The Seniority Roller Coaster and Down-Leveling in Tech

In tech, switching jobs almost always comes with either a financial or a title upside. However, it doesn’t always come with both. Switching for higher compensation can result in a “lower” title, like going from Senior Software Engineer to SWE 2 or VP Engineering to Senior Engineering Manager.

This is what I call the seniority roller coaster.

The seniority roller coaster

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Reasons for Down-Leveling

There can be several reasons for receiving a down-level in title while getting an increase in compensation. The most common are these:

1. Titles across companies can have different expectations – and compensation. For example, a senior title at Big Tech typically expects more from an engineer than a small developer agency, a non-tech-first company, or a recently founded start-up does.

Senior positions at Big Tech will also pay more in liquid compensation than many other companies. Also, some people with a senior title at a smaller company might not yet have the hands-on experience of working at the scale and complexity of these bigger places.

2. Tiers of companies pay differently. The tech compensation landscape is becoming increasingly trimodal, where compensation for the same job title can differ by up to 3 to 5 times across different "tiers" of companies. However, a title cut can still mean a significant compensation raise and a new challenge, when going from a lower to a higher-tier company.

3. Compensation across tech is rising rapidly. People who stay at the same company for a long time can get left behind compared to their peers, especially if the company does not move internal compensation bands to keep up with new offers. People who worked at the same company might have lower compensation expectations as a result. Given the choice of a significant raise and a "title" cut, most people will take the title cut when switching jobs.

4. Changing both companies and technology stacks might result in a lower-level offer from companies which focus more on expertise with the specific technology. This is especially true for agencies, and non "tech-first" companies which judge candidates by years of experience in a given technology, over evaluating more holistically.

My two cents is that this type of leveling makes little sense because an experienced engineer can quickly pick up a new technology, building on their experience. Still, down-leveling, for this reason, is common with roles where interviews are focused on depth in a specific technology.

5. Interview performance as perceived by the people doing the hiring. How a candidate does on the interview almost always feeds into leveling decisions and is the most common reason for down leveling. Candidates whom interviewers are unsure about, would often get offered a level below the position they interviewed for.

Down-leveling is especially common in big tech because expectations are typically high, onboarding takes longer than at smaller places, and companies often aim to hire people who "raise the bar" at a given level. I've talked in detail about the conservative nature of big tech hiring.

As a caveat, there are many cases where leveling decisions have already been made even before the interviews. Based on the candidate's resume and their perceived experience, they typically interview for a specific position.

6. Having competing offers or being willing to walk away from a down-level might help avoid down-leveling when your interview performance happens to be perceived right between two levels. A few people shared how when they showed competing offers from similar "tier" companies at a higher level or rejected an offer, they received an offer at the next level.

As a hiring manager, I can understand why: this signal makes hiring managers re-examine interview feedback and could - in some cases - tilt a "maybe" feedback towards a "yes". Having a signal that another, similar, company levels the person higher also carries an additional signal: the threat of the candidate choosing that other company. Leveling decisions are often down to nuances: and information like this can push those nuances upwards.

Handling Down-Leveling when Switching Jobs

You got an offer at a level that is “below” your current title but the compensation is more than you currently make. How do you proceed?

Know that down-levels are common when moving to “up a tier.” There’s an invisible tiering of companies based on what they expect from engineers at each level. At the top would be the likes of Google, Facebook, and similar Big Tech companies, where engineers impacting millions or more of customers with each change can be common. Engineers are expected to know about – and follow – more processes and best practices, compared to companies where leadership is not as technical, or the impact of an engineer is magnitudes lower.

It should be no surprise that a senior engineer at an agency building niche apps with thousands of users has different – and easier to meet – expectations than the senior engineer building an app with hundreds of millions of users.

Rina Artstain, Tech Lead at Dropbox notes how once you move from a “low-tier” company to a “high-tier” one, down-levels should not be common, going forward:

"This is exactly my experience moving from a low-tier company to a high-tier company, but moving within high-tier companies will usually not have the rollercoaster effect. And when it comes to a specific tech stack - what's expected from you as a senior SWE is to have a wide view of the org, know how to make things happen by getting support from stakeholders, mentoring others etc. They expect you'll catch up on the stack pretty quickly."

Do your research on what this “lower” title means at the new company. Ask for the definition of the level and about the next one as well, so you can evaluate whether you are missing skills or experience needed for that level. If so, it might be your opportunity to gain these. All companies with a strong engineering culture will have well-defined competencies and clear expectations at different levels.

For example, at Skyscanner, the principal level is one level above senior, and Skyscanner has roughly one principal engineer for every 15 - 30 engineers. Principal responsibilities range from squad-level, impacting 10-15 engineers, to org-level impacting closer to 100 engineers, depending on the person and the specific principal position and senior+ archetype.

Compare this with Uber, where the principal level is four levels above senior and two above staff. Uber has 1 - 2 principal engineers for their 4,000 software engineers. Principal responsibilities are company-wide. To attempt to compare the two; a principal engineer at Uber could have an “impact radius” which is between 20 - 100 times bigger than that of some principals at Skyscanner, in terms of engineers whom they influence. Of course, the two companies are different so any comparison is, at best, an apples-to-pears comparison.

Talk with the hiring manager if you disagree with the leveling. Voice your disagreement, show examples of your past experience, and ask if the hiring committee can consider you for the next level. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain, as long as you do this in a respectful way.

When I was a hiring manager, several candidates have challenged leveling decisions. In every case, this made me take a closer look at interview signals and expectations for the level. In some cases, after gathering more information, we offered the next level, as we'll discuss in the "Handling down-leveling as a manager" section.

Consider rejecting the offer if you still disagree with leveling. Titles do carry significance both for your career and to signal your status within the organization. If, after getting more information, you disagree with the assessment, consider rejecting the offer.

Interviews will always have a subjective component and this will always result in false negatives. These false negatives will result in either not extending offers to candidates who would excel at the job, or extending an offer a level lower than they merit.

As a hiring manager, I have been on the receiving end of candidates rejecting offers because they disagreed with the leveling. I respected their decisions, and these rejections usually prompted us to double-check if we did leveling fairly and communicated expectations correctly. In some cases, candidates who respectfully rejected a position at Level X, we later contacted, re-assessed, and hired at Level X+1. They were right not to accept a level they deemed incorrect.

What happens when people knowingly accept down-level offers? I experienced this first-hand as a manager, and it was not pleasant. Down-levels impact managers and if left unchecked, can also impact teams.

Getting Ahead of Down-Leveling as a Manager

I was starting my first 1:1 with a recent hire on my team. He jumped right in:

"My first question is: how do I get to the next level? It's clear that I've been down-leveled during interviews and that I should be at the next level. My goal is to get there in six months. What do I need to do?"

I was taken aback. How do I respond? I was used to having first meetings with people who were excited to get to work. Yet here I was with someone clearly frustrated on their first day of work, all thanks to a leveling decision.

If you thought down leveling is only a problem for those who got down-leveled: it is not. It's just as much of a problem for their manager, and if handled poorly, it can spread and become a morale problem impacting the whole team. Here are things you should do to stop this from happening.

1. Be on the hiring loop for future team members. Down-leveling often goes unnoticed in larger organizations where hiring is done by rotating hiring managers and interviewers on loops. The team for a future new joiner is often only confirmed well after an offer is made, and is based on org priorities.

My organization at Uber hired like this at times. I made hiring decisions for people who joined another manager's team, and other Engineering Managers (EMs) extended offers for people who would later join my team. While this setup was easier to manage in terms of time commitment, it came with downsides. One of these was down-leveling decisions I was not aware of, until the person joined.

2. Be the one extending the offer and do a "temperature check". At larger companies, recruiters can be the ones extending offers without the hiring manager being present. While this saves time for the future manager, it also means they miss signs of the candidate being unhappy with the level.

At Uber, I always tried to be present when we presented the offer. I asked them how they feel, not just about the numbers, but the position itself. I often picked up the candidate was unhappy about the title at this point and made sure to follow-up about it.

3. Dig deeper if you suspect a down-level at play with leveling. If when reviewing the interview feedback, you get suspicious that the level being offered is too low, take action. Confirm if the signals collected in the interview point to the candidate possibly being down-leveled. Signals that can indicate the wrong level being offered include the majority of interviewers being very strong supporters of hiring. A strong hire decision on a loop that was set up for a level below what the past experience for the candidate might point to, can also be a flag.

4. When in doubt, get more signals to correctly level. The best way is to hold a follow-up interview to fill the gaps on signals that might have been missed. It's a good idea to bring in people calibrated to interview at the next level, share context with them, and ask them to focus on the gaps. After gathering this additional signal, you should be clear on what the right level is.

5. Explain the rationale and what's in it for them if they join. Assuming you've confirmed the level is the correct one, take the time to explain to the candidate why. I prefer to share what the expectations are at their current level and the next one. I also aim to be clear about the areas that they need to grow in, to eventually get that promotion.

This conversation is a great opportunity to commit to helping this person grow professionally, should they join. Explain what support you and others on the team can lend, the types of projects they'd work on which expand their expertise, and the challenges they'd face in this environment.

6. Set realistic expectations on promotion timelines. Aim not to have people accept an offer with the false hope of being promoted on an unrealistic timeline. At most larger tech companies, promotion within a year seldom happens. Even at smaller companies, promotion within this timeframe is more of an exception.It almost always points to mis-leveling at hire.

Avoid promising promotion timelines when you are not the final decision maker on promotions. Such promises only result in frustration when the time you’ve mentioned comes around, and your direct report has not yet been promoted. It won’t matter that the promotion is outside of your control; they’ll remember you promising a timeline that did not happen.

7. If your hands are tied in changing levels, be as up-front as you can be. There will be cases when you determine the candidate should be offered a level above, but you cannot do so. This might be due to budgeting, or it could be because of someone up the chain blocking this decision.

I like to be honest with people when we cannot offer a higher position because of {insert publicly shareable details}. I then encourage them to consider if they would be happy working at this level, in this environment, in this team, on these challenges, and with me, for at least a year with no title or compensation change. If this does not match what they are looking for, I'd suggest they pass on our offer and keep in touch in case new opportunities open up.

Titles Don’t Matter. Titles Do Matter.

“Of course it doesn’t matter to them.”

Do titles in tech matter more than the impact and context of your work? There are two schools of thought; those who think they do not and those who have experienced first-hand just how much they do.

Anyone thinking titles don't matter, know you are in a privileged position. I was in this camp for a long time and when I talked about titles, most people around me nodded in agreement on how little titles matter. The people nodding shared how they were also not underrepresented in tech and were similarly established as me. Titles simply didn't matter for us, anymore.

If you're established in tech, or you're in a position where your competence is never questioned, titles indeed do not matter nearly as much. Assuming that everyone else is in this group is ignorant thinking, though.

For those in an underrepresented group, titles make a world of difference in establishing credibility. I've talked to many women and other minorities in tech, who all told the same story. They are continuously challenged on whether they are technical. They have to prove themselves again and again, to people they have not worked extensively with. Many shared how they spend a staggering amount of energy to be taken as seriously as counterparts who have the privilege to regard titles as unimportant because their own competence has always been taken as a given.

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."

If you're still in the camp of "titles don't matter", I suggest you read the dozens of responses to my tweet on this topic and the viewpoints of people from underrepresented groups.

Clarify what the title means in the career ladder of the company you’d move to. Across tech, titles are not standardized, from what "entry-level" means at companies to what "senior" refers to. It is especially true above the senior levels. Lead, staff, and principal can all have vastly different responsibilities; just take the disconnect in the meaning of principal engineer at Skyscanner and Uber.

Ask to see the career ladder at the company. Clarify expectations and confirm that the level would reflect the skills and experience you bring to the table. What would progression look like? How does it compare to where you are right now?

For example, a principal engineer having an impact radius of 100 engineers at Skyscanner might map to a staff-level at Uber, but very likely not to Uber’s principal level, which can be expected to have an impact radius in the numbers of thousands of engineers across the company.

Takeaways

To avoid down-leveling when changing domains, try to switch tracks within your existing company when you have the opportunity to do so.

Lateral moves – ones with no title change – can end up helping your career in the long run. Many times, these can feel like a down-level – especially if you are on track to get promoted to the next level – and a lateral move does extend this timeline. However, the additional experience is something that might help you significantly in the long run.

On top of titles, understand responsibilities and expectations attached to the title at the new place. If you maintain your responsibilities, you’re likely setting yourself up for success. Taking on too much additional responsibility, coupled with a new environment, might set you up for less success, while a decrease in responsibilities might result in frustration or boredom. Senior engineering manager Luciano Holanda shares similar advice.

Down-leveling can be a natural consequence of moving “up the food chain” from a company with a not-so-great tech culture to one that is closer to, or at the industry-leading level. With these moves, a title cut is common and can feel like a fair trade-off. This is especially true if your learning has plateaued at your current company and moving to a new place opens up more career progression, more learning, and better financial outcomes.

As a manager, the more involved you are in the hiring process, the more down-leveling situations you can notice – and act on. For down-leveling that is no mistake, this is an opportunity to share career levels, expectations, and growth opportunities for your future team member. And in cases when the decision is incorrect, it’s an opportunity to fix it at the right time, before a new joiner accepts a level too low for their expertise.

Up next: In next week’s issue of The Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter, we’ll dive into product and platform engineering team splits, and take a deeper look at how Uber made this change. Subscribe to get this issue here.

Thanks to Luciano, Nicky and Yahya for their input and help with this article.