juniors need to be taught. This creates a growth opportunity for both the seniors and the juniors at the same time.

Cool. So we agree that juniors are a good thing. Now, how do we find the good ones?

A few weeks ago I was in one of my first feedback loops for a junior position. Admittedly, I had gone into the interview somewhat unprepared. I had asked my usual set of questions trying to adjust them on-the-fly to the junior role. However, asking about previous roles, team setups, processes used, collaboration with product, turned out to be less than useful. I suppose I could have seen that coming. 

The feedback from the hiring manager was clear: “Thank you all for your input, but this is not helpful to me at all. Here’s what I care about: can this candidate learn quickly, can they work in a team, and most importantly: are they hungry?”

He was so right. 

So I adjusted my approach. I started to look at CVs differently, and started to look for diversity of projects and dug into them during the interview.

Here’s some stuff I‘ve started to look at:

Approach to learning: How do they decide on projects to pick up? Do they use what’s in their comfort zone (Java, because that’s what they learned in their OOP class) or actively seek out new stuff to learn (Rust because they have no experience with it and they’d like to learn). Do they always go for the newest of the newest, or have also dug into bigger legacy code bases? Once they join a project, how do they onboard? What support do they expect from their team? Can they give an example of where they were blocked and needed to ask for help? What is their track record in how quickly they started to meaningfully contribute? 

Approach to team work: Can they describe a project in which they worked in a team? How were the roles and responsibilities distributed? Can they give an example of a conflict and how you resolved it?

Hunger for knowledge and experience: Do they ask questions about your organization, about the projects you have, the technologies you use? Do they seem eager to learn new stuff and open to different types of challenges?

This is just a starting point, and properly needs iteration. Especially in this area I’d be very interested in your input. How do you interview for juniors?