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Junior software developers are entering a tough job market, as the prevalence of remote work, mass layoffs, and the rise of AI creates a new set of challenges for entrants to the industry. Here’s how to help them thrive.

It’s no secret that many software developers are happier working remotely than in an office. In a 2023 Terminal survey of more than 1,000 developers, 80% said that they want to work remotely at least 80% of the time. But for junior developers who are just starting out their careers, there can be real and lasting advantages to working alongside more seasoned colleagues in person.

For engineering managers overseeing remote and distributed developer teams, this creates a challenge: to proactively ensure that entry-level staff can develop the skills needed to succeed in their work.

According to a recent working paper from economists at Harvard, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the University of Iowa, physical proximity increases mentorship opportunities. Looking at software engineers for a Fortune 500 firm, the researchers found that engineers received 22% more feedback on their code when working in the same building as their teammates. The researchers also observed that “junior engineers value mentorship but find it costly to ask for it,” particularly when seated apart, or even away from more senior colleagues.

Replicating the office experience

Managers play a critical role in closing this gap. Jimmy Jacobson, CTO of Codingscape, says that leaders must remember that many young engineers are coming to the profession fresh out of university, without prior exposure to the dynamics of a knowledge-work environment. “There are a lot of skills that need to be trained up, like how to be accountablehow to communicate, how to ask for help,” Jacobson says. “In the software industry, it’s not uncommon to have to figure things out on our own, but if you take too long figuring something out on your own and not asking for help, then it can set the team behind.” 

Jacobson, who oversees approximately 75 developers across seven fully-remote teams scattered across the US, has found that one effective way to identify and bridge potential skill gaps is to simulate an in-office experience. Multiple times each week, Jacobson’s teams have on-video “hangout times” where they’re simply doing their jobs as usual, but on camera over a virtual meeting platform such as Zoom or Gather. “That way we can all see each other or see each other’s screens, but we’re not necessarily talking to each other unless we have a question,” says Jacobson. This allows junior developers to see how their more senior colleagues work up close, and lets team leaders take note of any engineers needing an extra hand. Jacobson’s teams also use Zoom to conduct any other meetings that might otherwise take place in person – crucially, with the video on.

Oleg Panchenko, the Warsaw-based founder and CEO of FreySoft and MakeDeal, agrees that frequent check-ins with junior team members are a must. For the remote teams under his watch, these include daily stand-up meetings to ensure that everyone is on the same page about a project’s status and potential roadblocks in need of correction, in addition to weekly or biweekly retrospective calls that include reviewing code and offering feedback to developers, plus monthly one-on-one calls between team members and managers. These measures are critical not only for the success of specific projects, but for identifying individual team members’ strengths and areas in need of improvement.

Panchenko then uses these insights to develop internal professional-development initiatives, dispatching engineers of different skill levels to hash out a solution to a particular task and present it to their teammates, together. “Such exercises foster open dialogue among team members,” Panchenko says, which builds trust as well as problem-solving acumen. Close collaborations can also help junior-level staff members develop their professional networks from the ground-up.

Steering the path

Shaping and steering the career paths of junior staff members is integral to any manager’s role, but that may be especially true for those at the helm of remote engineering teams. The most effective engineering managers are those who are mindful of their reports’ goals within the company and, potentially, beyond it – and who are deliberate in their efforts to develop young team members’ talent. 

Peter McKee, the Austin, Texas-based head of developer relations at the open-source software company, Sonar, advises that network-building and career-planning often go hand-in-hand. “If you understand what the developer is looking to further in his career, then you can more easily tap your network to see if you know somebody who can help,” he says. 

But first, managers must understand the young engineer’s career goals. “I find that with more junior developers they might not know what a future in software engineering or a tangential field looks like,” McKee points out. Leaders should not presume that someone new to the industry knows the difference between, for example, a software architect and an engineering manager. It’s up to those with experience and seniority to help more junior staffers figure out where they want their careers to take them. 

“Once you understand their career goals, or at least a career direction, then it’s all about putting a plan together to achieve those goals,” McKee continues. He advises that the plan should be simple but detailed, laying out a clear goal with a roadmap for how to achieve it. “Focus on regular one-on-ones to discuss progress, answer questions, and provide encouragement. Also, remember to review the employee’s career direction and make sure the employee is still excited about that direction. As they move along the path to growth, their perspective might change and therefore their goals.”

It’s not just young staffers who stand to benefit from a little extra managerial legwork. Jacobson, the Codingscape CTO, believes that the success of remote-first companies ultimately rests on proactive managers who make an extra effort to steward the careers of their less-experienced developers. 

“Your impact is related to what you produce and the results you deliver, so our managers have to be very good at actually delegating that work and mentoring and training entry-level people so that they can accomplish the work,” Jacobson says. “Otherwise, it’s evident when they’re not able to contribute. And that’s really on us, not on them.”