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The Pros and the Cons of a Career Ladder

Handling Promotion
Juniors

21 June, 2021

Vishal Verma
Vishal Verma

Engineering Manager at Netflix

Vishal Verma, Engineering Manager at Netflix, discusses whether career ladders promote or inhibit growth.

Problem

So many people think of growth strictly in terms of promotions. There is this ladder in mind, sometimes one that the company itself sets. For engineers, it’s levels, III, IV, V, and so on.

Most engineers come out of college, join a company, and expect to progress linearly, getting to a point where they plateau. Now that I’ve seen it from multiple angles and at many companies, I’ve begun to learn about the pros and cons of each approach.

Actions taken

The company does what’s good for the company. It tries to do what’s good for you, as well, but those two interests do not always match. There are pressures from the business side of the matter. Most of the time, this creates a lot of competition. You can’t promote everybody. Everybody’s got to best their peers, so people fight for things. It becomes a zero-sum game.

What the company does kind of sets your mindset. You automatically begin to pursue those sorts of things. You have a set of defined responsibilities. You start to do those things while also starting to think about what the next thing that you should be doing is. What can I do to demonstrate that I am able to perform at that next level?

You start to do that slowly, and then you get promoted, the process beginning anew. One of the pros is that there is this certainty. People like certainty. Here is the criteria. It’s all laid out very clearly. This pro can turn into a con as your company grows, however. If you spoon-feed people too much, they become dependent on that. That’s not good for them in the long term. It discourages independent thinking.

I became more and more cognizant of these things when I joined my current company. We don’t have a career ladder. Everybody exists on the same level. It creates a very different dynamic. Once we hire somebody, we won’t have to force growth on them. It will be self-driven and based on what skills they bring to the company.

Growth is not a promotion, and it does not look the same for everybody. What do I really want to achieve here? That shift in paradigm requires a very different type of thinking. You have to figure out where you have to go.

Lessons learned

  • You want your people to consciously be thinking about these things. You cannot just bring somebody in and have them do whatever. An active engagement is needed there.
  • As a manager, you need to create a conversation around these things. Make it comfortable for people to bring them up. If you give people enough of that psychological safety, they will be much more able to learn and to grow on the job.
  • Growth looks very different for everybody. Some people want to go deep. Other people want to go broad. Others want to focus on leadership and impact. Talking to people will help you figure these things out.

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