How to Climb the Engineering Career Ladder

Learn what an engineering ladder is, why an engineering ladder is important, and 4 engineering ladder roles. Plus, get free templates!

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), it’s a great time to get into software engineering. From 2020 to 2023, the BLS predicts that the software development field will expand by 22%, which is almost 3x higher than the average job growth rate of 8% predicted for the same time period. 

But before you dive head first into the software engineering field, you might want to think through what’s going to happen after you land that first job. Then what? When should you expect a promotion? What title is next in line for you?

When you’re looking for the answers to these questions, you’ll find the engineering ladder will become your new best friend.

What is an engineering ladder? 

An engineering ladder is the career framework or step-by-step progression plan that you have for your career in engineering. The ladder maps out the job titles that you want to see in your future and arranges them in order from the one that you’re currently in, to the next job, the next, and all the way to the top of the career ladder that you imagine. The beauty of the engineering ladder is that while there is a framework for the typical engineering progress, you can also customize the ladder for your own career dreams.

Climb the engineering career ladder

Kick-start your career journey by using a collaborative meeting agenda during career development conversations. Try using a tool like Fellow!

Why is an engineering ladder important? 

Having an engineering ladder set up for yourself is important since it will give you directions and goals as you progress throughout your career. It’s a great tool to help you make decisions like whether you should learn skill A or skill B (the ladder will prompt you to ask which one will be more important in the next role for you). Additionally, checking in regularly with your engineering ladder will help keep you accountable for when it’s time to switch jobs. Have an idea in mind of when you’ll be ready to move jobs so you can plan accordingly for your skill development and begin networking more.

Engineering ladder roles 

1Developer

A developer-level role is one of the most junior roles in software engineering. This is also the most technical role, and it requires deep knowledge of coding languages, database architecture, user interface (UI), and tooling/debugging. Other similar jobs and developer specializations at this career level include:

  • Frontend engineer
  • Backend engineer
  • DevOps engineer
  • Quality Assurance (QA) engineer
  • Application developer
  • Database developer

2Dev lead

A dev lead is often promoted from a high-performing developer who also has great soft skills. This team member is responsible for organizing the development team and assigning tasks to other developers for a specific project. Technical skills are still needed in this role to support the other developers on the team and manage blockers. The dev lead should also have a higher-level understanding of the industry in which they’re working and know-how on other departments such as product management and technical pre- and post-sales support.

3Technical program manager

A technical program manager (TPM) manages the technical aspects of the organization or project (depending on the size of the organization). They are responsible for executing requirements set by the engineering manager, like determining when projects are executed, how they will be done, and who from the development teams (or other teams) will be responsible for completing the tasks.

4Engineering manager

The engineering manager, while not the highest rung on the engineering ladder, is the highest level that most developers first aim for in their five to 10 year plan (the higher positions being a vice president of engineering or chief technology officer). An engineering manager is responsible for setting strategic goals based on the objectives and key results (OKRs) set by upper management. Then, they create programs and projects which are assigned to TPMs and dev leads to build and/or manage. 

How to build an engineering ladder 

1Develop a vision 

The core purpose of an engineering ladder is creating the step-by-step plan for how you’ll achieve your career goals. To do so, you’ll first need to envision what that future version of you wants to do! 

When planning your dream career goal, think of things like:

  • Do I want something more or less technical?
  • Do I like communicating with clients and executives frequently or not?
  • How much of my time do I want to spend in a team vs. on my own?
  • How much autonomy do I want to have over my projects? 
  • How much strategic thinking vs. tactical thinking do I want in my role?

2Communicate your vision during one-on-ones 

Keeping your manager in the loop on your career goals can help you get placed in opportunities that align with your goals. During your one-on-one meetings, tell your manager about the skills you hope to learn and express any interest in open opportunities across the company if there are any that pique your interest. A supportive manager who prioritizes your career development should be happy to give you projects and mentorship opportunities that align with your engineering framework.

Try this free one-on-one meeting agenda template:

3Talk to a mentor who is where you want to be 

What better way to learn about how to get to the next position than by talking with someone else who has been in your position? Mentors can be anyone, whether it’s a connection through work, school, or friends. Choose a mentor who is currently sitting in one of the career positions on your engineering ladder. You might also choose a mentor who came from a similar background as you (for example, did you both pivot from another field or both start in the same industry?) so they can relate to your situation and provide you with more specific advice for how to advance your career from your current standing point.

Try this free mentor meeting agenda template:

4Build a network of people

In a book by Meg Jay called “The Defining Decade,”  Jay discusses how your smallest and least likely connections often make the biggest impact on your life. The reason? The people with whom you spend the most time are the most similar to you, so they’re likely doing much the same as you are. However, the people who are new or distant connections to you are more likely to have different experiences and can actually bring you insights or opportunities that are likely to help you grow in new ways. So get networking and see what you can learn from people who aren’t in your usual circle!

5Develop leadership and management skills 

In more junior developer roles, leadership and management skills aren’t often needed. However, if you have plans to step beyond the technical and tactical developer roles, you’ll need to have proficiency in soft skills such as empathy, active listening, strategic thinking, and the ability to inspire and empower others. Roles like dev leads and managers need to be able to walk their team through blockers and empower them to be creative, productive, and strong problem-solvers. The earlier you can start building leadership skills, the sooner they will feel natural to you in your role.

6Ask career development questions 

Career development questions are super great to ask your manager in your one-on-ones, your mentors, or anyone with whom you network. These questions can be a great way to see how other people got into their roles and can also help you reflect on what you’re enjoying and where you want to go next. Some examples of questions are:

  • How does your role make an impact on the company?
  • What skills and knowledge do you use the most? 
  • Is there an area that you want to learn more about, or spend more time doing?
  • How do you prepare for new tasks?

Try this free career development meeting agenda template:

7Set realistic goals 

Part of planning your engineering ladder is determining what you want to do, as well as how and when you’re planning to get there. While this doesn’t have to be measured very specifically, at least have some guidelines to give your career planning a bit of structure. For example, if the next role needs two to three years of a specific skill set, you should plan for that promotion two to three years after you can begin practicing that skill set. Using a tool for setting and tracking your OKRs regularly will keep you on track with your engineering ladder and will allow you to easily share progress with your manager.

Parting advice

When referred to regularly, an engineering ladder is helpful for fostering career growth and keeping you on track to get to your dream engineering role in a faster time period.

And the best part of the engineering ladder? It’s not made of concrete! Feel free to move your plans around as your career progresses. It’s normal for the plan you had at 20 to change by the time you’ve had five to 10 years in the industry (possibly even after one to two years!) Check back in with your engineering ladder on the regular and adjust it to suit the new plans you have for your life in the next five to 10 years.


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About the author

Alexandria Hewko

Alexandria Hewko shares her insights from a background in international marketing, business management, and information technology. From starting her own travel blog in 2018 to launching global marketing campaigns in the tech and CE industry, Alexandria is passionate about storytelling and educating audiences on topics that aren't commonly talked about. She has completed her Bachelor's of International Business at Carleton University and is currently working towards her Master's of Digital Transformation & Innovation at the University of Ottawa.

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