What It Takes to Earn a $1.5 Million Salary at Google

Google has a reputation for paying technologists a lot of money, particularly highly specialized employees such as A.I. researchers. But what does it take to unlock truly epic pay at the company?

Higher compensation, of course, is linked to seniority just as much as specialization (and the two are often heavily linked). According to levels.fyi, which crowdsources salary data from the biggest tech companies, those Googlers at the L7 level (i.e., senior staff software engineer) can earn an annual salary of up to $270,650 per year, coupled with $406,100 in stock options and a bonus of $81,900. Once you ascend to the level of Principal Engineer, payouts can top a million dollars annually.

That all sounds great, but what does it take to operate at such a high level within the Google hierarchy? Blind (which surveys anonymous-but-verified technologists on a range of issues) recently spoke with an (anonymous) director of engineering at Google. This 16-year veteran of the search-engine giant claimed that they oversaw a team of 150 engineers and earned some $1.5 million per year.

As you might expect, it’s important to interact well with your colleagues—there’s no room for “brilliant jerks” within a team expected to operate at peak performance. While technical skills are prized, “soft skills” such as empathy and communication play an equally crucial role, especially as you migrate into management. “A good engineer is not the smartest, but the one who uplifts the team, understands what managers want, and is a great peer and report to work with,” this director told Blind’s audience. 

When you’re overseeing dozens—or even hundreds—of highly qualified technologists, the ultimate goal is to create a team capable of self-reliance. By hiring well, coaching effectively, and delegating responsibility, a manager can craft such a team (although it may take quite a bit of time and effort).  

In an interesting twist, the director also cautioned against excessive specialization: “Unless you are really deep into a particular technology (AI, ML, hardware, etc.), it’s almost always better to be a generalist.” Those who eventually want to manage teams would do well to learn as much as possible about planning, talent management, and the principles of effective leadership. 

Even the most well-compensated Google employee has quite a bit to go before they reach the level of CEO Sundar Pichai, who earned an eye-popping $280.9 million in 2019 alone, as well as roughly $1 billion in stock grants over a 10-year period. 

4 Responses to “What It Takes to Earn a $1.5 Million Salary at Google”

  1. Jake_Leone

    Engineering is tough, for many management is a great way to relieve themselves from having to actually write code.

    Look I code in Java and C++. Can my manager do that? No way. He doesn’t understand any of the details. All my manager understands is this:

    – Evaluate candidates, by getting the engineers to interview the candidates and provide quick summaries (like yes or no on a candidate). I know this because we get a lot of incompetents that meet a certain stereotype.

    – Is the software working? Get the engineers to provide a simplified report of what is and isn’t working. If it isn’t working, get the engineers to say what they need to get it to work.

    It’s management, they do people, not skills. Engineers do the skills.

    Steve Jobs did do some engineering things on the design side. He did test the product in a black box manner. He did work related to requirements gathering. To that extent, Steve Jobs was an engineer. But that was what he learned to do early on. He was actually pitiful in soft skills. There are numerous incidents where he completely failed on soft skills (or was the victim of people expert in soft skills).

    If Steve Job were at Google, he would probably stop 80% of the projects there. Reassign engineers to work on a smaller set of core development goal. He would spinoff the self driving car division.

    All that said, would that be better? For Google share holders, yes it would be. For Google’s market dominance, probably so. For Google engineers, well it would be sad for many, they would lose their project funding. The soft skills at Google are obviously deployed to babying projects that won’t add much to bottom line, or will be taken up by other independent and focused companies.

    Tiktok is encroaching on Youtube. Facebook basically gutted any chance Google had at Social media. Tesla has semi-autonomous vehicles. Tesla is working on robots. SpaceX is leading the commercial launch business.

    Smaller focused companies are doing better than Google. Google is making money from its cash cow, search. And search hasn’t really upgraded much at Google. I think that’s a huge vulnerability for Google.

    What might hurt Google on Search, would be a search and procure/create engine. Such an engine would take a lot of focus to create. Some AI companies have this. Imagine if I can search for what I want, if unavailable, can there be a way to one-off easy free items (fully productized imagery and/or software), followed up with possible custom product creation (micro services).

    More focused companies could do.

    Fortunately for Google, Amazon is also very defocused. Other players don’t really have this combination.

    It will just take a focused player to off Google in search. And that focus has to be on production+search.