Building a Practical Career Ladder for Engineers
17 June, 2021
Several years ago, I actually didn’t believe that engineering teams needed career ladders, especially when you’re talking about a start-up. Why would a small group of hardcore engineers need hierarchies when the point of a startup is to build something great together, free from rules and processes?
Over time, we started noticing a few different problems. One challenge was ensuring that the team understood that they were being given fair compensation and raises; another was knowing the best way to help our engineers improve themselves. When people had questions about their future with the company, being able to have those conversations proved to be challenging without some sort of framework on how to think about it.
Before establishing a ladder, I was already having frequent advancement conversations with engineers. We were always finding ways to uplevel their skills and increase their scope of responsibility. Despite these conversations, many engineers would point out that their careers felt stagnant. They were having a lot of fun building things, but they found themselves thinking: what is the next big thing for me? How can I grow?
Worst of all, my engineers started feeling like the only way to move ahead was to become managers at the company. Although the responsibility of becoming better a engineer lies with every individual, I started realizing that some engineers often overlook the importance of improving the ability to influence others to support a proposal, of being pragmatic, and also of being able to tie their technical work to company impact that made a difference. That’s when I realized that, in fact, a career ladder might actually be the solution that we needed in light of all of these problems that we were having.
We built out the ladder by getting together and deciding which values and behaviors were most important to all of us at each level. We then shared these values with the entire engineering team for feedback. Getting everyone’s buy-in was critical; the first version went through many modifications after engineers provided feedback that the ladder emphasized soft-skills and breadth of impact too much, with little place for technical growth. This feedback initiated an important conversation about how to reward deep technical contributions.
We decided on a two-ladder system, which is a must for modern teams. One ladder is for technical leaders (individual contributors) and the other is for people managers. Many engineers pursue people management, believing that this role will allow them to influence the technical direction of the company. They don’t realize that the most senior individual contributors lead by influence and set the technical direction from where they stand, while managers support the vision by supporting people and processes. Being explicit about this distinction helped us communicate and create excitement about continuing to grow as engineers technically.
- Engineering ladders are only as useful as you allow them to be. Transparency has to come first. We were very direct with which salary bands would be associated with each level. When it came to making our hiring and promotion decisions, we enforced the ladders even if that meant having to miss out on potential new hires at times. You have to honor the system or it will not be effective.
- When we first introduced the ladder, we had to decide whether to make each person’s level publicly available so that other engineers outside of our organization could see. We worried that public titles could make more junior engineers feel that their opinion was less important than the opinions of more senior engineers. In the end, we decided to make them public in order to foster a culture that empowers people to speak up in both directions, regardless of title.
- Engineers like explicitness. This ladder was our way of making their objectives clear. However, these behaviors get more subjective and intangible for the highest levels in the ladder. We learned it’s important to constantly reinforce to engineers that the ladder is only one tool for career growth, and should be complemented by others such as seeking constant feedback from their peers, finding mentorship opportunities inside and outside the company, and working on concrete plans for growth with their managers.
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