What is a Senior Software Engineer at Wise and Amazon?

👋 Hi, this is Gergely with a bonus, free issue of the Pragmatic Engineer Newsletter. In every issue, I cover topics related to Big Tech and startups through the lens of engineering managers and senior engineers. To get full issues twice a week, subscribe here.

The past month, we’ve done deepdives in the newsletter on what a senior software engineer is at Big Tech, and at scaleups. This issue looks at two companies from the 15 covered in those articles: we cover Wise and Amazon.

Wise

Wise – formerly Transferwise – is a publicly traded Fintech, valued at $6.5B at time of publication. The company employs more than 5,000 people in 17 countries. Its biggest engineering hubs are London (UK,) Estonia, Austin (US,) Budapest (Hungary,) and Singapore. The company not only makes its engineering levels public, but also its compensation ranges across all regions. Here’s how levels and compensation line up:

Career levels and compensation targets at Wise. These numbers are gross base salary ones: equity comes on top of these. Source: Wise engineering career map
Career levels and compensation targets at Wise. These numbers are gross base salary ones: equity comes on top of these. Source: Wise engineering career map

Harsh Sinha, the CTO of Wise added additional context to the above numbers:

  • The numbers refer to gross base salary.
  • Equity is paid on top of these, and Wise does not have cash bonuses. The bonuses are ‘loaded in’ to the equity awards.
  • The US numbers are clearly higher than other regions. As context, the numbers reflect what the company has found it takes to close great engineering talent in the respective markets.
  • Wise has a much smaller US footprint, engineering-wise, and has scaled their engineering team heavily in the EU and UK, over the years.

Summarizing L3 (senior engineer) expectations at Wise:

The senior level at Wise.
The senior level at Wise.

I asked Balazs Barna, the Head of US Engineering at Wise to give his two cents on the senior role. He said:

“The Senior Engineer role at Wise is the equivalent to an Engineering Manager 1 on the IC track. Senior Engineers are not only expected to lead significant projects in their teams, but they have a say in whether that feature is worth building or not. After all, there is nothing worse than an engineer solving a problem that doesn’t need to be solved in the first place!

We put a lot of emphasis on communication and prioritization and the ability to unblock yourself or your team – this comes on top of the programming and design skills.

A ‘typical’ Senior Engineer to me is someone who seeks out difficult problems, and has the skills to solve them in a sustainable way. They strive to build things fast, but also know when we have to slow down to go faster.”

Amazon: SDE3

Amazon’s SDE3 level maps to what the industry commonly refers to as “senior engineer.” A summary of this level’s typical expectations:

A summary of Amazon’s SDE3 level.
A summary of Amazon’s SDE3 level.

Amazon’s SDE3 definition is closer to what is considered a “team lead” or “tech lead” role at many companies, and so I view this SDE3 role as being at the upper end of a senior engineer definition. Amazon emphasizes a few different things at this level:

  • Dealing with ambiguity. Senior engineers are expected to tackle problems where the business problem (or customer case) is well defined, but the technology strategy is not. It’s down to them to create well-designed, extensible, performant and secure solutions.
  • A lead role. The SDE3 level expects leadership on projects in which this engineer is involved. However, expectations make it clear that “leading” does not mean doing all the major work. It involves mentoring colleagues, reviewing their work, and making space for others to voice opinions.
  • Writing and explaining things simply. Amazon expects senior engineers to be skilled at communicating their technical ideas in writing. They also expect senior engineers to do this regularly. Seniors are expected to be able to explain problems and suggest solutions in simple, concise terms.
  • Autonomy. Seniors are expected to be able to deliver the right things without guidance.
  • Maintainability. SDE3s are expected to balance speed of execution and delivery, with building maintainable foundations for the future.

The expectation which stands out most to me, is that Amazon expects SDE3s to not be a key dependency. This is how Amazon puts it:

“Your team is stronger because of your presence; but it does not depend on your presence to be successful.”

This is a pragmatic-enough expectation which encourages mentoring and knowledge sharing. After all, if you hoard knowledge, you will be on the critical path for your team, so if you’re absent, work can come to a halt. It’s less usual for such an expectation to be spelt out this clearly, even though it’s pragmatic to seek to remove the “single bus factor,” wherein a team is fully dependent on an individual.

Expectations for moving into an SDE3 (senior) role

Amazon is almost alone among most tech companies in the way its internal leveling document specifies levels and their expectations, and also provides guidance on how to move to the next level. Here’s the guidance Amazon offers SDE2 roles about moving to SDE3. It’s not a checklist, but some expectations that could be considered:

  • Lead a complex project. Lead a strategic team effort, starting at the design stage. This project should require multiple team members’ contributions.
  • Influence the long-term roadmap. Advocate for long-term technical investments, and build software flexible enough to evolve in future.
  • Coach and mentor. Mentor or help others on the team.
  • Mitigate roadblocks. Discover and mitigate unknown risks which block projects.
  • Demonstrate engineering best practices. Work efficiently, deliver incrementally and frequently.
  • Improved writing skill. Efficient at communicating design decisions and technical decisions in writing, and keep improving in writing for non-technical audiences.
  • Design reviews. Lead team reviews and participate in other teams’ reviews.
  • Address systemic issues. Take the lead in identifying and solving architecture deficiencies. Reduce support costs by addressing systemic issues.

We cover more about Amazon’s engineering levels in the article, Inside Amazon’s engineering culture.


To learn more about what senior software engineer expectations tend to be, check out the following full articles:

Needless to say: every company has slightly different definitions on what their ‘senior’ title covers. However, it’s interesting to see just how many things are common on what the above companies reasonably expect from this level.


Featured Pragmatic Engineer Jobs

The above jobs score at least 9/12 on The Pragmatic Engineer Test. Browse more senior engineer and engineering leadership roles with great engineering cultures, or add your own on The Pragmatic Engineer Job board and apply to join The Pragmatic Engineer Talent Collective.

Want to get interesting opportunities from vetted tech companies? Sign up to The Pragmatic Engineer Talent Collective and get sent great opportunities - similar to the ones below without any obligation. You can be public or anonymous, and I’ll be curating the list of companies and people.

Are you hiring senior+ engineers or engineering managers? Apply to join The Pragmatic Engineer Talent Collective to contact world-class senior and above engineers and engineering managers/directors. Get vetted drops twice a month, from software engineers - full-stack, backend, mobile, frontend, data, ML - and managers currently working at Big Tech, high-growth startups, and places with strong engineering cultures. Apply here.