Software Engineering Job Titles Explained

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Software engineers are in hot demand. And that isn’t expected to change any time soon. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, demand for software engineers is predicted to grow a whopping 22% between now and 2030. 

This presents an exciting opportunity if you’re looking for a career in software development – that is, if you can find the right position for your level of expertise and long-term career goals. 

Do you wonder where your skill set puts you in the software engineering hierarchy, and, more importantly, which jobs you should be applying for? We broke down eight common engineering titles to help you figure it all out. 

Note: Salary data is based on estimates reported on Levels.fyi by companies like Amazon, Google, Facebook, Oracle, and Microsoft as of publication. 

1. Software Engineer

Entry-to-mid level Software Engineers typically spend most of their time writing and testing code, divided between building new features and fixing bugs.

Using the strategic guidance of their team leads and managers, these engineers are likely to spend most of their time heads down, finding the best way to make the software vision a reality.

Responsibilities

  • Design and prototype solutions to technical problems
  • Work with a team to plan and execute sprints
  • Debug and test code
  • Maintain features and solutions once they go live

Because Software Engineers fall into the entry-to-mid-level engineering job bucket, there is a bit of flexibility in this hierarchy level.

In many cases, businesses will move you “up” from level I to level II or III, giving you more independence and increasing your task difficulty, before actually advancing you to a senior-level position.

As a result, it's not uncommon for engineers to spend upward of 5-7 years working at this entry-to-mid level, building rapport and showcasing their competency. 

Job Focus: Technical Track

Total Comp Range: Pay for engineers in the 25th percentile at the lowest paying company sits around $147K, while engineers paid in the 75th percentile at the highest paying company make approximately $261K, including stock options and annual bonuses.

Other entry-level engineering job titles for a Software Engineer: Junior Software Engineer, Software Development Engineer, Front-End Developer, Back-End Developer, DevOps Engineer, Mobile Engineer, Full-Stack Software Engineer, JavaScript Software Engineer, Associate Software Engineer, ReactJS Software Engineer, Software Engineer II, Software Engineer III, etc. 

2. Senior Software Engineer 

Senior Software Engineers are one rung above Software Engineers on the career ladder.

Having gained several years of experience building, testing, debugging, and maintaining complex software, these senior-level engineers have ownership over achieving high-level business objectives with software.

Responsibilities

Leading team projects, giving feedback, and assigning tasks to lower-level engineers

  • Pinpointing gaps in the product and software architecture, and designing solutions to address those gaps 
  • Solving technical problems that demand more knowledge and skill
  • Collaborating cross-functionally to meet the needs of stakeholders outside of the engineering team
  • Help managers brainstorm architecture solutions and implementation plans
  • Reviewing and debugging code written by other engineers and providing technical mentorship to other team members

Like Software Engineers, senior-level developers can specialize in one type of product, skill set, or language. But, that’s typically more common with large businesses and organizations. When working for a small company or startup, Senior Software Engineers are more likely to be generalists. 

Job Focus: Technical Track

Total Comp Range: Pay for Senior Engineers in the 25th percentile at the lowest paying company (Oracle) hits around $186K, while those paid in the 75th percentile at a higher paying company (Microsoft) make approximately $240K, including stock options and annual bonuses.

Other titles for Senior Software Engineers: Engineering Lead, Senior Back-End Engineer, Senior Front-End Engineer, Senior DevOps Engineer, Full-Stack Senior Software Engineer, Senior Blockchain Software Engineer, Senior Software Engineer – Python

3. Staff Software Engineer

The name Staff Software Engineer may sound like a low-level position, but this role actually sits a rung higher on the career ladder than Senior Software Engineers.

Responsibilities

  • Provide technical leadership to multiple engineering teams
  • Solve the toughest problems and build the most complex products and features
  • Own projects from end-to-end across multiple teams
  • Work with Engineering Managers to assess team performance and support entry-to-mid level engineers 
  • Communicate with people outside the company by meeting with key customers or creating content
  • Speak at conferences on technical topics and the company’s products

With significantly more ownership and years of experience than lower-level engineers, Staff Software Engineers are looked at as trusted experts and problem-solvers by their teammates and stakeholders in the organization. 

Job Focus: Technical Track

Total Comp Range: Pay for Staff Engineers in the 25th percentile at the lowest paying company (Oracle) sits around $186K, while those paid in the 75th percentile at the highest paying company (Facebook) make approximately $600K, including stock options and annual bonuses.

4. Principal Engineer

While Principal Engineers follow the “technical” track up the software engineering career ladder, their role is a much more strategic one.

Instead of getting into the weeds to build solutions and solve complex problems, Principal Engineers are responsible for strategic technical decisions at a company level.

Responsibilities

  • Identify high-level business needs and opportunities 
  • Set organizational standards in terms of software engineering best practices
  • Communicate and negotiate with stakeholders
  • Participate in the hiring process for Senior Engineers and Software Engineers
  • Establish technical standards for hiring and promoting engineers.
  • Make strategic technology decisions for the business, including which platforms to support and what technologies to invest in

Since Principal Engineers are so integral to company success, it is not a role given lightly.

It can take 15 years or more to climb to this level of the engineering hierarchy, and since most companies (even large ones) only ever employ a few Principal Engineers, few people will reach this level during their career. 

Job Focus: Technical Track

Total Comp Range: Pay for Principal Engineers in the 25th percentile at the lowest paying company (Oracle) sits around $389K, while those paid in the 75th percentile at the highest paying company (Google) make approximately $1.2M, including stock options and annual bonuses.

Other titles for Principal Software Engineers: N/A

5. Engineering Manager

Engineering Managers have a much different role than senior-level Engineers on the technical track.

Rather than managing technical aspects of projects, they focus on managing people.

Responsibilities

  • Setting goals and implementing strategies to improve team productivity and performance
  • Holding one-on-one meetings to assess project progress and employee well-being
  • Assigning engineers to projects based on the timeline, skills required, and feature value
  • Interviewing Software Engineers and Senior Software Engineers
  • Mentoring Software Engineers on their career path and professional development
  • Working with senior-level engineers to evaluate and coach entry-to-mid level engineers
  • Ensuring the happiness, well being, and productivity of people who report to them, and promoting team cohesion
  • Also responsible for performance management, including performance reviews, compensation, and dealing with low performers

Since Engineering Managers wear lots of hats, filling this role successfully requires several years of experience with technical and strategic tasks.

This includes practice with team management, which you can get while working as a Senior Software Engineer, and hands-on experience building software, which allows you to coach and support Engineers successfully.

Job Focus: Management Track

Total Comp Range: Pay for Engineering Managers in the 25th percentile at the lowest paying company (Oracle) sits around $194K, while those paid in the 75th percentile at a higher paying company (Microsoft) make approximately $280k, including stock options and annual bonuses.

Other titles for Engineering Managers: Software Engineering Manager

6. Director of Engineering

Directors of Engineering lead and manage multiple Engineering Managers and teams. But, even businesses of similar size don’t always have them.

In some cases, a VP of Engineering or CTO may take the place of a Director and handle both roles’ responsibilities.

Responsibilities

  • Set budgets and allocate resources for the teams they manage
  • Meet one-on-one with Managers to assess morale, project progress, and roadblocks 
  • Review performance and compensation feedback from managers
  • Collaborate cross-functionally with leadership to set goals for software development and targets for resource allocation and hiring

Job Focus: Management Track

Total Comp Range: Pay for Directors of Engineering in the 25th percentile at the lowest paying company (Oracle) sits around $350K, while those paid in the 75th percentile at a higher paying company (Microsoft) make approximately $590k, including stock options and annual bonuses.

Other titles for a Director of Engineering: When there’s no official Director role — which is common at smaller companies and startups — a VP of Engineering will take on these responsibilities as well.

7. VP of Engineering

A VP of Engineering bridges the gap between c-suite leadership and the rest of the engineering team, so they have to strike a careful balance.

While everything they do has to align with the strategy and direction established at the top, they also need to work hard to keep their directors, managers, and engineers happy.

Responsibilities

Set hiring standards and lead the hiring process for the entire engineering team

  • Meet with Directors to check on their well-being (and their teams’), discuss ongoing tasks, and problem solve
  • Setting standards of excellence for software developed by the engineering team
  • Collaborating with other department leaders to ensure all of their needs and requirements are met
  • Establishing a career ladder and promotion criteria for others on the engineering team

Job Focus: Management Track

Total Comp Range: Like other executive positions, compensation for VPs may be tied to company performance and stock.

But to give you a general benchmark, compensation in the 25th percentile at low-paying companies like Oracle sits around $350K.

Meanwhile, compensation packages in the 75th percentile at high-paying companies like Microsoft can reach $1.6M. 

Other engineering position titles for a VP of Engineering: At companies without a C-level position, a VP of Engineering could take on the responsibilities of a CTO. And in some cases, a VP may replace a Director. 

Chief Technology Officer (CTO)

At the top of the engineering hierarchy is the Chief Technology Officer or CTO.

As part of the c-suite, these professionals work closely with the CEO and other department leaders to define the company direction and set expectations for their team or department. 

The specific responsibilities that CTOs will depend on the company size and makeup. In some cases, CTOs may fill a strategic, managerial, and leadership role and have several VPs reporting to them.

But other times, CTOs will only oversee a few high-level engineers (like Principal Engineers) and focus on strategic decision-making, like technical considerations for mergers and acquisitions. 

Responsibilities

  • Attend executive leadership meetings with the c-suite to map out long-term business strategy
  • Create the vision for the company’s technology architecture
  • Manage a team of leaders (like Directors, Managers, or Principal Engineers)
  • Be the technical face of the company in presentations to investors, board members, key customers, and the broader developer community

Landing a job as a CTO is a little unique. Years of experience can vary widely depending on the business’ maturity and needs.

For example, if a group of startup founders is looking for a CTO to round out their team, the requirements may be much lower than at a mature global corporation like Google.

But regardless of their size, businesses looking to build an engineering department quickly will need a CTO with extensive software engineering experience to be successful long-term. 

Job Focus: Management Track

Total Comp Range: Like other executive positions, compensation for CTOs is heavily tied to company performance and stock.

As a result, it can be as low as an entry-level engineer’s compensation if they work for a small startup that fails or run into the millions of dollars if they work for a large, successful company. 

Other titles for a CTO: N/A, but at companies without a C-level position, a VP of Engineering could take on the responsibilities of a CTO

The Bottom Line

Applying for jobs is difficult if you don’t know what software engineer title you are qualified for or what you want your career path to look like.

But, by thinking through your strengths and weaknesses, and then matching your interests to the job descriptions in this post, you will be able to start your job search off on the right foot.

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