Lab Notes Investing in the Future:…

Investing in the Future: The Case for Hiring and Mentoring Junior Tech Talent

🍵 Brew Leadership, Tech Industry 8 min read
Leadership, Tech Industry
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🌱 Vertico Labs Partner

🏛️ Lead Software Engineer @ GovExec

Former Director of Web Engineering @ The Atlas for Cities

Published 2 months ago
Updated 4 weeks ago
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For years, the tech industry has been grappling with a growing trend: the increasing dominance of senior-level roles and the scarcity of opportunities for entry-level talent. This “senior-only” market, characterized by a disproportionate emphasis on hiring experienced professionals, has been a long time coming, shaped by various factors and industry shifts. Let’s dig in to what contributed to this trend, some counterpoints to it, and the long term consequences of not hiring junior talent.

A note for readers: when referring to the tech industry here, anyone supporting, selling, integrating, or making technology qualifies. So a project manager at a small software company would be included, but so would a product designer for a major restaurant group. As technology becomes increasingly integrated into businesses, many traditional sectors like retail, healthcare, finance, manufacturing, and hospitality are hiring tech professionals to keep up.

Factors Fueling the Senior-Only Tech Market

A series of factors contributed to the current state of the industry. Some of them being:

  • COVID forcing WFH, spurring general tech growth, and outrageous valuations (Remember Peloton, anyone?)
  • Government aid programs made it easier for companies to borrow money.
  • Tech giants and publicly traded companies took advantage of this and went on a hiring frenzy.

From there, the economy slowed back down, inflation led to reduced consumer spending, and the pendulum started to swing the other way.

In early 2023, the dramatic collapse of Silicon Valley Bank shook up venture capital funding, making it much more difficult to raise funds. By the end of the year, companies corrected by laying off staff en masse to account for reducing revenue. In turn, companies cut moonshot projects, reduced spending, and refocused on other areas, including AI — with sprawling impacts.

In this climate, companies want to move quickly and are less open to risk, which can skew hiring practices against junior talent.

A Fiercely Competitive Market for Entry-Level Tech Jobs

Finding an analysis that shows a breakdown of tech jobs by experience level has been challenging – in my experience, this type of question seems too niche to justify the research time at major outlets. If you know of any, please let us know via the feedback form below, we’d love to include it!

So here’s a semi-anecdotal example to color things in. A search for full-time software engineering positions in the US on Indeed.com shows ~40,000 results. The experience level filter breaks them down as follows:

  • Senior Level: 8,974
  • Mid Level: 20,625
  • Entry Level: 4,709
  • No Experience Required: 247

Roughly 12% of available positions are entry-level and below. Searches for UX designers project managers yielded similar results (~10% and ~15%, respectively). These positions also have the most competition. Record numbers of people are going through bootcamps or picking tech-related majors like computer science.

A combination of limited HR staff and recruiters (disproportionately affected by layoffs, historically), and the usage of AI screening software is also exasperating the application process for applicants across the board.

The Talent Pyramid

A pyramid divided in three sections: a small tip, a larger middle section, and the base, which is the largest portion.
An ideal distribution of talent in the workforce.

If we represent the flow of talent through any industry, we should see a pyramid form:

  • At the top, few senior contributors with the most experience.
  • Next, a larger group of mid-level individuals.
  • And at the base, entry-level talent, the largest group.

The progression of people through their careers moves them up the pyramid, and as people retire or leave the industry, the senior triangle gets replenished with the next wave, etc.

Without an influx of new people, where will the seniors of the future come from?

However, given the low number of entry-level tech jobs and how competitive they are, the base of the pyramid is in jeopardy. Without an influx of new people, where will the seniors of the future come from?

The Importance of Hiring Junior Talent

As someone who has been in the tech industry for over a decade, I can confidently say that my career would not be where it is today without companies willing to take a chance on new talent.

My first “office” job was as a graphic designer at a small business that handled everything from print to car wraps. I got the position through a family referral. I was able to take on web development and design work that the owner didn’t have time for. During this time, I was also enrolled in an associate’s program in web design and development at a local community college, so I was still relatively new to the field.

From there, I moved on to a web designer/developer role at a small financing company for consumer products. The position was entry-level, but it offered plenty of room for growth. It also set me up for my first full-on developer position at a digital agency.

These early experiences laid the foundation for my future success:

  • At the car wrap place, I learned how to communicate with clients and estimate services.
  • At the consumer financing company, I gained valuable experience working with a team. I also saw firsthand what good business leadership in tech looked like.
  • As a developer at a digital agency, I learned how to track my time, understand hourly billing, and began to lead teams.

None of this would have been possible without a series of companies willing to invest in my potential. They saw beyond my limited experience and recognized the value of bringing on someone who was eager to learn and grow with their organization.

Juniors Help Team Composition

Every project has parts that require a range of experience levels. For example, senior team members are often crucial for greenfield projects🌾 greenfield project – a new initiative that lacks any constraints imposed by prior work or existing infrastructure. The term “greenfield” is an agricultural metaphor referring to a plot of land with no buildings. Greenfield projects are often contrasted with “brownfield” projects, which involve working with existing, legacy systems and codebases. , making strategic decisions, and checking the team’s overall output. For “brownfield” projects, where legacy systems are involved, they are also essential. Seniors are generally the only individuals with enough institutional knowledge about the systems to make sure the additions or updates succeed.

Having a team with a mix of experience levels allows a balanced distribution of tasks and responsibilities. That upstream work done by seniors creates lots of smaller tasks that other team members can tackle. This frees up the seniors to work on the stuff that only they can do – creating more value for the organization overall.

Worth noting that stuff only seniors can do includes training junior employees! Especially on the institutional knowledge front.

Mentorship Creates Opportunity For Senior and Junior Employees

Ensuring that senior team members mentor and train new hires provides an array of benefits.

Seniors learn leadership skills by teaching, which helps them grow in the organization. By documenting the processes they are in charge of, information silos are broken down. This reduces reliance on single team members (which can be stressful for both the individual and the team).

In turn, new hires can provide a diverse perspective and energy to the team. For example, revisiting existing processes with a fresh lens can help uncover ways to improve them.

Being mentored gives junior employees more experience with big picture thinking – a senior will be able to draw from multiple sources and consider them when making decisions. It can be difficult to learn that high-level thinking when approaching projects, especially if it feels like there’s pressure to deliver. This can lead juniors to skip the planning portions and want to dive into details right away.

Consequences of not Hiring Junior Talent

In its current imbalanced state, I believe that these hiring trends will have long term, negative consequences on the tech industry. By failing to provide a fair distribution of talent, we will see a ripple effect over time. As senior talent leaves the industry, there will not be enough people to fill the gaps. Also, the lack of both mentorship and leadership opportunities will affect growth on both ends of the spectrum, stifling innovation and growth.

Moving Forward

In conclusion, it’s clear that senior talent plays a crucial role in the tech industry and will continue to do so. Their expertise and experience are invaluable in driving innovation and tackling complex challenges. However, we cannot ignore the importance of creating opportunities for the next generation of tech professionals.

One way to do this is by being more flexible with our hiring requirements. By focusing on a candidate’s potential, aptitude, and willingness to learn, rather than solely on their existing skill set, we can open up opportunities for a wider pool of talented individuals who may not have the exact qualifications we typically look for.

This flexibility can be complemented by investing in onboarding processes, mentorship programs, and on-the-job training to help new hires quickly develop the skills they need to succeed. By taking a chance on entry-level candidates, we can cultivate a diverse and adaptable workforce that benefits both individual companies and the industry as a whole.

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