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.
There are many directions that an engineering career can take.
During your career, your job title or resume may include things like:
However, there are three primary directions your software engineering career trajectory can take.
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.
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.
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:
Let's take a closer look at the engineering career path.
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.
Below is a current sample job description for a junior software engineering role at Microsoft.
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.
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!
Below is a sample job description for a current opening at Uber as a Senior Software Engineer - Backend:
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.
Below is a sample job description for an open Principal Software Engineer position in Zillow's Customer Engineering and Services (CES) teams.
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.
Chances are, you'll also be expected to contribute to the executive or company strategy decisions being made at the management level.
Below is a sample job description for an open Engineering Manager position at Dropbox.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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