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.

The Career Stage Bullseye
  1. All of these apply to the individual contributor track; management track is evaluated somewhat differently.

Junior Engineer

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.


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.

Senior SDE

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.

Principal SDE

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.

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.

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 partnerinflight@gmail.com.

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):

  1. The Golden Triangle of Work
  2. The Dreaded Impact-Effort Edge
  3. The Somebody Else’s Problem Field
  4. The Career Stage Bullseye
  5. It’s All about the Ambiguity, baby!
  6. The 4 types of delegation

Eugene Polonsky is a 24-year veteran in the IT field. When not writing about management, he runs a team at Adobe and works on his Nordic fantasy novel.

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