Remote Non-Senior Developers, Part 1: What Your Company Should Look For

When I tell developers I meet at conferences or elsewhere that I transitioned from a career in nonprofit management to becoming a software developer I usually get smiles. And then, when I add that since becoming a Dev I've only worked remotely, the smile changes to skepticism. I understand hat skepticism. People have views of what will help a junior Dev be successful, some companies have had bad experiences with non-senior remote developers, and there are lots more stories out there. But as remote work and distributed teams become more prevalent in the field, companies shouldn't feel like they can't hire, train, grow, and mentor less experienced developers as a result. Last month at the United Silver Spring Ruby meet up, I spoke about being a non-senior remote developer (note: non-senior does not explicitly mean junior although I was a remote junior developer). Folks of all experience levels were interested to hear what I had to say because many can't envision what a non-senior remote teammate might look like. Here's s little bit about my experience, what I think makes a successful remote non-senior Dev. Part 1 will cover what a company should look for when considering hiring someone and then part 2 (coming out next week) will go over what a less experienced developer should think critically about before deciding to go remote. 

I won’t lie to you. It does take a special type of person to be a remote worker regardless of their level. This is why some companies decide not to have remote employees at all. And it is a little riskier to hire a remote worker with less experience because do can have a higher risk of not being successful if they are not great (I say great because they do need to be better than good) at the things that make remote workers of any level good remote workers. Here are some characteristics you want to look for when hiring for a remote non-senior developer. 

  1. Someone who takes initiative. There are going to be bumps and issues and as a non-senior dev. In order for the employee to learn and grow as much as they possibly can, they’re going to need to make some decisions, put improvements in place, and get the rest of the team on board with what they need. Make sure that as a company, you look for someone who has done this in the past or has the potential to do this.

  2. Good communication skills. This is necessary for any developer but especially when remote. How can they articulate their thoughts, the research they've done, a problem they're facing, etc. 

  3. Learn about their past. Are they a new professional or just new to development? When I became a developer I had about 7 years of prior professional experience and had already been working from home for 2 years in different industries successfully. I might not be a senior developer technically, but I’ve got all the other skills necessary to be successful.

  4. Make sure the person understands what remote work is all about. Ask them about the best and worst parts of working remotely. I don't like working remotely because I can work in my pjs (which I don't do, for the record). I like it because I have a schedule, more work time without a commute, and a quiet distraction-free workspace. I also have opinions about the parts of working remotely I don't like. I’m aware of all the good parts and bad parts of remote work and I know what i’m getting into when I accept a remote position. You want to ensure you’re hiring someone who also understands these aspects or has at least thought through them.

  5. And maybe most importantly, someone who isn't afraid to say to a slack channel that they are stuck, frustrated, or need help. Without this personality trait, the individual won't be successful because asking questions is probably the most important skill a developer can have.

I find the best way to learn about all of the characteristics above is to ask behavioral interview questions. Instead of the interview where you decide if you'd like to chill with the candidate, ask about scenarios. For example, tell me about when you were stuck on a problem, what did you do? What if no one was available to help you? What was a time you had an issue with a teammate, how did you address it and how was it solved (if at all)? 

Now finding the right candidate is half the battle, but you also want to make sure they’re set up for success. A person isn't an island. They can only exist and thrive if they're put in an atmosphere to do so. Companies sometimes feel they don't have enough resources or structures in place to support a non-senior person but if you have the right candidate, you actually just need a few small things to ensure success.

  1. A good manager who has had some experience/training. This person will be vital for support and working through issues that may come up on the team. They should be an ally and be able to recognize when issues are actually opportunities to help the team as a whole grow and learn more about things like diversity, empathy, mentorship and more. 

  2. A kind, caring team. It is easy as a non-senior Dev to be scared of asking questions but if the team they are put on is supportive, thoughtful, positive, and constructive it will really go a long way in creating an environment with lots of psychological safety where it is easy to learn. 

  3. A system of regular check-ins. It's great if you have a good manager but that manager (or even a tech lead) need to be regularly checking in with this person, especially at the beginning. I think 1-1s are a vital part of a healthy team culture regardless of experience level or if folks are remote, but it’s even more important when you don’t see each other every day in person.

  4. A partially remote team. Even if your current team of remotes are only senior, having a partially remote team means you understand some of the baseline difficulties of remote work regardless of level. It also hopefully means you have some processes in place to allow for easy, async communication and remote pairing tools that are widely used and understood. I'm not saying it won't work if your first remote hire is non-senior but it's definitely going to be a steeper mountain to climb. 


That's it. Really not as involved as you thought it'd be, is it?

Here are the original slides from the talk I gave: https://speakerdeck.com/asheren/remote-non-senior-developers

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week.


And if you’re interested in hiring a remote software developer or want to speak more about the points made here, get in touch!
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