Chapter 5. How do career ladders (levels) work across the industry?

The most important thing for a company is its long-term success. In other words, the outcomes produced by the whole organization, not the individual output of a single employee.

By amplifying the outcomes of your entire team or department - by becoming a multiplier - you can influence your company's success much more than as an individual contributor, even a mythical "10x" one.

And the more people you influence, the larger share of your company's success you impact, and the more valued and rewarded you become.

Which is reflected in how most top companies structure their career ladders.

What gets you promoted at most software companies?

Let's take a look at engineering career ladders at a couple of well-known companies: CircleCI, Carta, Spotify, and Dropbox.

I have chosen these four companies because they describe their ladders most succinctly and thus can be quoted almost directly. But a similar pattern repeats widely across the whole industry.

(The site is a great starting point for exploring career ladders at a broader scale.)

So what gets you promoted in all these companies? What do they reward the most?


CircleCI uses a 6-level ladder (E1-E6): Associate Engineer, Engineer, Senior Engineer, Staff Engineer, Senior Staff Engineer, and Principal Engineer.

Levels E1-E3 focus on the execution of work. E1 within task, E2 within epic/project, E3 within team.

Levels E4-E6 utilize skills to scale and generate leverage. They facilitate, guide, and mentor others. E4 within team and with team's business stakeholders, E5 across several teams, E6 across organization.

Source: CircleCI Engineering Competency Matrix


Carta uses a 7-level ladder (L2-L8). In their own words:

It’s easy to articulate the single most important thing for leveling: your impact on the company. We can sum up the entire system by describing the (rough) impact we expect employees to have as they progress: on tasks (L2), on features (L3), on problems (L4), on teams (L5), on the organization (L6), on the company (L7), and on the industry (L8).

Source: Engineering levels at Carta


Spotify doesn't care that much about external titles like senior, staff, or principal developer. They are very flexible about them and let employees choose what makes the most sense for them. But internally, they use a 4-level ladder organized by what they call "scopes of impact". And they describe these 4 levels ("steps") like this:

We have identified four Steps in your career path at Spotify. Each Step is marked not only by increased responsibility, but also by your increased impact within tech: Individual Step, Squad/Chapter Step, Tribe/Guild Step, Technology/Company Step.

Source: Spotify Technology Career Steps


Dropbox uses a 7-level ladder (IC1-IC7): Software Engineer 1-4, Staff Software Engineer, Principal Software Engineer, and Senior Principal Software Engineer.

This is how they describe the "extent of influence" for each level:

  • IC1: I work within the scope of my team with specific guidance from my manager.

  • IC2: I work primarily within the scope of my team with high level guidance from my manager.

  • IC3: I work primarily with my direct team and cross-functional partners while driving cross-team collaboration for my project.

  • IC4: I am a strong leader for my team with my impact beginning to extend outside my team.

  • IC5: I am increasingly influencing the roadmaps of other Dropbox teams to achieve business impacting goals.

  • IC6: I typically influence the technical strategy of a group.

  • IC7: I typically influence the department and company-wide strategy to achieve business-impacting goals.

Source: Dropbox Engineering Career Framework

As you can see, career ladders vary quite a bit between different companies. However, there's one very obvious and critically important commonality they all share.

It's all about impact

It doesn't matter if a given company frames it in terms of task complexity, mentoring, leverage, size of the affected team, or more strategic decisions. Going up the career ladder always means making more impact. Which usually boils down to becoming a multiplier for more people. (However, as we'll discuss in the next chapter, this isn't the same as managing them.)

This is true even for companies that don’t explicitly frame impact or don't have formally defined career ladders. Your position in such a company – your salary, autonomy, decision-making power, and so on – will still depend on the extent of the impact you make. It will just be judged more intuitively.

So, how does this translate into practice?

A simplified career ladder framework

Some companies have just a single position, "Developer". Others have multi-tiered ladders, with positions like "Senior Developer III" or "Developer Level 7".

But when you look at it through the lens of how focus, tasks, autonomy, ownership, influence, and responsibilities evolve throughout one's career, you can identify four or five pivotal stages:

1. Beginner, still learning

Common titles: junior, associate.

  • You still need guidance and mentoring and don't yet work fully independently.

  • Your tasks are small and well-defined.

  • You focus mostly on your individual contributions.

  • You're primarily responsible for execution (as opposed to decision-making, strategy, or vision).

  • You operate mostly within your direct team.

  • While you already bring value and contribute to your team's success, you still require a lot of "maintenance" - so you're still more of an investment than an asset for your team.

2. Solid, autonomous individual contributor

Common titles: mid, regular, or just "developer" or "engineer".

  • You work fully autonomously, without much guidance.

  • You can independently manage and execute complete feature-sized tasks.

  • You are still primarily responsible for execution, but also fully contribute to team processes, standards, and planning.

  • You're no longer just an investment but a fully valuable asset to your team. However, you are more of adding to your team's performance rather than significantly multiplying it.

  • Your area of influence still remains within your team, but it expands to the whole team due to regular participation in team-sized initiatives, code reviews, and discussions.

3. Expert individual contributor, displaying aspects of leadership and mentoring

Common titles: senior, sometimes tech lead or lead dev at the higher end of the range.

  • You are top-class in your area of expertise.

  • You plan and lead complete projects end-to-end.

  • You become a leading voice in your team's standards, processes, and often even direction.

  • You frequently mentor more junior team members and set an example for them to follow.

  • You start to use your expertise also outside of your team, through collaboration, sharing knowledge, mentoring, and participating in guilds and other cross-team initiatives. However, your area of influence is still more within your team rather than outside.

  • Although it's not your official responsibility, because of the above interactions, you increasingly multiply other team members' work and even influence other teams.

4. A dedicated leader and enabler

Common titles: sometimes tech lead or lead developer at the lower end of the range, staff or principal at the higher end; or team lead, engineering manager, director, or VP if you are on the management track.

  • You are fully accountable for team-sized or even larger initiatives or concerns. These are often long-living, as opposed to more discrete, one-time projects or epics at previous levels.

  • Your direct contributions are no longer your main focus - it becomes enabling and multiplying other people's work. (But not necessarily by directly managing them).

  • The scope of your influence starts at a whole team level (or a comparably-sized group) and, as your seniority grows, it gradually expands: first to multiple teams, then to the whole sub-organization or department, and eventually to the entire company.

  • You are responsible for the vision, key decisions, and strategy for a group, concern, capability, or area you lead more than for the low-level execution or technical details.

This level is much broader and fuzzier than the previous three. Depending on the company's size, structure, and reach, it can span only a single "team lead" or "lead dev" stage or several gradual stages: a team, a group of several teams, a department, the entire organization, or sometimes even the whole industry.

I intentionally crammed it all into a single level, as the underlying responsibility of boosting other people's performance remains the same, regardless of the size of the group or the area of influence. However, it could be further divided into two key stages:

  • 4.1. A leader to direct contributors. Focused on more tactical concerns and boosting individual performance, usually within a single team-sized group.

  • 4.2. A leader to other leaders. Focused on more strategic decisions, vision, and boosting organizational performance.

This particular distinction is critical because transitioning from direct to indirect leadership requires a huge mental shift, as well as a very different skillset and approach.

Simplifying it even further

There are several dimensions to one's professional growth: Progressing from learning to autonomy, and then to mentoring. From tasks to features, then projects, and eventually to strategic concerns. From focusing on yourself to a team, and ultimately the entire organization. And so on. A similar progression can be observed across multiple other dimensions.

But the central axis, fundamental to advancing your career, is impact:

  1. Initially, you are learning and require attention. You don't add much to your team's performance - you may even slightly subtract from it.

  2. Next, you become an independent contributor - an addition to your team's performance.

  3. Then, as an expert, you max out how much you add, and - through mentoring and leading by example - gradually start to multiply other people's performance.

  4. Finally, you become a leader, officially responsible for being a full-time multiplier - first directly, for a team-sized group, and later indirectly, for an entire organization.

Why is this so important?

As the saying goes: "What got you here won't get you there." Advancing further to each subsequent level requires different skills, mindset, and approach at each stage.

Understanding this simplified framework will help you decide what to focus on at your current stage. For example, as a junior, you should strive to stop being an investment as quickly as possible, whereas, as a senior, you should aim your efforts towards becoming noticed as a leader, mentor, and influencer - especially outside your direct team.

(I'll discuss the detailed advice for each level in the later chapters of the guide.)

This framework will also help you better understand where you stand right now, particularly if your company doesn't have an official, detailed career ladder.

Ok, this all sounds very cool. But it's quite theoretical and high-level. How do you really, in practice, make an impact and boost people's performance - especially if you aren't a manager, responsible for their performance directly? Let's explore this in more detail in the next chapter.