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How to Formalize a Career Ladder

Career Path

9 March, 2021

Jeff Miller
Jeff Miller

Vice President, Engineering at Yello (formerly known as RECSOLU)

Jeff Miller, Senior Director of Platform Engineering at Yello, shares how using open-source career ladders can be a quick solution to formalize a career path for your engineers.

Problem

Many managers have the experience of joining a company with either no career ladder or an ill-defined and misaligned career ladder. As a result, people with different titles doing the same or similar jobs and people with the same titles but with different roles and responsibilities would be a common occurrence.

Actions taken

First off, I would look at the company values, and also department/team values if there are ones. Then I would meticulously search through a fairly large amount of open-source career ladders. Anyone can find online a great deal of career ladders shared by a number of well-established companies; Circle CI and Buffer’s career ladders have been among the most popular ones, but others are not lagging much behind (for more, visit: ([https://www.progression.fyi/])). Camile Fournier also published an example of career ladders in her famous book The Manager’s Path. I would take a quick scan through all of the available open-source ones and see which resonate with me in terms of the language they are using, a number of levels, etc.

All those career ladders are developed for specific companies’ needs and will differ in many aspects, most evidently in a number of levels that typically range from four to seven. Once I would identify how many levels my company needs, I would pick career ladders that resonate with me value-wise and tailor them to fit the same number of levels. If I like an open-source career ladder with five levels and my company plans on having four, I would condense down a level-column by one column and sort out which attributes would fall into which column.

If you already have a career ladder and people have their titles, focus on where you want the standards to be, not where specific people with those titles would fall into. You can either couch the person up into the level if you will set the bar higher than what they are performing with that title, or have a -- less-pleasant -- level setting conversation with them.

Lessons learned

  • Don’t try to rewrite the career ladder for people who are currently in the seats. I would write the ladders independently, envisioning an ideal situation where I would have to build the organization from scratch.
  • When you are creating a career ladder, you have to simultaneously think about how you will roll it out. You should be prepared to explain to the team why things are formalized the way they are, but also be able to anticipate their response and act accordingly.
  • Don’t just copy-paste other people’s ladders. Open-source career ladders should serve as an inspiration and starting point. Be transparent about where you took yours from and why you chose that specific one.

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