10 Things You Should Never Say to Junior Developers

Hey, experienced developers–this one’s for you! 

When you coach junior developers, it’s important for senior developers to be mindful of what they say.  Your choice of words may affect a mentee in ways you don’t anticipate, even if your intentions are good.  The ultimate goal of mentoring and/or coaching junior developers is to build confidence, foster learning, and encourage professional growth; one of the ways we can help our mentees become successful developers is by using supportive and constructive language–i.e., not the phrases in this article!

If you have said one of these phrases to a junior in the past–well, we all make mistakes, and sometimes we don’t even realize we’ve done it.  The important thing is to be better next time, and try to remove these phrases from your vocabulary. 

“This is easy/simple,” or, “It’s not that hard.” 

It is really tempting to say this–because, with years of experience, a certain task may be really easy!  (I know I have accidentally said this more often than I should have.)  Remember, even though something may seem simple to accomplish to you, that doesn’t mean that someone who is new to programming won’t find it difficult.  It’s important to acknowledge that certain tasks may be a challenge for new programmers! 

“You should already know this,” “You should figure it out on your own,” and “Why don’t you understand this yet?” 

These phrases can set expectations way too high and create an atmosphere of pressure that can undermine a junior developer’s confidence, lead to imposter syndrome, and discourage them from asking for help.  Juniors are learning on the job, and they might not be familiar with certain concepts–it’s far more helpful to explain things and share resources to help them learn than it is to criticize. 

“How could you make this mistake?”, “That’s not how I would have done it,” or, “Maybe you’re just not cut out for <task>.”

Criticisms like these can have lasting effects on a junior’s self-esteem.  Instead, focus on giving constructive feedback and offer suggestions for improvement. Being overly critical or expressing a preferred personal approach can discourage juniors and make them hesitant to share ideas or solutions.

“You’re taking too long”, “It’s faster if I do it,” or “I don’t have time to explain this to you.”

Okay, Big Bad Senior Developer–we get it, you’re busy.  However, while it can be tempting to take over a task that a less experienced developer is struggling with, they won’t learn if you take opportunities away.  Instead, offer to guide juniors through complex tasks by helping them break down those tasks into smaller steps and offering your assistance in completing them.  Also, dismissing a junior’s request for help can discourage them from asking again in the future–which can lead to poor performance due to stress and fear.

“Just do it this way,” or, “That’s not how we do things around here.”

While maintaining standard procedures and best practices is important, don’t dismiss ideas from juniors out-of-hand, as they can bring new ideas and fresh perspectives to work.  Encourage critical thinking and creativity in the workplace by having discussions about the whys and hows of processes, and explain the rationale behind preferred practices.

“You’re too new for this,” “You’re just a junior developer,” or, “You won’t understand until you have more experience.”

Comparing juniors to seniors, often unfavorably, can not only undermine juniors’ confidence, but lead to an unhealthily competitive work environment as they desperately try to “prove themselves”.  Instead, try to focus on individual growth by helping juniors set professional goals and coaching them toward reaching those goals, celebrating all the progress they make along the way.

“You’re lucky to even be here.”

This one’s a doozy–implying that a junior should be grateful for their job can easily come off as diminishing their accomplishments and contributions, and make them feel as though they don’t belong.  

“That’s a dumb question.”

Discouraging questions or labeling them as stupid is an obvious no-no, but it still happens.  Doing this can make juniors hesitant to ask for help.  Instead, try to focus on collaboration and create a safe environment where juniors can ask whatever questions they have and receive quality answers and feedback.  Emphasize that learning is a continuous process, and encourage professional development for both your junior and senior teammates.  

“Real programmers don’t use <tool>,” or, “That’s not how it’s done in ‘the real world’.”

Developers have preferences, and we hold to our preferences so strongly that sometimes we start believing that our preferred way is, in fact, the one true way of doing things.  I know that I can be guilty of this one, too!  (Cough, cough… “Just use git through a bash shell, like nature intended.”)  However… disparaging a junior’s tooling or technology choices can contribute to imposter syndrome and destroy their willingness to explore new things. 

You need patience and empathy to coach junior developers, as well as a genuine desire to help them learn and grow professionally.  Coaching is an opportunity for senior developers to guide newbies toward success–and most of us still remember that one senior who mentored us in the beginning, don’t we?  We owe it to juniors to try and create a positive and supportive work environment that sets them up for long-term career success. 

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