Mentoring Junior Developers

Last week I gave a talk at Bath Digital Festival about CSS Grid and CSS Variables. I was lucky enough to be able to attend a full day of talks and saw some really interesting sessions on topics ranging from developing with components (Jack Franklin), to using data as a creative material (Mike Brondbjerg), to machine learning (Simona Cotin). But one talk really stood out for me, as it’s a subject that’s close to my heart, and that’s Tara Ojo’s talk on mentoring junior developers.

I started as a junior front end developer at Mud just three years ago, and many of the emotions of that time are still fresh in my mind. Being a junior is undoubtedly a position that (almost) every developer has been in at one point or another, and yet I feel that we as an industry could certainly do more to foster empathy and cultivate new talent.

I can’t speak for everyone, but for me the experience of being junior developer was exhilharating but intense, and at times overwhelming. I felt (and still feel) like there was so much to learn. Part and parcel with a career in front end development is accepting that that feeling never truly goes away – there will always be more to learn – and even embracing it as part of what makes our industry so interesting to work in. But it does mean it’s incredibly important to receive encouragement and validation from the people you’re working with – otherwise it’s all to easy to feel like you’re not progressing, even though it’s likely that you’ve learnt a huge amount in your period as a junior developer.

One of Tara’s key takeaways for those mentoring junior developers is to give them feedback about their work, and tell them when they’ve done something well, as well as things they could work on. It might sound obvious, but in practice I don’t think it happens nearly often enough. When you’re up against multiple deadlines, it can be hard to find the time to monitor and review the work of junior developers. But I think it’s important to make the time for this. In my experience, getting constructive feedback and praise when things have gone well makes so much difference to how someone will approach their work going forward. Are people more likely to do their best work and go above and beyond when they’re feeling happy and secure in their jobs? I would bet money on it.

In my opinion, if you make someone feel like they can do anything they set their mind to, and give them the time, encouragement and tools to reach their goals, they will often rise to the challenge.

Tara also gave some practical tips for ways to help juniors measure and improve their performance, including some charts and diagrams that could be used to collaboratively track progress and focus learning opportunities. These charts would be revisited at each review point (whether this is annually, or more regularly) and, crucially, the person being reviewed would have the opportunity to evaluate their own progress and see how far they had come since the last time. Reminding yourself of the progress you’ve made is great confidence boost.

In her talk, Tara had some great tips for ways that junior developers could help themselves too. These can be summed up in three points:

  1. Work on your hard skills – by this she means your coding skills, which are of course what you’re being paid to do, and the most important skills for your job. Other stuff is important too, but improving your code is the way you’ll really get ahead. That means not only writing code that works, but writing quality code, that works well for your team.
  2. Share your opinions – this can sometimes be tough when you’re a junior developer as it feels like everyone knows more than you. But you have a valid voice, and can also bring a fresh perspective.
  3. Celebrate your acheivements – I’m a big fan of this one. Remind yourself of your successes, whether big or small, and give yourself a reward. Tara keeps a Trello board of her personal acheivements, and I’m totally stealing this idea!

There’s a whole lot more to Tara’s talk, so if you’re interested in learning more about how you can support junior developers – and if you’re a junior developer, how you can develop yourself – check out her slides here: