Guide to the Software Engineer Career Path

Mar 21, 2022

Trying to better understand the software engineer career path? Want to know what your next steps are as an engineer as you make your way to CTO? We've got your 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 have the option to stick to software development at higher and higher levels.

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, while others may be focused on building self-driving car technologies.

To make things even more confusing, junior or first-time developers may not understand the terms used at different companies to describe software engineering duties.

With all this complexity, it may be hard to figure out what your next SWE career move will be!

This guide will go over all you need to know about an engineering career path.

We'll cover the diverse job titles, average salaries, and the software engineer career paths in general enjoy that are typical 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,
  • back-end engineer,
  • front-end engineer,
  • machine learning engineer,
  • mobile developer,
  • or more.

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

These are:

Individual Contributor (IC)

Regardless of which path you choose, 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).

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.

Obviously, not all software developers are content stuck in their IDE all day.

Engineering Management

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

In contrast to ICs, Engineering Managers will have to transition into typical 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 duties at this point in your career. Instead, your responsibilities 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. This is especially true as you move up into management.

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 will need to behave similarly to a business entity to advance their career paths.

For example, suppose a freelance engineer wants to increase their salary. They will need to acquire new clients instead of working towards 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 include straightforward career paths.

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.

How 12 Top Tech Companies Interview Software Engineers
It may feel overwhelming preparing for a software engineering interview. To help, we’ve outlined how 12 top tech companies hire software engineers.

Nevertheless, a general career path is common for most software engineers working today:

The Software Engineer Career Path

Let's take a 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 typically freshly graduated or candidates with little previous experience.

Nevertheless, your job duties as a junior engineer will still involve the development of software 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 sample job description for a junior software development role at Google.

Junior Software Developer Responsibilities:

  • Work with development manager to design and code software applications.
  • Contribute thoughtful questions and opinions during development huddles.
  • Learn the company's codebase and improve your development skills with the company's languages and frameworks
  • Write and maintain code assigned to you by a tech lead
  • Fix small bugs and make small updates
  • Create reports and tests for common software processes

Junior Software Developer Qualifications:

  • Bachelor’s degree in computer science or equivalent level of practical experience
  • 2 years of experience building and creating applications in your preferred programming languages
  • 2 years of experience with algorithms or data structures. This can be from a previous role or in a school setting.

Preferred Junior Software Developer Qualifications

You may be fast-tracked as a candidate if you can demonstrate these qualities:

  • Graduate-level degree (Master's or PhD) in computer science or a similar area of study.
  • Experience using full-stack development practices, working with front-end frameworks or libraries like Vue.js, or developing APIs

Average Junior Software Engineer Salary:

Like many tech roles, the salaries of Junior Software Engineers may vary depending upon location and the company.

However, the average salary for a junior engineer is around $88,000/year.

Nevertheless, junior engineer salaries can range from $42,000 to 150,000+/year.

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.

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.

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

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!

Working in Big Tech vs. at a Startup | Day in the Life
Trying to decide if you want to work at a big tech company like Google or Amazon, or if you’d be happier at a startup? I’ve worked at both Google and at startups and share the pros and cons.

Senior Software Engineer Job Description

Below is a sample job description from an Amazon senior SDE position.

Senior Software Engineer Responsibilities

  • Design and develop new large-scale systems
  • Analyze business requirements for software projects
  • Develop, test, deploy, and enhance existing software
  • Test and review code by other developers on your team
  • Contribute to company code documentation

Senior SDE Qualifications

  • 3+ years of software development experience using a modern programming language like Java, C++, or C#. This includes time spent with object-oriented design.
  • 2+ years of experience contributing system architecture, scaling applications, design patterns, or reliability of modern software products.
  • At least 4 years of experience building software applications and working with software development teams.

Preferred Senior Engineer Qualifications:

  • 3+ years of experience in REST architecture for web services.
  • 5+ years of experience with object oriented design.
    · 5+ years of experience with OO design/ skills.
  • Graduate-level degree in computer science or a similar amount of work experience in a software development role
  • Experience building and maintaining cloud services. Focus on scalability, reliability, performance, and security.
  • Understand how to manage a full product lifecycle including code reviews, version control, creating coding standards, CI/CD, and testing.

Average Senior Software Engineer Salary:

Senior Engineers may have a variety of potential job titles or responsibilities. As a result, there is considerable variation in their salaries.

The average salary is approximately $146,000/year for a seasoned senior SWE.

However, senior engineer salaries can range from $75,000 to $290,000/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.

That is, you can either remain an individual contributor (IC) or jump into management.

Suppose you want to remain an individual contributor as you had been throughout your career. In that case, this doesn't mean that 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.

Often, Principal Software Engineers are 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 a principal software engineer position at Disney.

Principal Software Engineer Responsibilities

  • Build and maintain well-tested software applications. These applications will meet the requirements of customers and internal stakeholders.
  • Provide expertise on best design and software development practices to scale applications. Will guide in building and maintaining guidelines and standards across the organization.
  • Propose software solutions that impact cross-functional teams.
  • Deeply understand core systems and how other applications interact with them.
  • Work with cross-functional stakeholders to define the scope of software projects and prioritize their development
  • Mentor junior engineers and team members
  • Influence the entire software engineering organization
  • Partner with other team leads to deliver medium-to-large-scale software projects

Principal Software Engineer Qualifications

  • 6-10 years of experience developing software
  • Experience with REST APIs, async programming models, and microservices
  • Experience storing and maintaining large amounts of data. Experience with Postgres, Redis, MongoDB, Elasticsearch, and DynamoDB preferred.
  • Experience with Java and JVM econsystems
  • Experience with Cloud-based technologies such as AWS, Lambda, Fargate, and others
  • Scrum/Agile methodology
  • Has lead design, implementation, and deployment of multiple medium-sized to large-sized software projects.
  • Team player with a track record of effective management skills

Average Principal Software Engineer Salary:

Principal Software Engineers necessarily have years, if not decades, of experience and are tasked with very high-level software engineering work. They also have an enormous amount of technical knowledge. Therefore, their salaries can range considerably.

The average salary is approximately $164,000/year.

Principal Software Engineer salaries can range from $85,000 to $375,000/year.

Cyborg by Lazarus_al

Engineering Manager (6 - 10+ Years Experience)

However, if you decide to go down the management track, your first step is 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 managerial soft 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 be tasked with overseeing higher-level technical processes and system design.

Not only that, you'll now be responsible for classic management duties, such as overseeing/motivating members of your team 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.

Engineering Manager Job Description

Below is a sample job description for an engineering manager at Google Cloud.

Engineering Manager Responsibilities

  • Optimize your code and enable your engineering team to review and optimize theirs.
  • Manage overall engineering project goals and contribute to product strategy conversations.
  • Manage an engineering team of other software developers. Assign tasks and help them develop in their careers.
  • Lead innovation with fast-paced deadlines.
  • Be the owner of technical projects from ideation to success

Engineering Manager Qualifications

  • 3+ years of leadership in a technical role or as a people manager
  • Deep understanding of a preferred programming language.
Google specifically asks for candidates to have experience programming in Java, C++, and Python for their engineering manager role at Google Cloud.

Average Engineering Manager Salary:

Like Principal Software Engineers, you should have considerable experience in the field at this point in your software engineering career. As such, software engineering managers can command a variety of different salaries.

The average salary is approximately $163,000/year.

Nonetheless, Engineering Manager salaries can range from $77,000 to $380,000/year.

The Top 30 Engineering Manager Interview Questions of 2021
Do you love shipping great products and growing others? If so, you might thrive as an engineering manager. Exciting - until you consider the scope of the interview. To help, we’ve compiled a list of the top 30 EM interview questions you’ll likely run into, complete with sample answers.

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 is responsible for managing and overseeing 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. They will work directly with the C-Suite (usually the Chief Technology Officer) 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 simply 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.

Average Vice-President of Engineering Salary:

As we mentioned, the Vice-President of Engineering position is an executive-level role. As such, they command high salaries.

The average salary is approximately $213,000/year.

Even so, VPs of Engineering salaries can range from $120,000 to $500,000/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 role of Chief Technology Officer (CTO).

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 the technical policies and procedures in an organization.

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 on your team!

As a result, they typically report directly to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the company they work for.

Average Chief Technology Officer Salary:

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.

The average salary is approximately $220,000/year.

Nevertheless, CTOs' salaries can range from $90,000 to $575,000/year.

Moving Up Through An Engineering Career Path

Abstract by Oleg Shcherba

A lot goes into performing well in software engineering roles. Managing to advance down the software engineer career path will take more than just mastery of coding skills to pull off.

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 the upper management and executive-level positions.

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.

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.

  • Go the extra mile as much as you can. Volunteer for additional responsibilities outside your specific job duties,
  • Always ensure that you are helpful to the other members of your team,
  • Develop your cross-functional collaboration skills; work alongside other departments outside the development team as much as possible,
  • Learn as much as you can about the more significant objectives, strategies, and goals of your organization,
  • Constantly better your technical skills, study new programming languages, read books about software engineering, continuously ask your managers or mentors for constructive criticism, always learn as much as you can about engineering principles,
  • Participate in software engineering communities outside your organization; for instance, contribute to Open-Source projects.

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.

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.

Anthony Pellegrino

I'm Tony, a freelance journalist, writer, and content marketing strategist. I write about interview prep and career planning for Exponent, but I also write about climate change, tech, and, politics.

Product Management Today