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I think you are right that seniority at the specific company plays a large role.

Anecdotally, I was told that GitHub does not hire from the outside above the senior level. Going from senior to principal engineer is expected to happen inside the company.

Which is interesting to me, because once you get to staff inside such a company, how would you move to a different company? Are you locked to the company because any other move would be a drastic reduction in comp (because it would be a drastic reduction in value)?

Or are there transferable skills that are valuable enough that a transfer could happen at roughly the same comp level?

I don't know but this is an interesting question in terms of human capital and labor mobility.

Pay bands are usually wide. You might find a role that's a step down title-wise but a sideways step comp-wise, though of course that's less likely the more you have in current comp. The top companies like their golden handcuffs.

You have to think about what you want to be doing. I think a strategy that's (company) tribal-knowledge dependent is a risky one, since it's going to be very hard to transfer. Industry-level tribal knowledge can be much more valuable, since you could move to competitors. Technical domain-level knowledge can be even valuable still, but if you're doing more soft-skill architectural guidance and mentoring you might still run into a shortage of companies willing to pay the same premium you're currently getting for that. Some companies may not need it, others may need hands on speed more at the moment. But in that case, they probably do need soft skill technical expertise + management, which at a small, young company is going to be much different than big-co management anyway, so that's an option too.

Staff/principal SWE compensation is the premium an org pays for your tribal knowledge, and arguably non-transferable. “Golden handcuffs”.

Outside the big companies in Silicon Valley there are no golden handcuffs for engineers. With each promotion you make just a few percent more.

This is not true in engineering contractors for aerospace in Europe or the USA, and it's also totally not true in the oil industry worldwide and in some of the big manufacturing firms. You can get double digit percent promotions by getting into roles that require a lot of travel, dealing with big outsourced contracts, have cross-country responsibilities, or other particular skills or layers of hardened skin that are hard to come by and at a premium.

I'm not sure about that. I moved to Austin three years ago and I have doubled my salary twice since I got here.

It depends probably where you are starting from.

This wasn't true for me in Australia. All my pay raises and promotions were double-digit percentages.

The bay area does have very big handcuffs, though.

At that point you would probably move into consulting.

Senior levels often have pretty wide bands, partially due to this. If you're moving to an organization that hires as senior, you'll almost certainly be able to negotiate your comp pretty far up

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