Career Stages of A Typical Software Engineer


This is a repost of a long form response to quora question (What are the typical stages in the career of a software engineer?) which itself was derived from an answer – Matthew Tippett’s answer to What does this mean for a software engineer: “You are not at a senior level”?. Adapted and tweaked for the new question, now tweaked for the blog.

Each company will have its own leveling guide, ask your HR department or search your intranet. It should go through a clear set of expectations for each grade and the different attributes that each grade should possess. Your manager may not even be aware of them – but they should provide a basis for you to understand the career progression.

Flat organizations will have only 3 or so (Jr/Mid/Senior/Exec), other organizations will have many (Assoc/Eng/Snr Eng/Staff Eng/Snr Staff Eng/Princ Eng/Snr Princ Eng/Dist Eng/Fellow). Apply the following to your company and don’t expect direct portability between companies.

Grade Levels

First, we’ll go over a hypothetical set of grades – generally well rounded against a lot of companies – some will have different titles, but will generally have a a common set of attributes.

The Career level is arbitrary but what you’d expect the middle of the curve people to be operating at. Individuals will peak at a particular point and will then progress slower. Realistically, most good people will peak at what I am calling a Staff engineer. Some will get frustrated with the leadership aspect of the senior grades and peak at Senior Engineer. The management ladder equivalence is also arbitrary, but should serve as a guide.

  • Junior/Associate Engineer/New College Grad – Assumed to know nothing, can code, have minimal understanding how business work and what a professional life entails. Hand held or teamed with a more senior engineer to help get an understanding. Career level 0–2 years.
  • Engineer – Assumed to be able to work through tasks with minimal supervision. Will come back and ask for more work. Not expected to identify and fix secondary problems. Not expected to drive generalized improvements or be strong advocates for best practices or improvements. Quite simply a “Doer”. Scope is typically at a sub-component level. Career Level 2–5 years.
  • Senior Engineer – Beginning to be self directed. Expected to be able to work through small projects and foresee issues that may come up. Likely expected to mentor or lead sub-teams or development effort. Scope is typically at a component or subsystem level. Career Level 5–10 years – equivalent to a team lead.
  • Staff Engineer/Architect – Runs the technical side of projects, leader and mentor for a team. Holder of a high bar for best practices, quality and engineering workmanship. Scope is across a system, or across multiple subsystems. Career Level 10–20 years – equivalent to a manager.
  • Fellow/Distinguished Engineer – Runs the technical side of an organization. Interlopes on many projects, defines the strategic direction for the technology. Career Level 15–30 years – equivalent to a director or VP.

It’s not about the code

Hopefully it becomes clear from the descriptions that pretty much from Senior Engineer and up, the technical role includes increasing amount of leadership. This is distinct from management. The leadership traits are about having your peers trust and understand you direction, being able to convince peers, managers and other teams about your general direction. Being able to deliver on the “soft” skills needed to deliver code.

Amazon’s Leadership Principles actually give a pretty good indication of some of the leadership needs for engineers.

There is a tendency for organizations to promote based on seniority or time in role, or even worse, based on salary bands.

Applying this to Yourself

  1. Ground yourself what your level means to you, the organization and your team. There may be three different answers.
  2. Introspect and ask yourself if you are demonstrating the non-management leadership aspects of a team leader or junior manager? Do you show confidence? Do you help lead and define? Do you demonstrate an interest in bringing in best practices? Do you see problems before they occur and take steps to manage them?
  3. Consider where you are in your career.

Your Career is a Marathon

A final thought, although you indicate a few years in the industry, I’ve seen engineers gunning for “Senior Engineer” 3 years out of college and staff engineer 3 more years after that. My big advice to them is what the hell are you going to do when you get to 6 years into a 40 or 50 year career and realize that you’ve peaked or you have some serious slow grinding for the next 20 years. I’m concerned about good engineers who become fixated on the sprint to the next title and not the marathon of their career.

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