Does Seniority Title Really Matters in Tech

I remember that day when I gave two weeks’ notice to my Manager at Macy’s Tech in San Francisco. A few minutes later, the director in our department called me to schedule a one-on-one.

“Why do you want to leave?” he said. “Is it because of the money?”

It was partly because of the compensation. It is also the odd phenomenon where many people have resigned and moved on to their next career. I foreshadow something was coming, some big event, like a layoff in the San Francisco office. However, I just graduated from college and wanted to find a job to challenge myself daily.

“It wasn’t about the money. It was about the experience that led me to make the decision.”, I nervously said.

He told me if I was looking for a raise, he could provide or match the other company’s salary. He gave me career advice on that one on one that had me pondering why most people leave a company.

He said that he would switch jobs if he found a jump in his title or his salary. However, out of the two, a title bump trumps a salary bump.

This has me thinking - does the title matter? On the other end, other Software Engineers say that title doesn’t matter. What matters is your responsibility, and the other company will translate your responsibility to their level.

The Fear of Downlevel

Switching jobs in tech come with financial upside or title upside. However, it doesn’t come with both. Many of the engineers from a startup are down-leveled to bigger tech companies, such as FANG. For instance, a Senior Software Engineer into an SWE 2, a VP in a non-tech-focus company into a Senior Engineering Manager. In most of these cases, they will less likely take the position and keep on interviewing elsewhere.

On the other hand, they get a salary bump to the same level as their previous manager’s salary. Perhaps a promotion in their current company cannot top the level that they received in their offer.

What Title Means in a Company

Before you think if the title matters, we have to look at what the title means in the company. Why do we have the title in the company instead of having all one at the same level?

Responsibility

The company uses the title as the responsibility that of each layer of their project pipeline. For instance, a senior software engineer will have a different responsibility than a Software Engineer 1.

Senior Software Engineers are masters of craftsmanship. They know what they don’t know. They can independently handle all aspects of moderately complex problems based on what the stakeholder wants. They try to leverage and collaborate with other engineers to drive the project forward. Their responsibility may be to design features from end to end in a big company and to be well-versed in the company’s technology stack. That means process, architecture, design, implementation, test, and sustaining engineering. One example of a project that they do is to onboard a new payment processing flow in its system. During the code review, they usually are the ones that help mentor other engineers and giving them guidance on how to navigate the project the right way. They also know how to handle sticky situations where their work got block by some other team.

A Software Engineer’s responsibility is to deliver the right features. Often, they may need some guidance in delivering the project. It may be a technical problem and blockers on another team while completing the project. They are responsible for investigating their assigned problems and managed to design a solution. However, someone is responsible for API between components or sign off before they implement.

Pay Range

With bigger responsibility, the rewards will also be higher. Each title band will have its pay range, for instance, according to Levels. A software engineer at Facebook will have an average total salary of $267000, while a Senior Software Engineer will have an average total salary of $390000.

Seniority

In some companies, seniority comes into play. From a non-tech perspective, the title plays with seniority. Suppose you look at the job description for a Software Engineer vs. a Senior Software Engineer. A Software Engineer will require 0 - 3 years, and a typical senior software engineer will require at least five years. Some high-growth startup company who have grown in a short time sometimes put their initial engineers in a higher title than the engineer that joined later.

Although total years of experience doesn’t necessarily mean seniority, on overage, a software engineer typically requires a couple of years of experience to reach the master of craftsmanship.

A Software engineer that has been in a company for a longer time will also tend to understand more about that company’s domain and technology stack. Thus, as years went by, the company also trusted him to execute a higher responsibility that caused an increase in the title.

When does title matter?

Knowing what the title means, it is not standardized across companies. A senior title in company A doesn’t necessarily translate to a senior title in company B because a senior title in company B has a different responsibility than a senior title in company A.

However, there are a couple of cases where the title does matter.

When you want to gain more influence in your company and have a saying

A title represents the seniority in the company. Therefore, it also projects the credibility that you have in the current scope of the project.

There is a sense of respect if you have seniority in the company. Other engineers and stakeholders may take you seriously, and they are less likely to challenge you because of your title.

"For those in an underrepresented group, titles make a world of difference in establishing credibility. A principal engineer from an underrepresented group working at a medium-sized tech company said: "Once I got promoted to senior, then to principal, things got better each time. Still, even with a principal engineer title, I regularly get challenged on whether I am technical. Imagine what would happen if I did not have the title and the signal it carries."

- The Pragmatic Engineer.

Having a bigger title can impact the project’s current scope, budget allocation, etc. For instance, a senior director can persuade the higher-ups to focus on tech initiatives instead of product initiatives.

When you want to switch jobs

Oh yes, non-engineers tend to look at titles more sometimes to reach out to you because they believe your responsibility is somewhat similar to the same title in the company.

A recruiter will not reach out to you for a manager position if you have stated that your software engineer title. They will reach out to someone who has the title of either a tech lead or a manager to demonstrate that they have acquired the responsibility.

There has been a saying in the Blind community that the best time to switch jobs is when you just got promoted. One of the reasons is a title change is equivalent to a change in responsibility. Most companies will not promote engineers to the next level if they have not yet done that responsibility. Therefore, if you have been promoted to the next level, you probably are “ready” and have been doing the role of the next level. However, promotions within the company may not be as high of a salary bump as going to the next level of the next company. Other companies want to onboard engineers on the same level because they have been “doing that responsibility” on the previous company.

Takeaway

There are two groups of people who advocate whether the title is important or not. As the old sayings, great power comes with great responsibility. Companies create a title to differentiate responsibilities within their organization. Engineers have a higher responsibility results in more credibility in the eyes of the company. In some companies, the title often reflects the seniority you have in the company.

The title does matter when you want to establish your credibility and look to switch jobs. The title establishes the message on how much impact you create in the company.

To avoid being downlevel when switching domains, try to switch track within your company when you have the opportunity. On top of the title, understanding the responsibility and expectations can help you up for success. It is always good to over-deliver then under-deliver. Thus, taking too much responsibility might result in stress and less success in the long run. Nonetheless, too little responsibility may cause you to feel bored and frustrated.

Thanks for reading! These are my thoughts about the title in tech. Do you think the title matters? Please comment on them below share your thoughts.

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