Ever wondered what it’ll take to get you to the next level in your career? I’ve written several posts analyzing different facets of this question (links below), but today I want to talk about a diagram a manager at Microsoft drew for me at our first 1:1. I’ve used this diagram since, and it had never led me astray.
- for brevity’s sake I will omit modifiers like “typically, generally, usually”: take those as given. As with anything else there are exceptions. My purpose here is to show a trend most engineers follow, so that you can apply this trend to your own career.
- All of these apply to the individual contributor track; management track is evaluated somewhat differently.
A junior’s focus is on mastering the technology they’re using. Their scope of impact is limited to the specific feature they’re working on, with few forays into the wider product.
As the junior becomes more comfortable with the tech and begins cranking out features, they will begin looking outwards, with promotions to…
An SDE 2 is expected to have product-wide scope. That means they’re working cross-discipline with PM, potentially with Support and Marketing. They’re involved in product architecture discussions, although may not drive them.
I was particularly curious to learn that Microsoft considers a high-level SDE 2 to have learned everything Microsoft can teach about the specific pieces of tech the product uses, and are as good as they’re going to get from a pure coding perspective. From this point on their impact is measured less by how much code they crank out, and more by how much they uplevel others.
As the SDE 2 becomes increasingly active in product-wide decisions, they move into…
A senior has matter-of-course product scope, and are beginning to have an impact on the Business Unit the product is located in. For example in Adobe this can mean impacting not only Photoshop, but also other apps in the Creative Cloud suite. What do I mean by “impacting”? Participating in cross-product initiatives, evaluating technology that affects multiple products, etc. Basically activity beyond the scope of a single product.
They are also expected to have an impact on the team, whether it be through mentoring, presentations, or code reviews beyond their squad area, and often across products. They are seen as a key expert in the Business Unit, often brought along into high-risk or greenfield initiatives.
As the Senior grows into this role and begins driving cross-product discussions, they will typically be promoted into…
A principal has an impact to the organization as a whole. This can naturally be difficult when working at companies as large as Microsoft or Adobe, but it’s also why being promoted to principal as an individual contributor is exceedingly difficult. In Microsoft a promotion like that requires VP approval and a ton of recommendations from other key Principals. This is an incredibly high bar that I’ve seen very very few individual contributors reach. It is much easier to reach Principal as a manager.
Why? Because managers naturally have greater impact, since they have a whole team (or a collection of teams) behind them. They also naturally have greater visibility, since they have much wider scope of responsibility and reporting upwards. Fwiw, my own promotion to Principal in Microsoft came as a manager.
Okay, so how do I apply this?
Manager vs. IC aside, the best way to use the information above is to think about the scope of influence you’re projecting. Is it wide enough to fit your level? Are you a Senior IC stuck in a specific feature? That can be acceptable temporarily, but long-term will hurt your career. Are you a Junior, prototyping a key product architectural initiative? Awesomesauce! Your manager should be trying to promote you.
More importantly, look at work coming up. How does it map to the above bullseye. If it’s above your pay grade, jump on it! Assuming you can comfortably handle the increased scope of influence, you should look for ways to contribute to such work. It will do wonders for your career!
There you go, and necessary disclaimers
As usual, the views above are my own, and aren’t meant to represent Adobe or Microsoft. Feel free to hit me up on Twitter @partnerinflight, comment below, or shoot me an email at email@example.com.
And if you like these posts, share them! Perhaps they’ll be helpful to somebody else, too.
Other entries in this series:
Like what you read? Want to read more? Here’s the complete list of articles so far (in suggested order of reading):