How to get promoted to senior software engineer

Feeling the mid-level software engineer plateau? Here's how to overcome it.

How to get promoted to senior software engineer

The mid-level software engineer career plateau

Does this sound familiar? You start your career all guns blazing. As a junior your learning curve is steep but your climb happens quickly. 

In around 18-24 months you move to mid-level. Your sense of progress is real! Your impact is greater, your skill set is growing. You feel like you’ve accomplished growth. 

And then … you wait … and you wait…. and somehow get stuck. 

One day you realise that the next step feels elusive, your once fast progression has stalled… or stopped? Some of your peers are getting promoted, but you’re not. Why? Is it down to tenure? Is it a lack of skills on your part? Are you worried you’ll have to ‘play politics’ to get ahead?

If it's unclear to you what you need to do to get promoted, you are not alone. 

The importance of clearly defined career pathways

More than ever, having a clearly defined career pathway is what software engineers want. It improves engagement and employee retention. When you have a clear picture of how you can grow in your current company, you’re less likely to be enticed to the greener grass of another company.

We also know that women in tech experience an even slower journey to senior roles: 2-3 years slower, in fact (according to this McKinsey study). This is known as the broken rung.  This unequal access to career growth opportunities is one of the leading causes of women leaving the tech industry.

Many companies are yet to establish clear career progression frameworks specifically for software engineers. Those annually enforced HR review rubrics can feel at best pointless, and at worst an administration nightmare adding more hours to already over-extended days. They provide little guidance as to what you should be doing in your day to day to be considered high-performing or to get to the next level. 

Practical steps to get promoted to senior software engineer

What are some practical steps to get promoted to senior software engineer?

Step one: Find out about your company’s promotion cycle. 

Generally speaking, promotions to senior engineer roles are not awarded on an adhoc basis, even if someone is deemed capable to step up. Senior-level promotions may happen only once or twice a year. 

Find out when your company’s next promotion cycle is and use the time between now and then to get prepared. (If it's next week and you’re not quite ready, you might just have to aim for the next one!)

Step two: Talk to your boss. 

Many software engineers believe their boss will intuitively know they want to be promoted, particularly if they have a good relationship. Some software engineers feel it’s rude or presumptuous to ask, or that their boss will tell them when it's time and naturally advocate for them. 

That might be the case, but let's be proactive and not assume here. Your boss is not a mind reader! If you are nervous about broaching the issue, you could find a mentor or a coach who can help you to take that first step. Or reach out to someone you know who was recently promoted and ask them how they first started the conversation with their manager. 

Male software engineer wearing a blue shirt and jeans smiling and  talking to his manager, who is wearing a red top.

Send your boss a short slack message or email simply saying you would like to talk about your pathway to Senior Engineer in your next one-to-one. That’s it! How easy is that!? Then, in that one-on-one ask the following questions:

  • What skills and behaviours do I need to demonstrate to be considered at a senior level?
  • Where are my gaps, and what can I do to fill them?

Step three: Benchmark your skills, behaviours and contributions. 

If your company has an Engineering Growth Framework, this is your greatest ally when it comes to demonstrating your contributions. 

If your company does not have a standardised framework, you may find yourself in a more challenging position, but you can still take a systematic approach to prepare for your promotion. 

Tools like Kaleida benchmark software engineering skills to industry standards and can be used to chart your career as an individual. Make an agreement with your boss that you will follow this tool to chart your growth.

Devote some time in your calendar to do your initial benchmarking exercise. The more effort you put in, the greater the return. And once you’ve done the initial work, tracking your growth from here on becomes much more incremental and iterative, requiring fewer than 10 minutes a week.

Find examples from your work that demonstrate you are performing strongly at your current level, or even at the next level. Write the examples in a way that demonstrates the impact the tasks had – not simply what you did. No point linking to a GitHub repo if your manager’s manager will not get the context of your PR or why it was important. Writing your examples in this way is known as an impact statement

Examples of impact statements

Unsure of how to write an impact statement? Here are some examples.

Action: Led project to implement CI/CD pipeline.

Impact: Reduced deployment time for new features by 50%. 

Action: Started a new lunch and learn club every month and documented learnings and best practices on team wiki.

Impact: Increased inter-team collaboration and supported junior team members to build skills and confidence.

Action: Supported team lead with the implementation of ‘tech debt days’ to help refactor old code and update outdated libraries.

Impact: Reduced tech debt and improved system performance by 25%.

Seniors go beyond the technical skills

Unless you used a tool like Kaleida, there is a good chance many rubrics you’ve encountered focus only on the technical contributions and overlook a whole bunch of activities you do to support and strengthen your team. 

Include a list of all these things you do beyond your technical contributions. Once upon a time we may have called these ‘soft skills’. Really, they are core skills that are vital for the success of software teams! Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

When you are done, talk through your impact statements with your manager during a one-to-one and see if their assessment lines up with yours. Calibrate with your manager if needed.

Step four: Write (and follow!) a Career Growth Plan 

Based on the gaps you found in your benchmarking, write a clear action plan to grow in the areas you need to. Spend the time until the promotion cycle taking on opportunities to step up and round out your skills.

Find projects you can take on that push you beyond your current scope of impact. For example:

  • Only work with those in your team? Mentor people in other departments
  • Only work on your team’s system? Find an opportunity to work on a cross-team project.
  • Want to get better at talking to senior stakeholders? Start with inviting them to a coffee! 
Female software engineer sitting on a green plush couch  having a coffee and casual chat in a cafe setting with a senior employee in their organisation

These steps might push you out of your comfort zone. But that’s OK, because without some discomfort there is no growth.

Once again, share this with your manager and get their input and ideas. They will be your advocate for success, and can keep an eye out for stretch opportunities for you. They can also be a sounding board to debrief when some projects don’t go as well as you’d hoped. 

Step five: Get feedback (but really…get testimonials) 

Purple art paper ripped to reveal the text ‘feedback’ printed on a sheet of white paper underneath.

Managers love to know other people agree with what you are saying, and that other people are tooting your horn, too. Ask three peers if they could give you feedback (or a testimonial) on how you did. Do your friends a favour and make this super simple for them. Give them some context and guidelines rather than an open request that requires a lot of thought.

Don't say: can you give me some feedback on how I have done over the past 6 months? 

Do say: I am gathering evidence for promotion consideration. Can you give me some feedback on the SRE uplift project I ran last month? How do you think it went? What could I have done better? 

Step six: Write your Promotion Calibration Pack. 

Not sure what this is? Your boss knows. These form the basis of a highly subjective, favouring-the-loudest-voices approach to promotion decisions that seems to grace all fine technical institutions. 

Your promotion often comes down to how well your boss can navigate this political quagmire rather than your actual strength and contributions. Make their job easier. By providing a detailed promotion pack, you can show your plan for growth, and demonstrate how you can accomplish it within a realistic timeframe. (And remember your impact statements!)

Female software engineer sitting on a blue armchair smiling and looking at her computer. Behind her is a screenshot of a report on a career growth platform. Kaleida logo alongside the text ‘career growth made easy’.
Making preparing for your promotion a breeze with Kaleida’s Promotion-readiness Pack

Step seven: Work with your boss to put you forward for promotion

Chances are, this will require some managing up on their part. Check in regularly on the progress. Once you’ve clearly demonstrated your value to the business, your boss knows that you are an attrition risk if your career stagnates. And their boss will likely know it too. Make a note to discuss how the promotion process is progressing during your regular one-to-one.

What happens if I’ve done all of this, and am still consistently denied a promotion?

Sometimes, you can do all you absolutely can and still not find yourself progressing. The founders of Kaleida run several communities for women in tech, supporting members in overcoming the broken rung in their career progression. 

Many community members share that they have received unhelpful feedback from their managers, which wave red flags of systemic bias and microaggression. 

Red-flag feedback 

R:ed flag on a push pin against a light purple-grey background.]

If you’re receiving these types of feedback, this could be a serious sign you’re in a toxic environment that isn’t conducive to your growth and wellbeing. 

  • "You are just not technical enough."
  • "I just don't see you as a senior." 
  • "You just don't have what it takes."
  • "You need to speak up and be more assertive." 
  • "But you are so good at communication, why don’t you move into the BA/scrum master/people leader role?"
  • "I just can’t understand your girly voice. "

Remember, it’s not bad or wrong to receive constructive feedback. It’s when the feedback is based on biases, lack of objective data or overly focused on behaviours and personal attributes that it becomes harmful. 

If you find yourself in this situation, you will need to put in a whole lot more energy and effort into achieving your promotion at your current workplace.  You should also consider if this is an environment you want to stay in, as it could harm your everyday health and productivity; yet alone set you up for career advancement.

An easier path to promotion may be to seek an employer that uses objective criteria for assessment and promotions (and who has run unconscious bias training!). 

Ask yourself if it's worth the battle, when there are plenty of great managers out there who would be happy to offer you a senior position and invest in your career growth!

Taking action as an aspiring senior engineer

If there’s one thing I want you to take from this article, it’s that you don’t have to navigate the promotion path on your own

Kaleida is here as your co-pilot, with a platform that helps advance your career by making it easy to benchmark your skills to industry best practices, identify your areas of growth, and build simple habits of recording your achievements to demonstrate your value and impact. 

Ready to make your next career move with confidence? Start your journey with Kaleida today.