Engineering Career Ladders
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As engineering organizations grow and add more complexity with team members at different levels of experience, they also need to create clarity: the list of job levels, and what each role does. Done well, a career ladder can limit bias and provide a framework for hiring, paying, and promoting. Note: The articles below are often an introduction to the company's level guide, and the actual career ladder is a PDF or spreadsheet linked to from the article.
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Learn Engineering Career Ladders with the Practica AI CoachThe Practica AI Coach helps you improve in Engineering Career Ladders by using your current work challenges as opportunities to improve. The AI Coach will ask you questions, instruct you on concepts and tactics, and give you feedback as you make progress.
Intro: What Is a Software Engineering Career Ladder?A software engineering career ladder, also known as a career framework, is an organizational tool that provides a clear and consistent criterion for skills, achievements, and Compensation outcomes for engineers. Smruti Patel, an engineering manager at Stripe, says that it's essential in anchoring hiring rubrics, onboarding and managing expectations, performance evaluation, and making equitable Compensation outcomes. This tool is also pivotal in maintaining fairness, Transparency, and consistency within the firm. Each ladder level or point in the framework highlights traits and expectations, along with progression criteria to articulate Influence, scope, and impact. In addition, Lara Hogan, Kickstarter's VP of Engineering, explains that companies can have different paths like "makers" who focus on Software Architecture and results or "managers" who concentrate on team management and results. Michael White from Square argues that the career ladder is crucial in supporting engineers’ growth, allowing for consistent and fair evaluation and reward of engineers regardless of their team or background. However, according to Charity Majors of Honeycomb, employees should focus on the impact and discourage seeing the ladder as a checklist to obsess over. Majors also observes that companies can have different views on advancement. Some engineers might find it easier to advance in their careers at fast-growing companies, where everyone is stretched to their limits. Patience and understanding what needs to be done are key to reaching senior levels.
- Why you need an engineering ladder, and when to build one: Career paths, progression, promotionAs an engineering manager, an engineering ladder or career framework can help you build and lead high performing teams. It provides an objective yardstick to evaluate engineers' performance and impact, and compensate them accordingly. As your engineering organization grows from 20 to 200 to 2,000 engineers, an evolving engineering ladder becomes essential to maintain clarity, consistency and fairness in hiring, evaluating and rewarding engineers. A well-designed engineering ladder can foster an engineering culture that enables high performance by providing Transparency, feedback and a roadmap for growth.
Common Engineering Career Ladders Challenges
These are common challenges people face when gaining expertise in engineering career ladders. Tackling these challenges head-on can help you learn this skill quicker.I'm a software engineer at a fast-growing startup. As the company scales, I'm finding it challenging to navigate the engineering career ladder and understand the expectations for each level. I feel uncertain about what I need to focus on to advance my career. How can I get clarity on the expectations and identify the right things to focus on?I'm director of engineering at a mid-sized tech company. We recently implemented a new engineering career ladder to support our engineers. Some members of the team are frustrated because they feel that the criteria for promotion are unclear and subjective. How can I make the promotion criteria more transparent and objective so that engineers have a clear understanding of how to progress in their careers?Work on your own challenge with the Practica AI Coach
What Are the Standard Career Levels in Engineering?The first step in understanding what goes in to an engineering career ladder framework is to understand engineering Job Titles and roles.
- Software Roles and TitlesThis article shares a great introductory overview to engineering positions. Eric provides general guidelines with the caveat that the details of the roles can vary from company to company. • Engineering Fellow • CEO • CTO • CIO/Chief Digital Officer/Chief Innovation Officer • VP of Engineering/Director of Engineering • Chief Architect • Software Architect • Engineering Manager • Technical Lead/Engineering Lead/Team Lead • Principal Software Engineer • Senior Software Engineer • Software Engineer • Junior Software Engineer • Intern Software Engineer
Role Progression of Software EngineersThe role progression of an engineer varies based on various factors. First, the organization's size Influences Career Development. Smaller engineering organizations, as Smruti Patel observes, use a more personalized understanding of the individual's strengths, but as teams scale up, this understanding dilutes, necessitating a more formalized system of defining objectives, assessing performance, and hiring new team members. Team expansion also complicates defining roles, evaluating performance, and hiring new talent, as different projects may have varying scopes and complexity. Charity Majors advises not placing too much importance on titles and levels when making career decisions. She advocates for career objectives, performance improvement strategies, and making growth opportunities a regular topic in 1:1 discussions to ensure clear communication about expectations and challenges. She also indicates leveling is easier in fast-growing companies due to the abundance of work and stress-induced learning experiences, yet this can also be stressful. Michael White advises against promoting engineers to managers based on years of experience, highlighting the importance of demonstrated skills and impact. Ultimately, career progression in engineering roles requires the Alignment of individual and organizational goals, effective communication, and an inclusive environment that recognizes and nurtures talent.
How To Build an Engineering Career LadderThis section provides guides to building and launching a career ladder.
- Building an Engineering Ladder at GlossierGlossier created an engineering ladder to provide structure as their engineering team grows. The ladder aims to provide a clear career path and progression for engineers as individual contributors or managers. They structured the ladder based on research of other companies' ladders but tailored it to Glossier's culture and values. The ladder maps their Company Values to specific skills to make progress more measurable. They hope the ladder will provide Transparency around what it takes to advance, improve retention, and serve as a testing ground for the rest of the company. So far, feedback on the ladder has been positive as it provides additional structure and Transparency around career progression.
- An impact-based level system for engineering organizationsElliot suggests defining levels based on the results an employee generates rather than how many people they manage or how many lines of code they write. He describes a system built around the following six levels of impact: • Level 1 — Scoped Tasks • Level 2 — Scoped Projects • Level 3 — Unscoped Projects • Level 4 — Team Force Multiplier • Level 5 — Group Force Multiplier • Level 6 — Company Force Multiplier
- How to create a career ladder for your software engineering teamsIn this 30-minute talk, Marco explains why engineering orgs need a career ladder, three basic frameworks for creating a career ladder, and tips for rolling one out.
How to Roll Out an Engineering Career Ladder
- Job Title Leveling That Worked For UsJason walks through the story of launching leveling to FloSports' engineering team. Interestingly, during the launch they asked engineers to rank themselves according to the new framework, and the self-rankings aligned 100% with where managers placed them. This produced a high degree of team buy-in.
Examples of Engineering Career Ladders From Leading CompaniesLeading companies have established career ladders for their engineers. These ladders typically include multiple levels of advancement, with specific requirements and responsibilities for each level. Companies may also offer Mentorship and training programs to support career growth.
- Sharing Our Engineering LadderThis is Rent the Runway's career ladder, one of the first to be publicly released back in 2015. Camille initially used a ladder based on one from Foursquare that was simple, but it caused confusion and debate among engineers. To resolve this, she rewrote the ladder with more specific criteria to make it helpful for evaluating candidates and determining promotion. The revised ladder has been useful for reviews and hiring. It groups skills into: Technical Skills, Getting Stuff Done, Impact, and Communication & Leadership.
- Square’s Growth Framework for Engineers and Engineering ManagersSquare's engineering ladder defines levels based on scope, complexity and impact, not years of experience. Two distinct tracks exist for engineers (L3 to L9) and engineering managers (L5 to L9). Promotions occur when an engineer demonstrates performance at the next level, as determined through a structured review process. The levels and principles evolve over time through feedback from engineering teams to best represent Square's diverse engineering disciplines and needs. IC skill categories include Technical Execution, Ownership, Collaboration, and Team Building.
- Patreon Engineering LevelsThe Patreon team outlines common expectations and examples of an engineer’s skills and responsibilities at each level, based on technical skills, execution, collaboration, Influence, and maturity. As engineers progress, they are expected to expand their technical proficiency, scope larger solutions, provide helpful Code Reviews, estimate tasks accurately, communicate complex issues clearly, mentor junior engineers, have broader impact, and build consensus. Higher levels focus on Leadership, strategic visioning, planning complex projects, communicating with diverse audiences, and having company-wide impact by advancing Patreon technically and affecting business success.
- Spotify Technology Career StepsSpotify technically has a matrix of skills across levels, but takes a different approach to what each level is, which they call "Steps": Individual, Chapter & Squad, Tribe & Guild, Company.
- Engineering Ladders at MeetupMeetup recently updated their engineering career ladder to better align with the company's values and management approach. The ladder now has two paths: Makers who focus on software development and Managers who focus on team management. The new ladder levels match the company's new performance rubric and use language that reinforces Meetup's focus on setting clear expectations, making courageous decisions, and providing actionable feedback. While some roles on the new ladder do not yet have full descriptions, the updated ladder is meant to evolve as the company grows.
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