Climbing the corporate ladder has traditionally meant going into management. Managers have more responsibility and earn higher salaries than their subordinates. That’s where you had to be if you wanted to earn the big bucks!
There are some downsides to this system. What if you’re a brilliant engineer who invents valuable intellectual property but aren’t particularly good at managing people? What if you love computer programming and want to make a career of it but have no desire to be a manager? Then you may be looking at Senior Engineer as a dead end job with no room for promotions, destined to always earn less than your boss. Also it’s detrimental to the company if all of their top talent gives up what they do best in order to chase management money.
Meet the dual career ladder. It’s a career development plan that allows the top technical employees to decide whether they want to go into management or pursue advancement along the technical track. Most scientific and engineering companies have implemented some version of this.
One key aspect of a dual ladder is that advanced engineers are paid on the same scale as their peers on the supervisory track. For example, a staff engineer will have the same salary range as a middle manager and a principal engineer will make as much as a director. Note that the ladder does not define a reporting structure. A principal engineer will still report to a manager or director, and may very well have a higher salary than his or her boss.
As with the supervisory track, the number of employees at a particular level decreases as you go up. There is typically only one CTO in an organization and a handful of principal scientists. Not every senior engineer has what it takes to move up the technical track.
While the titles and job descriptions will vary from company to company, here is an example of what to expect:
This is an entry level position for recent college graduates and those with fewer than 3 years’ experience. While a basic level of competence is required, a good work ethic and an eagerness to learn will go a long way in the manager’s eyes.
Associate engineers are typically assigned a mentor for their first 3 to 6 months. They are assigned tasks of moderate scope and minimal risk, and their work is usually reviewed by peers for overall quality.
Intermediate level engineers usually have at least 2 years’ experience and have demonstrated competence as computer programmers. They are given responsibility for the design and development of moderately complex systems. Most assignments are reviewed periodically, with instructions as to the general results expected. Senior engineers may provide assistance on unusual or complex problems.
The term “senior” refers more to the skill level of engineers rather than their age or experience. Typically it takes at least 5 years to reach this level but some top achievers may get there sooner. Senior engineers are top level technical contributors, experienced in all aspects of the job and experts in some specific areas. They are responsible for software designs and for devising new approaches to to problems encountered. They work with little or no direction from others, aside from a code review at the end of a task.
Senior engineers earn a comfortable salary and can remain in the position until retirement. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just as not all engineers are cut out for management, not all will have the skills and ambition to move higher on the technical track.
The highest level technical contributors may be promoted to staff engineers. (Again, the title may vary from company to company.) These engineers have a broad set of skills, allowing them to spearhead a project and personally implement the most challenging aspects. They are expected to make significant architectural contributions and provide leadership to colleagues on a regular basis.
One benefit of being a principal engineer is that you get to decide what you work on. The company trusts their principals to have overall product vision and strategic leadership to move the organization forward. They are expected to understand and recommend new technologies and architectural design platforms.
A principal engineer also functions as the company’s primary technology expert in dealings with external customers. Their interactions usually involve critical or controversial situations, negotiating with senior executives, customers, and investors.