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How To Become a Senior Software Engineer in 7 Steps
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How To Become a Senior Software Engineer in 7 Steps

11 minute read | June 23, 2023
Monica J. White

Written by:
Monica J. White

Ready to launch your career?

Starting at junior, progressing to mid-level, and then getting promoted to senior is the typical career path for almost all software engineers. The role of senior software engineer comes with many perks: more influence, more freedom, and of course, better pay. 

However, it takes time, experience, and continuous learning to achieve this goal, and it can be difficult to know where to start. Unfortunately, some measurements of experience and expertise are only apparent to those who already have them—that’s where this guide comes in. 

We’ve put together seven actionable steps that will help you focus your efforts in the right direction and help you get promoted to a senior software engineering role. 

What Does a Senior Software Engineer Do?

Being promoted from a software engineer to a senior software engineer can look different depending on your specific role and company. Sometimes, the title change can come with a transition into management. In other cases, it’s a recognition of your growing experience and expertise with no immediate change to your day-to-day tasks. Once you earn the title of senior, you may be expected to do a few new things, such as mentoring juniors and contributing to the technical direction of a project. 

How To Become a Senior Software Engineer: A Seven-Step Guide

Here’s what you can do to get that promotion as soon as possible.

  1. Have a Roadmap

  2. Hone Your Skillset

  3. Get the Relevant Experience

  4. Strengthen Your Leadership Abilities

  5. Build Your Network

  6. Find a Mentor

  7. Apply to a Senior Software Engineer Role at a New Company or Ask for a Promotion

Have a Roadmap

Roadmaps can help some individuals set goals and work towards them more easily, though it’s important to stay flexible. 

If you’re aiming for an internal promotion, make yourself aware of the next performance review date and make this your deadline. Then, you can think of some goals and achievements that will add strength to your candidacy for promotion.

This could include mentoring a more junior member of the team, being more vocal with your big-picture ideas, or adding your voice to the decision-making process. It’s also important to network internally and help teams in other departments with their bugs and pull requests. The more people that know your name, the better. 

When the performance review comes around, you can discuss your aspirations with your manager and talk about what you’ve already done to work towards these goals. If your manager doesn’t yet think that you’re ready for a senior software engineering role, then hopefully, they’ll tell you what areas you need to work on. 

If you’d prefer to transition to a senior position through a new job, the process is largely the same. The only difference is that you’ll be gathering achievements to list on your resume and talk about in interviews, rather than in performance reviews. 

Hone Your Skillset

Of course, developing your skills is another essential part of progressing your software engineering career. When you began working as a junior software engineer, you probably focused on your technical skills—this is what hiring managers probably paid attention to as well. And you’ll need to keep working on these to become a senior software engineer too.

However, now that you’ve spent years in a professional work environment, you will be expected to have excellent soft skills as well. These don’t come naturally to everyone, so it’s important to actively develop them, just the same as you do technical skills.

Technical Skills

As a software engineer, there are endless areas where you can expand your knowledge. When you’re aiming for a promotion, it’s important to focus on areas that are relevant to the role you have or relevant to the role you want.

The specifics of what you should learn completely depend on your role and your company. Perhaps you could benefit from having a deeper understanding of assembly language, or perhaps you work closely with artists and need more knowledge about their workflow.

There are also some core technical skills that you should always be developing and practicing, such as your debugging and programming skills.

Soft Skills

Sharing and advocating for ideas is an essential soft skill for senior software engineers. This requires practice in explaining complex concepts, creating and giving presentations, and understanding who needs to know what. Opportunities to develop these skills won’t often land in your lap, so it’s important to set them as personal goals and actively work toward them.

Other important communication skills and soft skills to work on include:

  • Being open, communicative, and collaborative with your work
  • Keeping your goals and work aligned with others 
  • Accepting criticism in a constructive manner
  • Giving criticism in a constructive and respectful manner
  • Keeping discussions and disagreements rational and constructive
  • Being flexible—sometimes projects change direction, and work gets thrown away
  • Learning to think critically about your work and how/if it fits into the bigger picture
  • Willingness to learn from others and expand or rethink your own opinions
  • Developing and demonstrating a “continuous learner” attitude

Get the Relevant Experience

Deep knowledge and understanding of subjects always come over time. It requires you to have a sharp eye and consistently pay attention to what’s going on around you during your years of work. It’s a specific kind of attitude toward work—one that drives you to look up something unknown rather than gloss over it.

If a project changes direction and you don’t understand the reasoning, then find out and develop your own opinion on it. This will help you find your own style of technical direction and develop a sense of what’s important in software development. It’s all about looking outward past your own tasks and focusing on the larger project (or product) as a whole.

Strengthen Your Leadership Abilities

Your path to a senior title doesn’t strictly have to involve a management role, but leadership abilities are highly valued either way. Here are some things you can do to strengthen your leadership skills.

Mentor Interns or Junior Software Engineers

Mentoring is a common responsibility for senior engineers, but you don’t have to wait until you get the title to start helping others out. You can start with the juniors on your team or other teams you work closely with simply by scheduling one-to-one calls to chat.

Take Initiative

Deciding things for yourself, rather than waiting to be told what to do, is one of the most important characteristics of a senior software engineer. Most juniors begin their careers by listening carefully to what they’re told and doing their best to deliver on their allocated tasks. But as you gain experience, it’s important to progress past this stage.

You don’t need to run everything past your manager first, and if you want an idea to take hold, there are often things you have to do to develop and test it before it’s ready to be shared. At times like this, you need to take the initiative and do what needs to be done.

Other Tips

Getting comfortable and confident with presentations is an invaluable skill as a senior software engineer. It will help you communicate your ideas more effectively and earn people’s attention. If you lack confidence while presenting, it can often be perceived as having a lack of confidence in your idea, and this affects how people respond to it.

Another leadership area to work on is encouraging discussion and offering feedback. When you run a meeting, it’s important to give everyone a chance to speak. This is more difficult than it sounds because the goal isn’t to force people to share when they don’t want to. Instead, you need to pick up on the cues of people who have something to share but struggle to break into the conversation.

Similarly, giving feedback and criticism needs to be done with tact and respect for the other person. A good people manager doesn’t try to force everyone. They manage to do things their way. Instead, they learn to adjust their approach to bring out the best in each person.

Build Your Network

Knowing people and being known within your company brings a variety of benefits. It helps you know who to take specific problems to, who to share new information with, and whose help to recruit for specific projects.

Harness the Power of LinkedIn

When you network within your company, you’ll often use internal communication methods like Slack. However, it’s also important to connect on LinkedIn, so your links to people can continue even if one of you leaves the company.

Attend Industry Events

Attending events helps you meet all sorts of people in your industry, and expand your knowledge of what’s going on outside your own company. As you approach a senior level, you should also consider giving your own talks at these events—it will look really impressive on your resume!

Join Slack and Online Communities

If you didn’t already join these kinds of communities during your education or junior years, make sure you get involved now. There’s no end to the network opportunities and useful information you’ll pick up by being an active member of the industry.

If your company has a product or service attached to it, you may also have your own forum or Discord server where you can interact with and assist your customers. This can give you valuable insights into what tech users want from your company, which can help you develop fixes or new features.

Find a Mentor

If you need help pinpointing areas for development, you can try finding a mentor. This is a natural part of working in a company, so you don’t need to be too formal or nervous about it, and it doesn’t have to be a formal ask. Just reach out to senior software engineers that you think you could learn from and ask if they have room to schedule a one-to-one with you.

Apply to a Senior Software Engineer Role at a New Company or Ask for a Promotion

When you think you’re ready for a promotion, the next step is going out and getting it. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Demonstrate Your Expertise and Achievements

When you’re updating your resume, a great strategy is to fill it with tangible achievements supported by metrics. For example, if you want to showcase a time you optimized some code and improved runtime, make sure you find out exactly how much time you reduced runtime by and use that number.

Work Toward an Internal Promotion

Getting promoted to a senior-level software engineer internally can be a frictionless process. During regular performance reviews with your manager, you’ll discuss your aspirations and what you need to do to achieve them. With each review, your progress will be tracked and when all of the goals have been met, you’ll receive your promotion!

Tailor Your Resume to Each Role and Prepare for Interviews

Now that you have on-the-job experience, you know exactly what companies want from a software engineer and how you can present yourself as an asset to them. By reading senior software engineer job posts thoroughly, you’ll naturally pick up on specific things you could contribute to the company in question, so it’s important to tailor your resume to each job and communicate this to recruiters.

What About AI? How Will It Affect Your Goal of Landing a Senior Role?

Everyone is jumping on the AI bandwagon right now, and many tech companies are getting licenses for tools like GitHub’s Copilot. However, as engineers test these tools out in a practical setting, it’s becoming clear that their use cases are quite limited for now.

What they can do presents an amazing development in the field but, unsurprisingly, they haven’t gone from zero to perfect in just one step. Engineers are learning to use them to automate tiny chunks of the coding process and save time typing. But errors and mistakes are frequent, and there are many limitations.

While it’s useful to stay in the know on the development of AI and become familiar with the tools, it’s not something that will affect your goal of landing a senior role right now.

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Requirements for Becoming a Senior Software Engineer: An Overview

Here’s a quick checklist of some of the main requirements and expectations for a senior software engineer:

  • Domain Knowledge: During your five or so years of work, you should have developed a deep knowledge of the areas you’ve worked in (software architecture, for example).
  • Developed skills: This could include debugging, proficiency in an additional language, broad knowledge of the software development lifecycle, and a more thoroughly developed taste in code.
  • Soft skills: As a senior engineer, you need to be able to work with others, lead others, and provide feedback to others. Public speaking and leadership skills are also valued.
  • Drive and initiative: Senior engineers don’t play the same role in a team as a junior. You’re there to help direct and shape the work of your team, not just follow orders. 
  • Competency and quality: This maybe goes without saying, but to land a senior role, you need to produce high-quality code that works both in isolation and with the larger code base. 
  • Continuous learning: A senior engineer should always be ready to learn and improve, both through working with others and through personal development.
  • Impact: As an engineer, your impact is an important measure of your readiness to become a senior. How much impact do you have on your team, your department, other departments, and even the company?

Becoming a Senior Software Engineer: Real-Life Examples To Learn From

Here are a couple of useful videos of real senior software engineers talking about how they transitioned into a more senior position.

Jakub Kozłowski

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In this video, Jakub lists the top 10 things he thinks helped him earn his new role as a senior software engineer.

Mayuko

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In this video, Mayuko talks about what a senior software engineer really is, based on her first-hand experience. She also addresses misuses of the term and its role in job posts.

How Much Can You Earn as a Senior Software Engineer?

senior software engineer

The average salary for a senior software engineering role in the United States is $150,593 a year. The highest-paying jobs at big tech companies like Google can reach highs of $310,000.

How To Become a Senior Software Engineer FAQs

We’ve got the answers to your most frequently asked questions.

How Hard Is It To Become a Senior Software Engineer?

It’s not an overly difficult goal to achieve, but it does take time. You just need to show commitment and a good work ethic and your managers will help you work towards your promotion.

Do You Need a Master’s Degree To Become a Senior Software Engineer?

No. Anyone that can land an entry-level software engineering role has the ability and opportunity to become a senior one day. There’s no need to go back and earn extra degrees to become eligible. You also shouldn’t expect to land a senior position right after completing a master’s. Companies want experienced workers in their senior roles, not experienced students.

How Long Does It Take To Go From a Junior to a Senior Software Engineer?

This can depend on your role, your company, and your own drive. However, an engineer is typically considered to be senior or to be ready for a senior position after five years of professional work experience.

What Is the Difference Between a Software Engineer and a Senior Software Engineer?

You might find many different answers to this question depending on who you ask, but the most tangible difference between the two is experience. Another important but sometimes harder-to-measure difference is impact. Senior engineers have more of an impact on what’s going on around them and take the necessary steps to make their ideas a reality.

Since you’re here…
Interested in a career in software engineering? Join our mentor-led Software Engineering Bootcamp or our foundational Software Engineering Course if you’re just starting out. We help people make the switch every day (just peep our reviews). You can do it, too!

About Monica J. White

Monica is a journalist with a lifelong interest in technology, from PC hardware to software and programming. She first started writing over ten years ago and has made a career out of it. Now, her focus is centered around technology and explaining complex concepts to a broader audience.