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How to Become a Senior Software Engineer

May 27, 2022

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Glassdoor estimates that the average salary for a senior software engineer in the US is just over $114,000 per year. Senior software engineers are in high demand: there aren’t enough engineers to fill the market need, and as a result, candidates can be picky about the projects and companies with which they work. 

However, it takes time and effort to reach the senior level of software engineering. If you’re considering a career in software engineering, here’s what it takes to become a senior software engineer — the skills you need, the experiences you’ll want to gain, and some interview questions you can expect along the way. 

How to become a senior software engineer

Senior software engineers combine advanced skills and capabilities with years of experience. Becoming a senior software engineer requires advancing through different phases of your career to reach a point where you can take a leadership role on software engineering projects. Here’s how to plot your career trajectory to start qualifying for this role. 

Choose your specialty

Assuming you’re at the beginning of your career, the first step toward becoming a senior software engineer is to choose a specialty that you will master over time. 

The career trajectory of a senior software engineer is usually described as T-shaped. The horizontal part of the T represents a broad understanding of many different topics. The vertical part of the T is the area in which you choose to focus on developing a depth of knowledge in one area: a tool or technique, for instance. 

Senior software engineers need both a breadth and depth of knowledge. So, when you’re just starting out, you’ll want to choose a specialty, such as web development or mobile development. Some engineers also choose a technical stack within their specialty: Ruby, Python, JavaScript, iOS, etc.

Gain experience

Development and software engineering roles follow a relatively linear trajectory, from junior to mid-level to senior. 

Junior engineers lack experience; they know how to write code, but are still in the learning process of solving real-life problems and understanding design patterns. In this phase of your career, it’s important to soak in as much knowledge as possible and work on projects  — including passion projects outside of work. 

Mid or regular software engineers typically have two to four years of experience. They’ve participated in several engineering projects and are competent in most stages of the engineering and development lifecycle. Regular software developers are usually competent enough to mentor junior engineers. 

Finally, after four to ten years, you’ll qualify for senior engineering roles. A senior engineer is extremely skilled at building software architecture, providing scalable design solutions, problem-solving, and communicating. This role is typically tasked with leading dedicated software engineering teams and working at a higher level than regular software engineers. 

There are plenty of ways to gain experience: through employment, internships, side projects, freelancing and online courses. Here are a few resources to help you in the different stages of your career. 

  • Company “playbooks”. Some companies have a playbook explaining their engineering practices, including Basecamp, Thoughtbot, and Hyper
  • Engineering courses for beginners: Everyone starts somewhere. Here’s a list of free software development courses if you’re just launching your software engineering career. 
  • Contribute to open-source projects. Collaborate with others to build a resume of projects, develop your skills, and network your way into a potential new job opportunity.  

Master key skills

Time and experience aren’t the only ingredients for a career as a senior software engineer. Senior software engineers also need to become experts in their field. You must be well versed in your programming language, framework, text editor, and Version Control System. Of course, becoming an expert comes with taking on challenging projects. 

It also means keeping up to date with industry trends, participating in hackathons, and exploring the industry in-depth. Find courses and online tutorials to expand your area of expertise. Listen to podcasts, read blogs, and explore your chosen specialty beyond what your day-to-day work requires. 

Here are some resources to help you get started.

Work on your soft skills

Senior software engineers are often asked to participate in building great software engineering teams. You will take on a leadership role at your organization, and as a result, need some key soft skills to prepare you for success. 

Prepare for your next senior software engineer interview with scenarios that showcase your communication, teamwork, leadership, and patience. Many interviews at today’s top brands include behavioral questions, in addition to technical ones. Get ready to talk about a time you faced a frustrating client, needed to mentor a junior engineer, or solved a problem collaboratively. 

Prepare for senior software developer interview questions

When you reach the point in your career where you’re qualified to apply for a senior developer or engineering role, the interview stage becomes even more important. 

[Read more: Top 6 Senior Java Developer Interview Questions and Answers

It’s likely that you’ll be asked to several rounds of interviews — in addition to a coding test — before receiving an offer. The early round interview will cover basic questions, such as: 

  • What do you know about our company’s technology services?
  • How do your qualifications support your success as a senior developer?
  • Tell us about your leadership skills.
  • Tell us about your experience in software architecture.
  • What goals do you have in your senior role for our company?
  • How will your past experience help you contribute to this company’s goals?

As you get further into the hiring process, the questions will get more in-depth and aim to understand your leadership philosophy, engineering qualifications, and interest in the specific company. Expect questions such as

  • How do you ensure software projects stay on time and within budget? 
  • If the CTO wants you to pick between two technologies to complete a project, how would you decide which one to use?
  • How would you approach consulting a new client on product designs?
  • Can you explain your design process for scaling systems?

You may get asked to do a technical interview, too. But, having spent many years honing your skills, working on complex projects, and following industry trends, the technical interview should be the least intimidating part of the hiring process.  

For more interview prep resources, check out our post, Top 42 Data Engineer Interview Questions & Answers in 2022. And, to learn more about becoming a senior software engineer, read our blog and apply to join our roster of top developers worldwide.