Technical recruiters unavoidably will run into current or former Microsoft engineers, especially on the West Coast. Software development engineers (SDE) at Microsoft are grouped based on an internal title and level system. Here is a quick walk-through of how Microsoft ranks their software engineers (technical individual contributors).
- Level 59 – Straight out of school with an undergraduate degree.
- Level 60 – Straight out of school with a master’s degree or college grads with some experience.
SDE II band:
- Level 61 & 62 – Straight out of school with a PhD or others with at least 5-7 years of industry experience.
Senior SDE band:
- Level 63 & 64 – People with at least 7-10 years of experience. Their work is expected to set direction for the team.
Principal SDE band:
- Level 65, 66, 67 – People not only with significant professional experience, but also with proven track record of shipping large, complex software and leading development teams. Their work impacts their division.
- Level 68, 69, 70 – A tiny group of people. Their work has business impact at the company level for Microsoft. Each year, there are very limited number of spots at this level open up within each division.
Microsoft SDEs’ compensation is determined by their levels, not titles (such as “Group”, “Lead”, etc.). There are some vague HR guidelines to bench mark SDEs in different bands. As a general rule of thumb, here are some examples of how the scope of work changes for software engineers in different bands:
- SDE: You will be assigned simple features to work on. Typically, these features are well understood and have been implemented similarly before. Most of the work is a matter of modifying code or filling in detailed code. Your mandate is “Don’t burn down the house” and to learn the ropes (i.e. how things are done in the group).
- SDE II: You will be responsible for a set of related features, or parts of a project that are well-known and well-defined. You’re expected to own and execute this set of features end-to-end, with some guidance. The work is mostly about executing, not creating new solutions.
- Senior SDE: The jump from SDE II to Senior SDE is non-trivial, or even difficult sometimes. You’re expected to independently own an entire project that could be fairly complex. The projects are often vaguely defined, with plenty of ambiguities. You, as a senior level engineer, should be able to “figure things out” to come to a good end-to-end solution. Issues they need to think about include “What kind of architecture would work the best?”, “What’s the efficiency or complexity of our solution?”, or “Can we delivery on time?” Good examples of the scope of work for Senior SDEs include:
- chart integration for Word
- SmartArt plugin for PowerPoint
- compatibility mode for IE
- Principal Dev: Jumping from Senior SDE to Principal level is one of the most difficult things to do at Microsoft. You’re expected to be a true technical leader and provide your group/division with technical directions at a strategic level and improve the team’s productivity or work quality by at least 10x. Your manager won’t be telling you what to do because your job is to decide what the group should focus on. Here are some possible projects for Principal SDEs:
- Extensibility feature of Word
- presentation and formatting for PowerPoint
- Partner: The impact level of your work is not only product-wide, but it also spans across multiple products. Your work has direct and visible impact to Microsoft’s business and technology. As a partner-level individual contributor, you are likely to be one of a handful of architects for a major Microsoft product, such as Bing, Xbox, SQL Server, etc. You make strategic contributions by providing technical leadership. You get to think about future architecture, cross product alignment, and technology innovation for key Microsoft products.
Generally speaking, it’s a lot harder to get promotions that cross bands (SDE to SDE II to Senior to Principal) than it is to get promotions within the bands, and the difficulty level grows exponentially at each band. It’s not uncommon to see individual contributor career stops at level 63 or 64. This means principal+ level engineers are the “super-stars” at Microsoft.
Special thanks to Aaron Khoo (@aaronkhoo on Twitter), Director of Engineering at 9Slides.com, and a former Principal Dev Lead at Microsoft, and Praveen Seshadri, CEO of 1Track.com and former Partner Architect at Microsoft, for kindly sharing their experience and knowledge of Microsoft (1999-2012) to make this blog possible.