Debunking the myth of professional-levels

This article is about professional level (e.g. junior, professional, etc.), not skills-levels. A professional-level states the overarching level of an individual in a given role (independently of the design leadership level of the company they are working for at the moment or envisioning to apply to).

The magic table 🔮

It is commonly agreed on that if somebody has been doing their job for a given number of years then they can legitimately reclaim themselves of having a matching ad hoc professional level. For example, it seems to be a given than five or seven years in a specific role will make you a senior. Sounds fair, or sounds like there is a table of equivalencies hidden somewhere. 

Sadly my experience often proved me otherwise. In some ways, I agree that if one stays in a job long enough, they are more likely to grow and evolve and become a senior (and beyond!) but it is not a universal law and there is a lot of value in term of reflection on our profession into challenging it.

Dude, where is my table? 🧮

Throughout my career, I had multiple times the chance to meet people who, despite being freshly started in their designer career journey, were able to demonstrate the thoughtfulness and ability to handle different perspectives of a senior, while I could also come across people who have been in the job for almost a decade and despite a lot of efforts were stuck into a junior or “not-senior-yet” mindset. 

One common mistake is to think junior means “beginner” and that senior means “sitting here since a while now”. It can happen, and it can be tempting to think so, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

Nowadays, it is more and more common to encounter “beginner” product designers, product managers, or engineers who are transitioning from other jobs (user research, front-end development, art direction, linguistics, education, etc.) and people’s past journeys are bringing something to their current journey. So even though this person only has one or three years of experience in the given role, their knowledge and understanding of the needs, the pace, the logic, or the market can be impressive! On the other hand, it is a common bad (and sadly very bad practice) in a lot of companies to grow people’s title as they stay in the company. As a result, it is still too common to encounter lead or managing designers lacking skills or proper experience for the job but who happened to be in-house for long enough. While this is happening less and less for engineering roles, this is still a pattern for design roles as there is often a lack of mentors and understanding of what design in a product team is.

Every level is the best level ✨

Having understood this, it is also important to keep our minds away from judging the different levels as one being better than the other. Each level brings its pros and cons. Spoiler alert: this is why diverse teams win!

Appreciating each level 🗺

So how can one appreciate the level of another designer? A natural step after staying away from judging is to refrain from generalizing. To do so, simply sit with people and have proper conversations. Listening to people, having an open ear to their thinking process will grant you golden information: you will hear the questions they are asking themselves and others when trying to solve a problem. 

An illustration with the same character asking 4 different questions each time and the information about the ad hoc professional-level.

📍 Junior

A Junior will be very focused on the What. For a Junior, everything is an opportunity to craft something. In return, the degree of complexity and the dimensions of the problem have to stay at a low level. Otherwise, the person will feel overwhelmed (note: it is ok to be overwhelmed by a situation, it means that something has to be discussed or simplified. So don’t see overwhelming as a red flag but more as an invitation to rethink, clarify, plan complexity, etc.). 

While a junior can end up going down the rabbit hole pretty fast, they bring something very valuable to the team: they ask powerful questions. Questions from a junior mindset (even if sometimes appearing as silly) will invite the team into challenging status quo’s, unbury the history of a project and its lessons learned, and consider new perspectives. 

Welcoming juniors in a team results in inviting freshness, novelty, empathy, and inquiring mindset, as long as the team doesn’t let the junior going down the rabbit hole on their own.

📍 Professional

A professional is not a better Junior neither a “not-there-yet” Senior.

A Professional will be comfortable enough with the What to start asking How. This is usually the moment where a designer starts looking for ways to optimise the workflow, for frameworks, or even to collaborate directly with other disciplines. 

When a designer starts asking How, more complexity gets added to the problem space they can handle. A designer asking How will offer the rest of the team opportunities for collaboration and to challenge current practices. There is a lot of curiosity and ambition in the mindset of a professional as their odyssey relies on building stability and growing their toolset.

📍 Senior

A Senior will be comfortable with What and How (and with the discomfort of it) and will ask Why (at the judicious moment). They will challenge problems, their root causes, and the need to change them (or their priority). 

As they challenge the Why of a feature or project, a Senior can support the team in finding the necessary answers, this includes research, pairing with other roles, and facilitation. Asking Why adds a lot of complexity to the problem space and it opens to a lot of conversations with different types of audiences (engineer, product manager, user research, product owner, C-level, etc.), which the Senior is expected to be able to adapt. 

A Senior has enough self-confidence, understanding of the context, and experience to appropriately share knowledge to the more junior profiles in the team. 

📍 Expert

An Expert will be confident enough into their ability (and the team’s) to find the answers to What, How, and Why, to turn the conversation in a way to trigger those questions from the team itself. It implies dealing with a very high level of complexity and it requires to take over the responsibility to make the team feeling safe in various periods of vulnerability.

Another superpower of an Expert is the ability to keep the focus on what matters and the prioritization even in time of changes. This ability can sometimes be misunderstood by teams lacking seniority and being too busy dealing with erratic delivery, and bring its fair share of tensions. Experts are not always a fit in every team nor any organisation. This is why it matters for an Expert to have a clear understanding of the maturity of the place they will work in when working for a new job. 

Professional-levels are not the best tattoo idea ⚓︎🖊

While reading this article, you might have recognised yourself at different professional levels. And it is normal: I never encountered anybody belonging 100% to a specific level. Nevertheless, it is insightful to listen to what people say and to figure out the uncovered questions in the dialogue. 

Over time I learned to enjoy mapping which questions people ask in which domain: it really helped me to adapt my communication style and to provide value in my exchanges with them while also opening myself to receive value from their insights. 

Published by Virginie Caplet