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Building An Engineering Career Ladder

Scaling Team
Personal Growth
Internal Communication
Career Path

18 April, 2018

Varun Srinivasan

Varun Srinivasan

Director of Engineering at Coinbase

Varun Srinivasan discusses how he went about developing an engineering career ladder that created a clear growth path for an engineering organization.

Problem

We had a company-wide career ladder, but no engineering specific ones. This was fine in the early days, but as we grew a common pain point was lack of clarity on what people should be focussing on. This is not an uncommon problem - people want clarity on what their company values, so they can hone their craft accordingly. But you can't just take a career ladder from another company and drop it in yours - what works for a Google will not work for a 100 person startup, because you value different things from your engineers.

Actions taken

The first thing you need to understand is what creates value for your business. Study levelling rubrics at other companies for inspiration, but don't copy them. The best way to understand value is to talk to people. We talked to managers and individual contributors and asked them what traits they looked for. Broadly speaking, there were five categories that people cared about - scope of work, quality of work, ability to execute efficiently, communication skills and the ability to support others. We then drilled down into specific examples, understand how the scope of someone's work should change as they progressed through their careers.
Then we looked at other companies, especially ones that were similar to us and that we wanted to hire from. How did they create structure for their engineers? What did they value in their top performers? This helped provide a framework in which to create our rubric, and make it easier for people joining the company to understand where they fit in. We chose a dual career ladder - one where you can choose to grow as an individual contributor or a manager. This has been tried and battle tested at other companies, and we saw no reason to innovate here. Defining the rubric for your career ladder can be very challenging. If the qualifications are too high level, people are unsure about how to apply them and bias creeps into the organization. If they're too specific, then they can become irrelevant quickly and not very useful. We struck a balance by identifying high level attributes, but providing specific examples at each career level for each category. This gave people tangible projects that they could relate to, while also providing broad guidance that could be applied across multiple engineering disciplines.

Lessons learned

It's critical to involve everybody in the process. While there should ultimately be a single decision maker, this needs to be something everyone buys into, so you should aim for a good mix of junior IC's, senior IC's, and Engineering Managers when developing the ladder. It's also going to take a long time to get this right, so invest early and be prepared to iterate as your company grows.

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