Technical Recruiting and Hiring

Job Titles & Levels: What Every Software Engineer Needs to Know

Learn what software engineering job titles really mean, how companies standardize them, and how they relate to your work and pay.
Joshua Levy (Holloway)
Courtney Nash (Holloway)
▪︎ 24 minutes read time

Ever upward

Photo by Ales Krivec on Unsplash.

This post is excerpted from Holloway’s Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring.

Typically, everyone on a software team has a job title and knows it. It could be Software Engineer, Senior Staff Software Engineer, Full-Stack Engineer, Director of Engineering, or something less common, quirky, or even humorous.

But titles are actually pretty confusing. In startups, titles are often chosen quickly and without much careful thinking.* And in large companies, conventions on titles vary widely, and we often don’t think about what purpose they really serve. Is a person’s title related to how much experience they have? Are titles standardized within a company? Are they a reward for performance, or do they reflect what you do, or show how much you’re paid?

In general, a title is just words on a business card (if you still have one of those). But it’s the level of your job that really determines scope of responsibility. We’ll talk about roles and levels, and how they relate to job titles. If you’re an employee hoping to understand how their title or level fits into a an organization, a hiring manager creating a job description for an open role, or a founder who wants to create a leveling rubric, this post can help you think about the fundamentals and best practices.

You’ll find more information on how roles are created and how to define an open role at your company in the complete Guide to Technical Recruiting and Hiring.

What are Roles, Titles, and Levels?7 minutes, 3 links

What’s your job? It turns out answering that question is a bit complicated. In fact, especially early in their career, most employees at a company might think about “getting a promotion” but not really understand what that means in terms of a company’s roles, titles, and levels. So let’s define our terms up front.

A role (or position) is the part an employee plays within a team and company, including the set of formal and informal expectations that define the employee’s responsibilities. A role also situates an employee within an organization, and it may correspond to the job level into which they fall.

The impact a person has within a company arises from the outcomes of their role—the tangible value to the company, such as revenue, technology, product, or customers, that is uniquely attributable to that person’s work. Roles require a combination of ability, autonomy, influence, and accountability. Many companies choose to include a level and title as parameters or expressions of a role. Both levels and titles help to situate the role within the context of the company and make the role more translatable to those outside the company.

A job title is the name assigned to a particular position at a company. Job titles provide a brief description of the position, and can vary in that descriptiveness, ranging from the general—Software Engineer or Web Developer—to the specific—Senior Staff ML Engineer. Job titles are usually public facing and may only loosely reflect the true scope and impact of a job, which is conveyed more formally and internally by the job level.

confusion Informally, people often talk about the seniority of a role. Seniority can mean one of three things: Responsibility and authority of the role they hold (a “senior manager”), total experience in their past career (a “senior candidate”), or actual time with the company (an employee “with seniority”).

Is an individual contributor with the title Senior Software Engineer, who has been with the company for ten years “more senior” than a Director of Engineering who was recently hired? To avoid confusion, it’s usually best to talk about job levels.

Job levels (or job grades) are formal categories of increasing responsibility and authority in a company. In general, the higher level the role, the more autonomy and the greater skill, independence, accountability, and leadership the company expects. Companies can also draw on job levels for such classification tasks as determining compensation, codifying role-appropriate expectations for employees, or supporting internal lateral movement.

Levels often have variations in nomenclature and associated scope and responsibilities, but nonetheless tend to align to fairly standard designations set by compensation survey companies like Radford, Connery, and RHR. As companies grow, their incentive systems often become more complex and granular. Established, mature companies have well-codified levels, though they still vary to some degree. For instance, Google has eight levels in its standard engineering track, and Microsoft has thirteen. Levels and titles often (but not always) interact here, applying additional details to titles like I, II, III, and moving up to more detailed seniority classifications like Staff, Principal, Distinguished, and Fellow.

Ultimately, levels reflect the employee’s value to the company based on the impact they’re expected to deliver. For this reason, compensation is typically tied directly to clearly established, standardized levels. This helps demonstrate career progression for candidates and employees, and reduces bias in setting pay levels and determining promotion and other performance rewards.

candidate It’s rare to be able to negotiate on your level, title, and compensation. As a candidate, reflect on what motivates you; if you’re asking for a better title, an up-leveled position, or more cash or equity, it’s critical to have a clear personal rationale for why. Determining your must-haves and your nice-to-haves will better prepare you for negotiation.

Industry tactics for establishing roles, titles, levels, and compensation can be helpful, and can also serve as a basis for creating effective hiring plans and writing compelling job descriptions.

Setting Levels and Titles15 minutes, 32 links

Leveling is a discussion, not a homework exercise. It is a significant change in your culture and your way of doing things.Ashish Raina, compensation consultant*

Levels help to support meaningful growth for engineers, unify expectations across engineering, map compensation fairly, and allow for consistent and ideally unbiased evaluation of candidates. Employees at the most junior levels are typically those without much industry experience, like interns or recent graduates. At the highest levels are employees who may have broad and deep enough impact to significantly change the trajectory of your team or company.

startup Smaller companies without much structure—and where engineers cover a wide variety of responsibilities—may have very simple titles without any levels, or some very simple levels (for instance, junior and senior software engineer). Hiringplan.io provides a helpful general structure to start thinking about levels:

LevelDescriptionTypical Experience
1Developing professional and technical expertise. Able to resolve routine issues and problems.0–2 years
2Well developed professional and technical expertise. Affects quality and timeline of part of product or service.2–3 years
3Seasoned professional with competence, creativity in wide range of technical areas. Resolves most issues and problems effectively.3–6 years
4Extremely seasoned professional. Able to solve most issues and problems. Uses skills to drive company objectives and achieve goals.4–7 years
5Wide range of experience, and is looked to as a thought leader and technical guru. Affects design, quality and timeline of entire product or service.6+ years
6Superstar. Critically important to growth and product development. Only a handful at this level throughout the company. Develops department objectives from company strategies.8+ years

Sample levels and descriptions from hiringplan.io

Levels.fyi has collected data from thousands of software professionals about their level, title, and associated compensation. Here’s a few representative companies plus a “standard” set of levels that they’ve abstracted from all the self-reported data they’ve collected:

Levels.fyi standard plus 6 other company levels

Source: Levels.fyi

Formalizing levels

startup Recruiting veteran Jose Guardado suggests that startups generally want to be post-product-market fit with defensible revenue and enough size and complexity in their engineering organization—typically around 100 people—before they consider implementing levels. Series C funding appears to be a common inflection point for this, which also often coincides with when the startup begins considering creating an HR role. “Many companies don’t really start doing this, though, until they’re feeling some significant pain,” he notes.

Companies wishing to establish more formal levels typically use leveling rubrics from companies like Radford, Connery, or RHR. These companies establish a set of levels based on extensive survey data, including salary information which can be used to set compensation for each level. (At some point, likely when you get into the high hundreds to thousands of employees, you may find that the complexity of your organization merits a little extra help. Salary survey consulting groups specialize in helping companies do just this.) Here’s a sample level rubric from Radford, which specializes in technology and life science companies:

Radford general leveling rubric

The Professional designations roughly correlate to engineering levels, and you can use this as a baseline to customize the specific impact details for each level to your needs.

Ladders

Companies often create career ladders or career lattices that illustrate the job levels at the company, explain what is expected of employees at each level, and clarify the different growth paths an employee can take. A career ladder shows only vertical progression through job levels, while a career lattice shows possible lateral movement as well. A common pattern at tech companies is to provide a dual-ladder approach, in which there is a technical ladder for individual contributors and a separate management ladder.

Dual-ladder approach

There are both benefits and risks to having more structure around levels. On one hand, without levels, engineers may be unsure about how to progress in their career and have more impact, and the company might end up making arbitrary decisions around promotions and performance management. Clearly delineated levels in a career ladder help mitigate bias and provide fairness and transparency. On the other hand, these systems add complexity. They also risk undermining employees’ intrinsic motivations, and many companies find that people can become fixated on their level or title and lose a focus on teamwork and collaboration. A dual-ladder approach in particular can introduce concerns about fairness between individual contributors’ and managers’ career prospects.*

For the purposes of hiring, it’s important to have some sort of structure, with the appropriate level of complexity based on your company’s stage. This structure will help ensure that your hiring assessments and your expectations of future employees are aligned. It will also help you decide what role (and corresponding level, title, and compensation) a new hire should receive.

You can browse a collection of ladders and rubrics made public by their respective companies at progression.fyi. It’s a good exercise to read through a few of them and understand the reasoning and philosophies behind them.

Sequoia Capital shared an anonymized example leveling rubric for one of their portfolio companies; it shows how they map knowledge/skills, complexity, independence, and character (traits and values) to similar levels:

Starting Track

Entry-level (Software Engineer II)Mid-level (Software Engineer III)Experienced (Senior Software Engineer)
KnowledgeHas engineering and programming foundation. Expected to spend majority of time learning about code and development best practices. Understands scope of small features. Has a basic understanding of what all components in their product are.Has a basic understanding of development best practices and comfortable writing code. Uses and understands tools needed to debug and diagnose issues in a test and/or simple production environment. Understands the scope of medium features. Has a basic understanding of all their product components.Has in-depth understanding of development best practices. Has mastered the tools needed to debug and diagnose issues in any type of environment. Understands the scope and relationships of large features and production stack for their area. Has subject matter expertise in at least one component. Has a good understanding of all components of their product.
Job ComplexityPerforms basic programming tasks. Contributes to functional specifications and participates in code reviews. Writes and executes test plans.Performs standard programming tasks. Contributes to functional specifications and participates in code reviews. Writes and executes test plans.Performs complex programming tasks. Participates in code reviews and can sign off on small features. Writes and executes test plans. Can write functional specifications for small features.
IndependenceGiven an introduction to a small task from a more senior engineer, can drive a task to completion independently. (Can fill in the blanks)Given an introduction to the context in which a task fits, can design and complete a small to medium sized task independently. (Can create some blanks)Given a medium to large understood problem, can design and implement a solution.
Professional CharacterShows initiative and is motivated to learn. Provides guidance to interns.Shows initiative and offers assistance when needed without being asked. Provides guidance to entry-level engineers. Constructively escalates problems and issues.Shows initiative and offers assistance when needed without being asked. Delivers feedback in a constructive manner. Provides guidance to entry-level engineers. Works well with technical leads, incorporating feedback as needed. Helps focus discussion on important aspects.

Individual Contributor Track

Advanced (Staff Software Engineer)Highly Advanced (Senior Staff Software Engineer)
KnowledgeHas mastered development best practices. Understands the limits of our tools and when a problem that exceeds those limits deserves the effort of producing a new tool. Understands the scope and relationships of large features and production stack for their area. Has subject matter expertise on multiple components. Has a strong understanding of all products relevant to own areas of expertise.Has deep knowledge of entire system, and can jump into code in any component and fire fight and contribute. Makes decisions on product direction and internals based on deep subject matter knowledge.
Job ComplexityPerforms expert programming tasks. Handles large-scale technical debt and refactoring. Shapes coding methodologies and best practices. Participates in code reviews and can sign-off on large features. Can sign off on test plans. Participates in requirements gathering with a customer.Sets product direction and has ownership over large components. Thinks both strategically and tactically, keeping in mind both technical goals and company goals.
IndependenceGiven a large, poorly understood problem, can explore the solution space (possibly with numerous POCs) to determine correct course of action. Participates in and supports initiatives outside of main area of responsibility. Provides technical leadership for projects including 1–2 individuals.Given long term strategic goals, can lay out a path across many versions. Participates in and supports initiatives outside of main area of responsibility. Provides technical leadership for projects including 3–4 individuals.
Professional CharacterAn approachable mentor who is viewed as an expert and acts like one. Constructively challenges assumptions. Guides more junior engineers to correct solutions while encouraging collaboration.Builds strong relationships in their own team and across the company. Understands multiple points of view and drives a process to conclusions in a timely and respectful manner.

Management Track

LeadDirectorVP
Leads team and/or projectsManages teamsProduct owner
KnowledgeA senior engineer, who in addition has very broad knowledge of the entire product, and can help with any component, or type of issues. Strong awareness of the state of the product and team at all times.A great lead engineer, who knows how to allocate resources among projects and understands how company priorities map to their tasks.Knows the entire product, how customers use it, what they want, and where it should go.
Job ComplexityContributes to code at a Senior engineer level (or above). Prioritizes work across projects and people. An expert firefighter who is often called in to make things right. Shows great ability to direct project and/or people.Balances strategic and tactical goals, distributes work across team. Shapes coding methodologies and best practices. Participates in requirements gathering with a customer.Owns a product, the team, and is responsible for both.
IndependenceLeads projects and/or small teams. Participates in and supports initiatives outside of main area of responsibility.Manages multiple teams and projects. Responsible for team retention and hiring.Is a great leader, sets direction for product. Understands vision, drives it forward.
Professional CharacterTakes responsibility for their team/project. Communicates effectively and respectfully to all members of the organization. Keeps team morale high. Supports and motivates team members.Takes personal accountability for failure, while praising team for accomplishments. Communicates effectively and respectfully to all members of the organization. Keeps team morale high. Mentors team members.Works exceptionally well with their own team, other engineering teams, and the company at large. Takes responsibility for their team and product.

Source: Sequoia Capital*

You’ll notice that both of these rubrics split the levels between individual contributors (ICs) and managers. The tech industry has moved away from viewing management as the de facto progression in an engineer’s career, with an increasing number of companies providing separate management and IC tracks that can support both paths without forcing engineers into management. While levels alone indicate some degree of advancement and progression, most companies that have formal levels eventually establish ladders to further clarify how employees can progress up levels, either on IC or management tracks.

Further reading on ladders

Here are some additional resources and a few public examples of ladders that aren’t on progression.fyi:

contribute If you’re aware of other companies’ published engineering ladders, please let us know!

Job titles

Something as seemingly simple as a job title can contain and convey a complex range of information—the nature and scope of work someone is responsible for; how senior they are; and potentially whether they report to or manage other people.

Titles can be confusing. Systems Engineer could mean very different things to different teams or companies depending on the degree of specialization. Someone who works on applications could be an Application Engineer or a Fullstack Engineer or a Frontend Developer. And yes, you’ll even see Programmer thrown around as an actual title. Any titles might also be combined with seniority designations such as Junior, Senior, Manager, Director, and more. This can make it hard to determine meaningful relative comparison across organizations—an Engineering Manager at a startup compared to one at Google likely have very different responsibilities.

Larger companies typically develop specialized titles based on the functional area, as shown in the table below.

Group or trackExample titles
GenericDeveloper; Software Developer; Programmer; Engineer; Software Engineer; SDE (Software Development Engineer); Software Engineer (SWE)
SystemsSystems Engineer; Systems Architect; Systems Analyst; Software Architect
ProductProduct Engineer; Fullstack Engineer; Backend Engineer; Frontend Engineer; Web Developer; Application Engineer; Application Architect; Enterprise Architect; Information Architect
DataMachine Learning Engineer; Data Scientist; Data Architect; Data Analyst; Data Engineer
OperationsDevOps Engineer; Site Reliability Engineer; System Administrator; Cloud Architect Infrastructure Engineer
Quality Assurance (QA)QA Engineer; SDE in test (SDET); Test Engineer; Quality Engineer; Automation Engineer
Solutions or SalesSolutions Engineer; Customer Support Engineer; Solutions Architect; Sales Engineer; Professional Services Engineer
ITIT Administrator; System Administrator; Network Administrator; Database Administrator
Security and ComplianceSecurity Engineer; Security Architect; Information Security Analyst; Information Security Architect
ManagementEngineering Manager; Development Manager; Software Engineering Lead; Senior Software Engineering Lead; Director of Engineering; Senior Director of Engineering; VP of Engineering; Senior VP of Engineering; CTO; CISO; CIO

contribute If you know of other titles or categories we’re missing here, please let us know!

Some companies take a philosophical stance against job titles. For example, Gusto had no job titles, even at 800 employees and including its executives. Stripe* and CloudFlare* have similar approaches. Others allow anyone to choose their own job titles. But typically, smaller companies start with a simple approach, like dividing roles into really broad categories like Developer or Software Engineer, and maybe Frontend and Backend, depending on the role. For comparison, see how Basecamp (50 employees) handles their developer titles.

Ideally, titles also map to levels, but this isn’t always possible or necessary. The role (and its own associated level, responsibilities, and outcomes) conveys much more about what the candidate’s experience will be, should they join your company.

No matter what, as you think about titles for roles you intend to fill, consider the candidate perspective. For many companies, titles are merely perfunctory words that describe a role; but the title you choose for a role is often the first thing that a candidate sees. And to candidates, titles can reflect a complex interplay of self-worth, social status and influence, and potential advantages or pitfalls when they look to get promoted or find another job.

Tips for writing effective job titles

The most effective titles are specific, descriptive, and concise. This post from Recruiting Intelligence on writing effective job titles covers a few key guidelines, including specificity and clarity about the role (details like seniority, backend vs. frontend engineer); avoiding abbreviations or acronyms and quirky descriptions (Sr. Happiness Mgr); and skipping superlative or idiomatic descriptions (because terms like “rockstar” or “guru” may deter qualified applicants from applying).

Job titles are a form of marketing. Most inbound candidates will find a job listing via some form of online search. With that in mind, it helps to consider some search engine optimization (SEO) tactics that will help your job show up and stand out. (These principles will apply to the content of your job descriptions as well.) Here are a few resources for factoring in SEO when deciding on titles:

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The Holloway Guide toTechnical Recruiting and Hiring

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