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Defining Seniority

Davis Keene·February 17, 2024

"Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward." - Vernon Law

Seniority is something that's hard for me to talk about1. Admittedly, as a 23-year-old, I'm not sure if I am the right authority on the subject. I'm fascinated by the career paths that I see in my future, the winding roads that lead to greater compensation, higher impact work, fulfillment, and more responsibility. Or so I'm told.

Career advancement is something that almost everyone is looking to achieve. No matter where you're starting, or where you're at now, those who are driven will seek out opportunity. For some, it's getting that promotion at the end of the year. For others, it's about starting a new job with hope for a brighter future. The thing that all career-driven people have in common is that they believe experience is key; it's a way of sharpening your skills, extending the length of your resume, and marketing yourself as qualified for more advanced roles. We tend to give the title "Senior" to those with more experience or with more responsibility. Positions like Manager, Tech Lead, L6, etc. are also considered "Senior" titles. As a result, we feel as though career advancement can only take place if we gather the experience and work ethic necessary to hold such a position. This doesn't have to be true.

Seniority can be understood through two lenses: absolute and relative. Absolute seniority, transcending any single business context, encompasses universal indicators such as age, education, and overall work history, which collectively narrate your professional journey. On the other hand, relative seniority zooms in on your specific role within your current organization, considering factors like tenure, job title, and leadership roles in projects or teams. Together, these dimensions offer a holistic view of your career trajectory, shaped by both your broader experiences and your specific contributions within your current setting. The perception of your seniority is thus shaped by how you and others interpret these combined facets.

To use my career as an example: I've been working at the same tech startup for nearly four years. I was the 25th employee and the first software engineering intern. Today, I have a lot of responsibilities and experience at Jellyfish, which means I operate at a more "senior" level. At the same time, however, I only recently graduated college, and many of my peers have more working years of experience than I do. Some have been working in the field of software for longer than I've been alive. This gives them a leg-up on their specific knowledge of programming languages, best practices, and leadership ability, but they've only been at my company for a fraction of the time.

I sometimes wrangle in my head whether or not I would consider myself "senior" at Jellyfish. The reason why I wrote this article in the first place was that, at a recent company event, I had a chance to meet a lot of new faces in person for the first time (the consequences of working entirely remotely). Many people were shocked at my age and how it compared to my tenure, which made me think about how much people value work experience.

It's clear to me that the notion of seniority can't be boxed into traditional categories of age or years in service. It's more about the caliber of your contributions, the obstacles you've navigated, and the insights you've gleaned along the way. Being "senior" is less about the time clocked and more about the depth of your understanding, the strength of your influence, and the mark you're making on your professional landscape. We should aim to cultivate mentorship, leadership, confidence, and the capacity to tackle challenging tasks.

As a software engineer, I mainly think about all the ways that I can grow as ways I can hone my technical skills and enable my team to ship higher quality products. I also try to learn from my peers and my mentors to gain insight into what it means to be an effective leader. Despite your career, it's important to know how you want to tell your story, and what those next chapters will look like.

Understanding your narrative allows you to strategically shape the trajectory of your professional journey, focusing not just on climbing the hierarchical ladder but on making meaningful contributions that resonate with your personal and career aspirations. It's about envisioning the legacy you want to create, the problems you aim to solve, and the ways in which you wish to inspire those around you, carving out a path that is uniquely yours.

1 I first wrote this article about a month ago, and I published it thinking it was decent. After re-reading the original, I felt like it was an inauthentic expression of how I feel about seniority, and more like a mainstream think-piece. I decided to rewrite it from scratch, resulting in the blog post you're currently reading.