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Exploring Career Paths for Software Engineers

Learn what a software engineer does, 8 career paths for software engineers, and tips for growing as a software engineer here!

By Alexandria Hewko  •   December 19, 2022  •   8 min read

In the US, being a software developer is one of the best ranked jobs today. With healthy compensation packages, low unemployment rate, and skyrocketing demand in the technology industry for more technical skills, the outlook on a career in software development is pretty great right now. 

If you’re contemplating jumping into the software engineering space, we’ve put together the complete guide on what being a software engineer entails and what to expect along the career ladder.

What is a software engineer?

1Responsibilities 

  • Support the development of user stories (product features for customers)
  • Write and review code based on user stories
  • Regularly test code for bugs and patch found issues
  • Document and maintain software functionality
  • Deploy software to production and support with maintenance or support issues
  • Set up testing, staging, and production environments
  • Evaluate user feedback and integrate into the software
  • Ensure software is up to date across all platforms

2Skills

  • Experience reading and writing code in at least one programming language or framework (some of the most popular programming languages include Python, Java, C++, C#, SQL, HTML, and Ruby)
  • Ability to interpret user stories and feedback to transform into software development features
  • Time-management skills to ensure client project delivery dates are met
  • Familiarity with agile and DevOps processes
  • Comfort giving and receiving feedback in code review processes
  • Ability to work under pressure and with time constraints when a system goes down or a critical bug is found

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8 career paths for software engineers

1Front-end engineer

A front-end engineer works primarily on the part of the application that the end user actually sees. They help to plan, design, build, and execute on the user interface of the application. As such, they work closely with marketing or consumer experience teams that need to offer a specific style or functionality to the user. They also work closely with any online accessibility and browser compatibility concerns. Depending on the level of experience of the front-end engineer, they may find themselves as either a junior or senior engineer.

2Back-end engineer

As a sort of opposite to the front-end engineer, the back-end engineer works on all the behind-the-scenes parts of the application (called the server-side of the application). For example, they typically have responsibility over keeping the application up and running, ensuring data and information can flow smoothly throughout the software, and ensuring that any integrations or application programming interfaces (APIs) remain intact. Since there are a lot of functionalities and controls to oversee on the server-side, back-end engineers may specialize in one of these areas. Like a front-end engineer, they can be at a junior or senior level depending on their years of relevant experience.

3Junior engineer

Junior engineers are entry-level developers. Since they are relatively new to the profession, they spend a lot more of their time writing code, receiving training, going through more rigorous code review sessions, maintaining existing systems and controls, and performing quality assurance. For meetings, they’ll typically attend sprint planning and kick-off meetings, as well as sprint retrospectives. To help them get more context within the role, they may also spend a bit of time in design and user feedback meetings. At this level, there is not a lot of strategic thinking applied to the role. Rather, it is mostly tactical to help build software development experience.

4Senior engineer

Right above junior engineers on the software engineering career ladder are senior engineers. This is considered an intermediate position. At this level, senior engineers have enough experience to lead code review sessions, provide mentorship to more junior software engineers, and take over writing more complex software features. Senior engineers also have a responsibility to engage with the project customers and business team more. They likely will spend more time in user design or feedback meetings to help connect the business need to the product that is being developed. This also includes creating reports and providing progress updates.

5Tech lead

Technical leads manage a team of junior and senior software engineers. As team managers, they are responsible for scheduling workloads, leading one-on-one meetings with direct reports, assessing team performance, and providing resources or tooling to the team as needed. When an engineer encounters a problem, the technical lead is usually the first person contacted to help solve it. The technical lead doesn’t manage much budget or strategy and doesn’t have much power in hiring decisions. Large organizations typically have multiple technical leads who oversee teams with specific functionalities, so this role is a great way to start specializing in a technical yet managerial role. 

6Engineering manager

Engineering managers take on a more strategic approach than technical leads. While tech leads will still regularly write or fix code, engineering managers oversee more of the process, performance, and productivity of the software development team. Engineering managers also own a sub-section of the engineering budget which they can put towards tooling or other resources to help the team. However, they still don’t do as much hiring as leaders above them. On the people management side, they do run performance reviews, lead team meetings, and receive progress updates from technical leads. While they may have some of their own team objectives and key results (OKRs) to create and oversee, engineering managers also need to align to the strategic objectives set by the VP of engineering and chief technology officer (CTO) to whom they report. 

7VP of engineering

At the vice president (VP) of engineering level, there is almost a complete strategic focus (rather than any tactical efforts that levels below would be responsible for). VPs oversee all engineering teams and leaders and ensure that engineering operations run smoothly. They are responsible for taking the strategic objectives assigned by the CTO, executing them, and reporting on the progress towards the goals. They have the budget and power to both hire and fire staff. As such, they are typically also responsible for onboarding and offboarding processes. When a major crisis occurs, the VP of Engineering is the first to step in and help resolve the issue. 

8Chief technology officer

At the top of the software engineering career ladder sits the chief technology officer. The person in this position has the ultimate authority on all engineering activities in the organization. At the beginning of each fiscal year, they work with the chief executive officer (CEO) to set OKRs for the engineering department and then assign these down to the VP of engineering to execute. The CTO also becomes the face of the engineering organization, so they will spend a lot of their time building relationships with important internal and external stakeholders including clients, partners, and investors. 

Tips for growing as a software engineer 

1Find a mentor 

A mentor is someone who has previous experience in your line of work and can help you navigate the challenges that your role entails. While it’s great to have a mentor who has worked in the same role before, you can also look for mentors who have practiced similar skills, have similar unique backgrounds, or who have worked in the same industry—any level of aligned context can help you find a great mentor. It’s also often recommended to have multiple mentors who each understand a different perspective or challenge that you are facing. Mentors can be within your work or outside of it, too. Having one-on-one mentoring meetings regularly helps to provide you with a diverse sounding board of advice. Try spending time on LinkedIn, joining industry Slack channels, or speaking with colleagues to start your mentor search. 

Try out this free mentoring meeting agenda:

2Take on more responsibility

Truly the only way for your supervisor to see that you’re ready to be promoted to the next level is to have them see you engaging with more advanced work. Be open with your manager when you feel like you’re ready to take on more responsibility. Then consider building a plan for how to continuously learn new skills within your role. Participating in new meetings, taking the lead on a project, or pursuing new certifications are all some ways to start gaining more experience and responsibility.

3Get involved with engineering communities outside of work

If you only search for career development opportunities within your company, you may find yourself limited in new resources. This doesn’t mean to say that you need to quit your job to grow. It means that there are a ton of engineering communities on LinkedIn, Twitter, Slack, Reddit, and other online forums where you can meet like-minded engineers. Especially now that a lot of work is conducted virtually, you can easily connect with software engineers and leaders from anywhere around the world! 

4Ask for feedback 

Being honest and transparent with your manager and peers can really help springboard your career. Getting regular feedback on what you’re doing well versus what you could improve will narrow your focus onto what skills you specifically need to develop. Your manager and peers may also be able to help you define skills that can be developed in the short-term versus the long-term. In your one-on-one meetings or after a big project ends, try integrating feedback as one of your meeting agenda talking points. 

5Collaborate with other departments

More senior software engineering positions have a lot of engagement with other departments such as finance, marketing, product management, and even sales. Getting experience working on projects with other departments will help you learn more about how other teams function and how the software development processes can work to meet the requirements of the other teams. Leaders think from a strategic point of view that connects actions, consequences, and opportunities for improvements. So the earlier that you can see this across multiple departments and start working to support that relationship, the better!

Parting advice

The software engineering career path is definitely exciting, and it’s very lucrative right now. A great benefit to this career path is that you can become as specialized or as generalized as you like. Large enterprise companies often seek very specialized individuals who have niche knowledge at their career level, whereas small and medium companies usually hire more general software engineering skill sets. Depending on your skills and what you hope to earn out of your career, there is surely an option for you!

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