Junior Engineer Hiring and Compensation

Recently I have been considering the nature of the software engineering job market for junior engineers. I have a lot of peripheral experience with training, recruiting, and hiring junior programmers. I have spoken to and coached non-programmer friends and acquaintances through the programming bootcamp experience, and it has been awesome to see where they end up--great companies like GoPro, Amplify, Thoughtbot, the NYTimes, and Priceline. I have recruited bootcamp graduates from most of the major programs in NYC like Dev Bootcamp, Flatiron School, Fullstack Academy, AppAcademy, and General Assembly.

Years ago I was that junior engineer coming out of university looking for any company that would take an interest while seeing senior engineers get hired at ever-increasing rates.

The market for senior software engineers at the time of this writing could not be more insane. Passively put your resume on a site like Hired.com and you will get 10-30 companies of varying size bidding ever-higher salaries (120-160k+ is common) for your skills. The stress of telling a long series of amazing companies "no I don't have time to even talk with you" should cause a cognitive dissonance when you remember how many millions of Americans have completely given up looking for jobs.

Why is it so hard to get a job as a junior engineer? Let's look at a typical profile.

The average tech startup is building a Rails or Django app depending on what programming language their CTO knows better. They might have some funding after an A or B round and a few senior developers on the team. Cash is king, but their investors obviously want them to spend that money on engineer's salaries so they can build product. Everyone is pretty busy and is trying to scale as fast as possible. Employees are expensive, but if they can build product fast enough, they're worth every penny.

The average junior engineer is looking for a job at a startup. They have touched all the tools and aren't afraid of code, but they know pretty much nothing. They've built an app, but only by adding 50 lines of Rails code. They have a Github account, but don't understand anything about snapshots or tags or why you don't force push to master. They know some basic data structures so they can reverse a linked list in an interview question but do not know what a red black tree is. They've written tests but don't understand testing. They've queried a database but haven't written a database. Or dealt with data corruption. They know what a queue is but haven't dealt with a queue that's overloading at millions of items per minute. It's the problem with any job. As a company, you want someone who can say "I think I've dealt with this problem in the past" and then nails it.

Junior engineer salaries out of these bootcamps ballpark 60-100k. This is the attraction of the bootcamp: spend 9 weeks with us and you could get a six figure job.

Here's where I think there's a market imbalance. Junior engineers at the outset aren't worth anything close to 100k. After a year of learning, they definitely might be, but in the meantime they present a huge risk to a growing company. A junior engineer will need coaching, mentoring, and encouragement. They might merge code in that breaks a production system. They might erase your git history by accident. They will break the build. Multiple times. I know because I've done all those things and seen junior engineers do all those things after me.

In a couple years of working that junior engineer might be paid 100k, but be doing output on that Rails app comparable to a senior engineer that might be paid 160k. Sure, there are those really obscure issues that only someone who has programmed for ten years will nail down, but for most product-oriented stories, those two years of experience will be paying big dividends.

My personal experience is aligned here. I made a lot of mistakes my first year from breaking the build to swallowing exceptions. A few years later, while I'm absolutely still learning and improving, I deliver more stories and merge more pull requests than most senior engineers on our team.

So here is my proposal. Let's all be honest about what we're worth. I think more companies should snatch up junior engineers, but pay them 40k--enough to pay the rent and buy groceries. But here's the catch: tell them from the outset "you're worth 40k to us now, but we'll guarantee a compensation discussion every six months, in which we'll plan to ramp your salary to 100k in 2-3 years depending on performance." That would really help stabilize the market. I think it would keep junior engineers humble but ambitious. It would de-risk companies looking to hire. It would reduce unemployment for recent grads, but guarantee a pipeline of competent programmers for startups.

I'm not sure how viable this could be in the real world, but when I launch a startup, I'd be willing to give it a try. Your best future programmer might be the one you're overlooking.