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Hiring + recruiting | Blog Post

Leveling Up: Defining the Ladder of Software Engineer Levels

Todd Adams

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In the world of software engineering, companies often use a tiered system to categorize engineers based on their experience, capabilities, and contributions to the organization. These levels, typically denoted as L2, L3, L4, and so forth, serve as a career roadmap, compensation framework, and a way to manage expectations and responsibilities. But what do these designations actually mean? Let’s explore each software engineer level in detail.

L1 Engineer: Entry level Engineer

The foundation of any career begins with those taking first steps, and in software engineering, this is often the Level 1 software engineer or Entry level Engineer. These budding engineers are typically fresh-eyed and eager to apply what they’ve learned academically to real-world challenges. An L1 engineer typically looks like:

  • L1 Engineer Experience: Fresh out of school or a coding boot camp, with little to no real-world experience.
  • L1 Engineer Responsibilities: Primarily tasked with simpler, well-defined bugs or features. Supervision is usually required.
  • L1 Engineer Skills: Knowledge of basic coding, debugging, and algorithmic principles. Limited familiarity with industry tools and best practices.
  • L1 Engineer Growth Path: This phase is all about learning, gaining hands-on experience, and becoming acquainted with the organization’s codebase and culture.

L2 Engineer: Junior Engineer

As engineers transition from beginners to contributors with a semblance of experience, they move into the Level 2 software engineer or Junior Engineer role. At this stage, their knowledge begins to take shape, and their contributions become more impactful, albeit with some guidance. An L2 engineer typically has:

  • L2 Engineer Experience: Typically, 1-3 years in the field.
  • L2 Engineer Responsibilities: Work on small to medium-sized tasks independently but may still require guidance for larger or more complex issues.
  • L2 Engineer Skills: Gained proficiency in one or more programming languages. Starting to develop an understanding of system design and architecture.
  • L2 Engineer Growth Path: Focus on improving problem-solving skills, deepening knowledge of systems, and expanding toolset proficiency.

L3 Engineer: Software Engineer / Developer

The title ‘Software Engineer’ is emblematic of one’s growth from a learner to a dependable contributor in the team. Falling under the Level 3 software engineer designation, these professionals have accumulated vital hands-on experience and have started to make their mark in the software development lifecycle.  An L3 engineer typically looks like:

  • L3 Engineer Experience: Roughly 3-5 years of experience.
  • L3 Engineer Responsibilities: Handle a broad range of tasks, from bug fixes to feature development. Can design components, but might need assistance with complex system design.
  • L3 Engineer Skills: Solid understanding of algorithms, data structures, and system design principles. Has started to specialize in certain areas (e.g., backend development, front-end, DevOps).
  • L3 Engineer Growth Path: Expand domain knowledge, mentor junior engineers, and play a larger role in system and architecture design.

L4 Engineer: Senior Software Engineer

Ascending to the rank of a Senior Software Engineer (Level 4 software engineer) signifies a significant milestone in an engineer’s journey. Equipped with years of experience, these individuals play pivotal roles in driving projects and are recognized pillars in their teams. An L4 engineer often has:

  • L4 Engineer Experience: 5+ years in the field.
  • L4 Engineer Responsibilities: Lead major product features and assume responsibility for the quality and delivery of their code. Participate in architecture reviews and technical design.
  • L4 Engineer Skills: Deep expertise in certain areas. Strong grasp of system design, architecture, and trade-offs. Able to mentor junior engineers effectively.
  • L4 Engineer Growth Path: Influence the broader engineering team, provide technical leadership, and drive engineering best practices and standards.

L5 Engineer: Staff Engineer / Principal Engineer

Achieving the Level 5 software engineer designation, either as a Staff or Principal Engineer, is a testament to an individual’s profound expertise and influence in the software engineering realm. These experts are not just contributors; they’re visionaries that guide technical trajectories. An L5 engineer often looks like:

  • L5 Engineer Experience: Varies, but typically 8+ years.
  • L5 Engineer Responsibilities: Make critical decisions on architecture, design, and technology choices. Act as a technical beacon for the organization.
  • L5 Engineer Skills: Recognized expertise in one or more domains. Strong strategic and architectural vision. Excellent problem-solving and system-thinking abilities.
  • L5 Engineer Growth Path: Continue to push technological boundaries, lead complex projects, and mentor multiple teams or an entire engineering department.

L6 Engineer, L7 Engineer, and Beyond

Beyond the structured tiers leading up to L5, there exists a realm where engineers are more than just contributors—they are industry trailblazers. Those who reach beyond L5 into Level 6 software engineers or Level 7 software engineers often hold titles like “Senior Staff Engineer” or “Distinguished Engineer”.  These individuals not only shape their organizations but often set standards for the entire industry.

Software Engineer Levels Provide Guidance for Both Employers and Developers 

While these designations serve as a guideline, it’s crucial to note that the specifics can vary by company. Some organizations might have more levels, some fewer. Responsibilities, titles, and expectations might also differ. However, understanding these general definitions provides a solid framework for comprehending the hierarchy within software engineering. As professionals progress through these levels, they not only contribute more value to their organizations but also solidify their standing in the vibrant community of software engineers.

How about salaries? Salaries are dependent on specific role, geography, and more, and very important to finding great matches for your role and available developers. We’ll dive in more to that in future posts.

Interested in learning more about how we at Terminal recruit different levels of software engineer and ensure you’re getting the right talent? Contact a talent expert today!

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