As a giant in both tech and commerce, Amazon has become a highly sought after company to work for. Today we’ll break down the leveling and career pathways at Amazon for a software engineer.
Why is leveling important?
Every company levels differently, and your level defines the scope of work that you perform in the team and influences your career path at a company. This determines whether you lead projects, strategy, and informs you what is needed to move up to the next level. Leveling is a combination of your past experience in your field, the sharpness you display in an interview and how you do on any technical tests throughout the interview process. While leveling is a science, most organizations don’t have a lot of formalized processes around leveling and it varies from department to company, so be sure to ask the recruiter or hiring manager to walk through the level you landed at and the expectations for moving to the next one.
What does leveling look like at Amazon?
The levels at Amazon ascend from SDE I (L4) all the way up to Distinguished Engineer (L10). For the purposes of this article, we'll look at the first four levels within the software engineering individual contributor organization.
SDE I (L4): This is a software engineer in the greater market, someone who usually has between one to three years of industry experience. In this level you will be responsible for some component work, you may improve features in tools & are responsible for solving problems across products. You will not likely feature lead in this level yet, but it is possible. You will work with design and product to improve features across Amazon’s line, and will troubleshoot bugs throughout the systems. There is some ambiguity in every level and sometimes this could be a new grad (if you have strong enough coding skills) and sometimes be more senior, just depending on how you compare to your peers in the greater team. There is also often some overlap in responsibilities to SDE II and will likely be an expectation to carry some of those in order to move to the next level. There is ambiguity in this level and is somewhat guided by you tackling a clearly defined problem set, but not implementation strategy and will likely require guidance from mentors and peers.
SDE II (L5): This is also a software engineer role, but more senior generally ranging from three to ten years of industry experience. You will be responsible for larger components, sets of features or mid-tier applications. This level still works closely with design and product to strategize forward. You will likely work with higher level stakeholders, on more critical contributions to the organization. This level will help more strategically with planning, reviews and proposing solutions to difficult problems. There is often ambiguity and overlap in both expectations and compensation in this level to both SDE I and SDE III depending on where on the seniority spectrum you end up falling. These bands are often large on purpose, so that there is a whole range of SDE II. There is ambiguity in this level but it is helped by a clear expectation of a defined technical strategy and leading with more autonomy, though component level design is not necessarily required at this level and you will likely have leads and other peers helping drive the overall vision and components.
SDE III (L6): This is a senior software engineer in the greater market, ranging from eight to ten years of industry experience. A senior engineer will lead feature sets, applications and critical product development work. This level will make business tradeoff decisions, often mentor others on the team, and lead large chunks of engineering work. You will start taking ownership of architecture, system thinking and design guidance. You will likely need to influence other teams and organizations to contribute to the work you’re pushing forward. This level is where engineering gets more strategic, team and business focused. There is often overlap here in expectations with both SDE II and Principal SDE, depending on how senior you are in the L6 band. In this level, business and technical strategy must be clearly defined and led, but the team technical direction won’t necessarily be your responsibility. You should be able to lead component level and technically complicated work with little guidance and a fairly high level of autonomy, but there is ambiguity between this and the principal level, so work with your manager to define your scope.
Principal SDE (L7): This level is a principal in the greater market (director on the management side) and lines up with the rest of FANG. Principal engineers are part of the technical leadership team, guiding and setting the standards for that engineering organization. This level is held accountable for overall architecture, business goals and will likely work with many teams to consult on overall engineering best practices. This level still involves hands on coding, but time spent will likely skew more to leadership, mentorship and creating overarching best practices within teams. There is often overlap with senior management roles in this level, and will likely hold higher expectations than any other individual contributor. This level delivers with complete independence and leads component level and team level direction, although the architectural strategy and problem set may not be clearly defined. It is a principal SDE’s responsibility to figure things out with a lot of ambiguity and little direction, making them a hands-on leader in the engineering organization.
How do I progress levels at Amazon?
Let’s start with SDE I to SDE II. I would highly suggest asking your manager and/or recruiter, as these guidelines will vary highly depending on team
In order to move up to an L5 at Amazon, you must demonstrate prowess in the following areas;
- Solid understanding of design principles & how to apply them
- Ability to work independently and create with solutions without direction
- Ability to work effectively in your team & bring out the best in others
- Focus on operational & code excellence, in code reviews & overall features
- Improving team’s development and testing practices
SDE II to SDE III
In order to become an SDE III, you must demonstrate mastery of the following;
- Leading the design, implementation & architecture of critical/large scale product work
- Thinking in terms of architecture and customer value, rather than just coding
- Influencing your and other teams technical and business strategy
- Actively participating in the hiring process for engineers
- Ability to work with higher level stakeholders and influence for your team and product
SDE III to Principal SDE
- Take the lead on design, implementation and effective delivery to customers
- Design and coding approach is noteworthy and innovative - you often spearhead new ways of doing things
- Your delivery of code and architecture sets the standard for the organization with a high focus on engineering excellence and innovation
- Actively recruiting for new software engineers and setting standards on effective technical challenges
- Mentorship of other teammates and cross teams, providing instructional direction for the greater engineering organization
- Participating with leadership in business and architectural strategy
Working with your manager (even if you’re a new hire) to understand exactly where you sit within the spectrum of your level will help you drive your career forward in meaningful ways. Ask for clear expectations for how to achieve your next level, whether that be on the individual contributor or management track. There is a heavy amount of ambiguity in levels themselves and progression tracks, and often is not enough to just review leveling guidelines. Your manager will be your advocate and also have a view on the other levels in different teams, enabling you to learn more about what’s really needed to progress meaningfully.
So what’s important in all this?
Having a clear path to your next step in your career is critical. Being aware of what level you’ve been offered at Amazon and what that means in terms of scope of work will help define where they see you in terms of the skill set spectrum. Though leveling at Amazon is unique to itself, there are a lot of parallels with the rest of the market and can help you understand where your skill level sits within the leveling hierarchy of FANG and the tech scene as a whole. Now you’re more equipped to take your career into your own hands, set clear expectations with your manager around what level you want to get to and provide value to both yourself and Amazon. Good luck!
For more details on negotiating offers with Amazon, see here.
About The Author
Kylie is a writer and educator with experience in hyper growth recruiting who specializes in writing and speaking about tech, ethical hiring practices, diversity, equity and inclusion. She has worked for Atlassian and Airbnb and has led product, design and leadership hiring.