Guide to the Software Engineer Career Path in 2023

Software Engineering
Anthony PellegrinoAnthony PellegrinoLast updated
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Trying to better understand the software engineer career path? Want to know your next steps as an engineer as you make your way to CTO? Well, we've got you covered.

An engineering career can go in many different directions depending on your technical skill set and what you want out of a job.

Software engineers can stick to software development at higher and higher levels if they choose to.

Or they may decide to move into management later in their careers.

Different types of software engineers work on different kinds of technical projects. For instance, some engineers may work to build out a customer database. In contrast, others may be focused on building self-driving car technologies.

To make things even more confusing, junior or first-time developers may need help understanding the various terms used at different companies to describe software engineering titles and duties.

With all this complexity, it may take a lot of work to figure out your next SWE career move!

To help out, we created this guide that'll cover everything you need to know about the software engineering career path.

We'll go over the diverse job titles, average salaries, and the various software engineer career paths that are standard in today's tech industry.

Table of Contents:

The Three Primary Types of Software Engineer Career Paths

Abstract by Oleg Shcherba

There are many directions that an engineering career can take.

During your career, your job title or resume may include things like:

  • full-stack engineer,
  • backend engineer,
  • front-end engineer,
  • machine learning engineer,
  • mobile developer,
  • data engineers,
  • or more.

However, there are three primary directions your software engineering career trajectory can take.

These are:

Individual Contributor (IC)

Regardless of your chosen path, you will undoubtedly start your software development journey as an individual contributor.

ICs are those individuals that work on hands-on projects in contrast to managerial roles, which oversee the work.

However, we don't mean that individual contributors are entry or lower-level engineers.

On the contrary, as you will soon see, it is possible to advance into very lucrative and high-level engineering positions as an individual contributor (Principal Software Engineer).

An individual contributor may be the career path for you if you like to actually get your hands dirty, so to speak.

That is, if you love actually writing code and developing software instead of managing people or processes, this may be the ideal choice for you.

Engineering Management

While there is nothing wrong with the IC track, software engineers typically move into management at a certain point in their careers.

In contrast to ICs, Engineering Managers will have to transition into standard managerial duties requiring different skills than software engineering.

You will no longer be one of many software developers tasked with writing code or other hands-on engineering responsibilities at this point in your career. Instead, your job will transition into leading those that do.

Soft skills, such as communication, conflict management, and leadership, play a more vital role than hard, technical skills.

Nevertheless, you'll still be an engineering manager. An aptitude for these technical skills and knowledge doesn't suddenly disappear or become unnecessary.

Engineering managers are expected to play a role in higher-level decision-making or cross-functional collaboration in their companies.

Freelance or Contractor

Finally, software engineers can also choose to go the way of freelancers or contract workers.

This path may resemble that of the individual contributor regarding job responsibilities.

However, it presents many different opportunities for job growth.

By definition, freelance software engineers are not members of the organizations that employ them.

As such, it likely will not be possible to move up the career ladder. Although, it is certainly possible to jump into a full-time position at a company after freelancing.

Instead, freelancers must behave similarly to a business entity to advance their careers.

For example, suppose a freelance engineer wants to increase their salary. They will need to acquire new clients instead of working toward a promotion.

Despite this ambiguity in their career paths, many software engineers prefer the freelancing route because of the freedom and flexibility that naturally come with such positions.

Not only that, if you have the coding skills, freelancing can still command a high salary.

Software engineering does not necessarily consist of a straightforward career path.

Unlike some other roles, like product manager, software engineers can have various job titles and responsibilities, each of which may influence the specific direction of that person.

Nevertheless, a general career path is common for most software engineers working today. It may look something like this:

The Software Engineer Career Path

Let's take a closer look at the engineering career path.

Junior Software Engineer

(0 - 5 Years Experience)

Cyborg by Nina Markaryan

The beginning of your computer science career is Junior Software Engineer.

Junior engineers are usually fresh graduates or candidates with little previous experience.

Nevertheless, your job duties as a junior engineer will still involve software development according to particular requirements.

Junior Software Engineers typically report to an Engineering Manager or a Tech Lead.

While this beginning stage may be entry-level, it is often the most important for career advancement down the line.

Junior Software Engineers enjoy countless opportunities to develop new skills, work on real-world problems, and gain the invaluable experience necessary to move forward in their engineering career.

Junior Software Engineer Job Description

Below is a current sample job description for a junior software engineering role at Microsoft.

Junior Software Developer Responsibilities:

  • Come to define, design, and deliver the next state of enterprise search system.
  • Designing and developing search platform-related features and solutions.
  • Collaborate with the team on building a highly scalable and high-performance search stack.
  • Collaborate with customers and partners to understand user requirements and design features to enable rich search experiences.
  • Working on distributed infrastructure, releasing and managing live service in production.

Junior Software Developer Qualifications:

  • Bachelor's degree in CS or equivalent experience.
  • At least 3 years of experience in designing, developing, and shipping software.
  • Solid C++/C#/Java skills with at least 5 years of C++/C#/Java programming experience.
  • 2+ years of experience in distributed systems and agile development environments.
  • Prior experience with development in large, low-latency high-volume services, experience with service-oriented development, and cloud-based systems.
  • Experience in writing efficient multi-threaded and concurrent code.
Like many tech roles, the salaries of Junior Software Engineers may vary depending on location and the company. However, according to Glassdoor, the average salary for a junior engineer is around $100,000/year. Nevertheless, junior engineer salaries can range from $66,000 to 150,000+/year.
Junior Software Developer Interview Tips
As a junior developer, there are things you can do to stand out in an interview to make up for your lack of experience. Show hunger for the role and a willingness to learn as you go.

Senior Software Engineer

(4 - 6 Years Experience)

Cyborg by Thierry Fousse

After a Junior SWE has a few years under their belt, they can be promoted to Senior Software Engineer.

Some organizations may even have a senior engineer working as a team leader in lieu of a Tech Lead or Engineering Manager.

In most cases, you will learn or have learned several other programming languages and become deeply familiar with software development as a whole at this point.

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As was the case when they were junior engineers, Senior Software Engineers will usually help train or act as mentors for entry-level engineers on their teams.

They will also become familiar with additional company concerns or objectives, such as overarching goals or engineering budgets—things you can't learn with just a computer science degree!

Senior Software Engineer Job Description

Below is a sample job description for a current opening at Uber as a Senior Software Engineer - Backend:

Senior Software Engineer Responsibilities

  • Design, develop, test, and deploy software solutions to address real-world privacy concerns with a focus on efficient and optimized exporting of user data through close collaboration with various engineering and product teams and many business and legal teams across Uber.
  • Lead sophisticated technical projects from inception to release.
  • Deliver to provide transparency and choices to our users around their data and work towards growing user trust
  • Work closely with team members giving and receiving constructive feedback to/from peers and mentoring engineers early in their careers.
  • Build services and backend platforms for Uber customers & internal collaborators to enable the automation of various privacy functions.
  • Work closely with large-scale systems to handle the user data lifecycle.
  • Drive excellence by supporting and adopting excellence in engineering standards and consumer privacy.
  • You will be very hands-on as you and a small team design, build, and launch tools and run daily operations to manage Uber's extensive software portfolio.

Senior Software Engineer Qualifications

  • Experience with Java/Scala, Go, Kafka, Spark, or other backend technologies.
  • Solid experience in designing large-scale and complex backed systems that deliver critical impact to the business.
  • An engineering-focused undergraduate degree or validated experience.
  • 5+ years of software engineering experience.
  • Experience building highly scalable, robust, and fault-tolerant products and platforms.
  • Validated experience collaborating with other engineers and non-tech customers to meet short-term goals and create long-term partnerships.
Because of the nature of the position, Senior Software Engineers could have a variety of responsibilities or roles depending on the organization and the development team. As a result, there is considerable variation in their compensation. However, according to Glassdoor, the average salary for Senior Software Engineers is around $145,000/year. Still, their salaries can range from $96,000 to $223,000/year.

Principal Software Engineer

(6 - 10+ Years Experience)

Cyborg by  Nina Markaryan

After working for some time as a senior engineer with some measurable success, you will need to make a choice.

You can either remain an individual contributor (IC) or join management.

Suppose you want to remain an individual contributor as you have been throughout your career. In that case, this doesn't mean you need to stay at the same stage.

Instead, in many companies, Senior Software Engineers can be promoted to the role of Principal Software Engineer.

Principal Software Engineers have many of the same duties as others on the software engineering team. These duties and responsibilities are just scaled up, of course.

However, they are also expected to be significant role models for their development team.

Principal Software Engineers are often some of the most valuable members of an engineering team, given their extensive coding knowledge.

Principal Software Engineer Job Description

Below is a sample job description for an open Principal Software Engineer position in Zillow's Customer Engineering and Services (CES) teams.

Principal Software Engineer Responsibilities

  • Define and deliver long-term technical strategy for CES organization leading the CES enterprise architecture group.
  • Work with teams and technical leaders across the organization to understand architecture and align strategy/vision on shared platforms.
  • Mentor and develop principal and senior technical leaders across the organization.
  • Help set operational excellence standards and best practices.
  • Communicate strategy, roadmap, and decisions to senior leadership
  • Champion improvements in the quality and stability of service fundamentals and promote engineering best practices.
  • Help the team shorten our development cycles while maintaining high quality.
  • Demonstrate strong customer empathy, curiosity, willingness to question and learn, ability to collaborate across teams, and ability to align stakeholders.
  • Partner with senior Product leadership to align engineering capability to business strategy.

Principal Software Engineer Qualifications

  • 10+ years of experience building and shipping production-grade software or services.
  • Strong understanding of software design patterns and principles
  • Experience setting architecture vision and strategy for an organization.
  • Experience in developing highly available services at internet scale
  • Ability to collaborate across teams and leaders, indirectly positively influence others, and navigate difficult conversations and decisions
  • Strong communication skills to interact with audiences that include customers, peers, and executive leadership.
  • Have experience and passion for mentoring and guiding engineers, helping develop and grow technical leaders.
  • An inspiring leader who can create and communicate a vision or plan.
  • A strategic thinker with a customer focus and product understanding. Someone who can help make tough trade-off decisions with our customers' long-term view.
  • 5+ years of experience building distributed services.
Principal Software Engineers necessarily have years, if not decades, of experience and are tasked with high-level software engineering work. They also have an enormous amount of technical knowledge. Therefore, their salaries can range considerably but are usually quite high. According to Glassdoor, the average salary is approximately $200,000/year. Still, these salaries can range from $130,000 to $315,000/year.

Engineering Manager

(6 - 10+ Years Experience)

Cyborg by Lazarus_al

Nevertheless, if you decide to go down the management track, your first step is to become an Engineering Manager. This is where you swap out your software development hat to help others grow on the team.

As the name suggests, these individuals manage a large team of engineers and software developers, including junior, senior, and principal software engineers.

They need both technical expertise and soft managerial skills like communication and leadership.

You'll find that promotion to this position will come alongside many new responsibilities and duties. For example, you will likely stop writing code yourself at this stage.

Instead, you'll oversee higher-level technical processes and system design.

Not only that, you'll now be responsible for classic management duties, such as overseeing/motivating team members and reporting to stakeholders and upper-level management.

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Chances are, you'll also be expected to contribute to the executive or company strategy decisions being made at the management level.

Engineering Manager Job Description

Below is a sample job description for an open Engineering Manager position at Dropbox.

Engineering Manager Responsibilities

  • Grow and develop an incredible team of hardworking and motivated engineers with high expectations around individual ownership and impact.
  • Develop a healthy and collaborative culture that embodies Dropbox's values.
  • Ensure your team delivers an extraordinary output and continuously seeks ways to make an outsized impact.
  • Set direction for the team, and anticipate strategic and scaling-related challenges via thoughtful long-term planning.
  • Help craft technical and product strategy.

Engineering Manager Qualifications

  • BS, MS, or Ph.D. in Computer Science or a related technical field involving coding (e.g., physics or mathematics) or equivalent technical experience.
  • Minimum of 3 years of people management experience with an engineering team.
  • Experience as a software developer.
Like Principal Software Engineers, you should have considerable experience in the field at this point in your software engineering career. As such, Engineering Managers can command a variety of different salaries. According to Glassdoor, the average salary is approximately $213,000/year. Nonetheless, Engineering Manager salaries can range from $134,000 to $350,000/year.

Vice-President of Engineering

(10 - 15+ Years Experience)

Cyborg by Olha Khomich

Once an Engineering Manager has proven themselves after transitioning to management, the next major milestone in the engineering career is Vice-President of Engineering.

You would have progressed from the management level to the executive level at this stage.

A VP of Engineering manages and oversees all the engineering teams. As such, VPs may have dozens of Engineering Managers reporting directly to them.

Not only that, but VPs of Engineering will have many typical job duties expected of an executive-level employee.

That is, they will work directly with the C-Suite (usually the CTO) and play an integral role in the executive-level technical decisions of the company.

Smaller or mid-range companies may not have a VP of Engineering position. Instead, these companies may employ engineering managers and a Chief Technology Officer to oversee them. Or, at a startup, this person may be a senior software engineer who stepped up their existing responsibilities.

As we mentioned, the Vice-President of Engineering position is an executive-level role. As such, they command high salaries. According to Glassdoor, the average salary is approximately $280,000/year. Even so, VPs of Engineering salaries can range from $170,000 to $460,000/year.

Chief Technology Officer

(20+ Years Experience)

Cyborg by Thierry Fousse

Finally, the final stage of engineering career paths (besides founding your own company) is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role.

This C-Suite position is the highest-level executive position dedicated to technology at a company. CTOs routinely lead all the technical or engineering departments at a firm. Not only that, CTOs are responsible for developing an organization's technical policies and procedures.

As a member of the C-Suite, their concerns are not merely technical, however. Instead, the CTO is tasked with finding ways to use a firm's technical assets to increase revenues and profits. It's a lot more than managing other software developers!

As a result, they typically report directly to the company's chief executive officer (CEO).

CTOs are the final stage of a software engineering career. As such, you can expect them to be compensated more than nearly all other software engineering or software developer roles at a company. According to Glassdoor, the average salary is approximately $330,000/year. Nevertheless, CTOs' salaries can range from $190,000 to $600,000/year.

Moving Up Through An Engineering Career Path

Abstract by Oleg Shcherba

A lot goes into performing well in software engineering roles. Moving up the software engineer career path will take more than just mastery of coding skills to accomplish.

Not only that, it will likely become harder and harder to nail a promotion the further up the career ladder you get.

This is especially true when you begin to approach upper management and executive-level positions.

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No matter where you are in your career, here are the essential software engineering books every developer needs on their bookshelf.

However, suppose you consistently go the extra mile and produce measurable success in the following areas.

You'll set yourself up for success in advancing your software engineer career path.

Interview Prep for Software Engineering Roles

Now, before you can start moving up the corporate ladder, you'll first need to snag a software engineering position.

Not only that, software engineering interviews will likely follow you throughout your career. That means it's always helpful to prepare well and improve your interviewing skills.

Software Engineer Interview Cheat Sheet: Tips, Tricks and Advice
Even if you have years of software engineering experience under your belt, the technical interview can be daunting! Luckily, we’ve put together a coding interview cheat sheet of all the major principles you can expect to see in your technical interviews.

Luckily, here at Exponent, we have a variety of interview prep resources you can take advantage of to help you ace your software engineering interviews:

💬 Practice with sample Software Engineering interview questions

📖 Read through our Software Engineering interview guides

👯‍♂️ Rehearse your behavioral and interpersonal skills with our interview practice tool.

👨‍🎓 Take our complete Software Engineering interview course

Learn everything you need to ace your software engineering interviews.

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