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Career & Employment Opportunities

Creating a career ladder for engineers – Marco Rogers | #LeadDevNewYork


Morning, everybody! Can you hear me okay?
I’ll get my water set up. I am Marco Rogers, and I’m gonna talk about building a career
ladder for engineers. But just a heads up really quick. I have a lot to say on this
topic, and yet we only have 30 minutes. I made a choice that I want to stuff a lot into
the slides so that people who want to follow up and spend more time with the content can
be there. So it might feel like we’re moving through the slides relatively quickly. This
is something I’m experimenting with. You all are the guinea pigs. I apologize. But let’s
go. Clicker. Yeah. There we go. I let my wife
Luce put some slick design on these slides. If you let your partner do your slides, she
might put your face on it. (laughter) That’s something that makes you self-conscious…
Just know that that may happen to you. But I have created a career ladder at a couple
of companies now. And rolled them out successfully, and I wanted to basically come in and share
some of my experience with that. Talk about, like, why you might want to do that. And give
you a lot of tidbits about where it can go wrong or things you want to be considerate
about. And I kind of threw that last bullet on there just to kind of get a temperature
for the room, right? So before I became a manager, I actually never worked at a place
that had a career ladder. Is that true of anybody in the room? You just got hired, and
they paid you money? Maybe you even got raises? But they couldn’t tell you where you were
going. Right? And you maybe even didn’t have a title or anything like that. That’s super,
super common. And so that’s also kind of what we’re gonna
get into. Is like: Why you would want to do this, and how it can be helpful and effective.
So breaking this topic down was difficult. But I decided I wanted you to walk away with
three main takeaways. I’ve organized these loosely, based on kind of talking about the
why of career ladders, talking about the what of career ladders, and maybe demystifying
them a little bit, and then a lot about the how, which I kind of almost called like the
WTF. But we’re gonna kind of get into some of the things that come after you create a
career ladder. So let’s kind of jump into that. The first
one I wanted to start off with: A bold statement, kind of controversial statement. And that’s
that there’s no such thing as a flat organization. I moved to the Bay Area in about 2011. And
the company that I worked at there is called Yammer. That’s where I stepped into the management
role first, about nine years ago, or eight years ago, something like that. And at that
time, it was very common and even kind of expected that organizations wanted to be flat.
They would tell you: Yeah, we maintain a flat organization. And they would even say that,
like it was a good thing. Like they were helping you out. Oh, you don’t have to worry about
titles. Right? And so I wanted to start with this to say that I would like to influence
all of us to kind of move away from that. And there’s lots of reasons for it. But having
a flat organization is this idea that people don’t spend time talking about or thinking
about levels and promotions, because there’s so many other things to do. And I’m gonna kind of paint the opposite picture
of that. There’s no kind of flat organization. There’s only organizations that have not yet
invested in making their career path visible to their engineers. There are things happening
at your company. People get promoted. People move. But you haven’t given them any information
about how that happens. So… Let’s kind of talk about the why. Right? First and foremost,
there’s a lot of leaders and managers in this room, and I would bet money that a lot of
you are talking about how hard it is to hire. And a lot of you are talking about how any
time someone decides to move on from the organization, it can hurt pretty badly, right? Projects
get kind of stalled. And hiring is expensive. You kind of have to refill those positions.
And so this idea of managing your hiring and your retention is a big topic. And I’m making
the statement that I think bringing a career ladder, like an effective and robust career
ladder, into your organization, can help you with many, many aspects of those kinds of
problems. Okay? So if you are kind of thinking about why you
would want to do this, you might want to start with what kind of impact do you want to have?
My primary reason for wanting a career ladder, like I brought it into the last two companies
that I’m at, is to have an impact on hiring and retention. To build a team, build an awesome
team, I have to get them to work for me. And I have to get them to stay. Right? Because
if they don’t stay, you’re constantly building a team. And if you’re constantly building
a team, you’re probably not building a product, which is kind of a problem. So let’s unpack
this a little bit. You may have these goals in mind when you’re
thinking about what impact you expect to have with the career ladder. Engagement is something
we talk about a lot. I’m gonna dive into that. Maybe you’re looking to give people that visible
path I was talking about. Maybe you’re focused on retention because you’re dealing with high
turnover. Hiring is a big deal. It’s becoming more and more a critical function of the organization.
You want to make more consistent offers to people. You care about pay equity, and you
want to make sure that people in the same role are making the same money. Or you’re
trying to grow the team, turn them into more kind of high performing teams, you want to
give your managers more tools to give them better feedback, and help them with performance
reviews. So this slide is about thinking about what
your goals are, before you kind of jump into a career path, and we’ll jump into a little
bit of each one of these and why I think they’re important. So we know a lot about why engineers
might choose to work at a company. They’re looking to work with the most innovative technology.
Or they really love the product. They love the mission that you have. You have something
that you’re trying to have an impact on, and they want to be a part of that. People care
about compensation. Some people don’t like to talk about compensation. Some companies
don’t like to talk about compensation. But everybody cares about it, and it’s a factor
in how they choose the next place they’re going. And then there’s career growth. Right? And when you have a flat organization, this
is the one that you’re just kind of punting on. Right? And people care a lot about career
growth. As a way that they choose a company. And they get really disappointed when you
tell them that you’re not thinking about it at all. Right? So personal growth is becoming
a major driver for candidates. We’ve been neglecting to provide them this career path.
We don’t have that luxury anymore. People are… I used to work at a company called
Lever, which did recruiting and hiring. And one of the things that we talked about a lot
is how you see these trends where engineers specifically — but even in a wider trend
— people are staying in their jobs for less and less time. Right? Rather than having a
career path at the same company, people feel stalled, and there’s a lot of conversation
that sounds like… You know, the way that you get ahead is by gaining some experience,
and then moving to the next job, and convincing them to hire you for more money or for a higher
position. And I know that a lot of people in this room
have kind of seen those conversations, or even been part of those conversations. And
I’ve watched this shift. I’ve done a fair bit of hiring as a hiring manager as well,
and I’ve watched this shift from engineers asking about technology and product to asking
primarily about the culture at your company and the opportunities for growth. Right? They
don’t even know the technology. They’re like… Well, I was doing… I was on Python, and
y’all do JavaScript? Great, great. I’ll do that. But tell me how you get promoted. That
is a thing that I have experienced. But just not that rudely. (laughter) Career growth drives engagement. This is the
stance that I take, but I hope it kind of resonates with a lot of you as well. Showing
people the recognition and rewards they can get at your organization is a big part of
making them feel valued. People want feedback on how they’re doing, and they have to feel
like they’re progressing at your organization. And you need to give yourself and them some
structure for how to have those conversations. Both about recognition and reward — what
does it mean. Telling people: Oh, you’re doing great! Means nothing. They’re like… Oh,
cool. They walk away and they’re like… I don’t know what to do with that. But giving
them some kind of recognition in the form of a level increase means a lot. Right? And
conversely, people want to… When we talk about progress, people want to feel like they
started in a place, they got this feedback, they worked hard, they made this progress,
and that progress was also recognized, because you gave them that feedback. There has to
be a loop, wherein they responded to the feedback you gave them, and that got recognition. And
without some kind of structure to say: You went from here to here… That feedback loop
doesn’t really happen in a way that helps people grow. We talked a little bit about culture, and
culture is not a huge part of this talk, but I threw this in here as kind of a nice kind
of tidbit. Right? When we talk about culture, announcing a promotion is one of the most
engaging things that can happen at your organization. You fill your entire quota of Slack emojis
when you post that someone got a promotion. Right? And it’s not just engineers. But everybody
else loves to see that things are happening at your organization and that people are feeling
rewarded. So career ladders are also a tool for managers. I think they’re primarily a
tool for managers. Like, I tell people to take these into your one on ones, take these
into your performance reviews, as a way to help you understand what you are supposed
to be talking to people about in these meetings. Right? Not just like… How are you doing?
For like… Every week. Over and over. Right? But like: Hey, we are charting a career path
forward for you. I also want to know how you’re doing, but also, let’s check in on what’s
gonna help you get to that next level. Your engineers are gonna feel much more engaged
with that conversation. It can help with promotions and compensation. We’ll talk a little bit
about that. And it dovetails with hiring a lot. Right? And again, like I said, this is
a really wide topic, but you can start to see that it sits at the crux of a lot of things
that you care about, and it can be a really great tool for that. So last but not least,
a lot of us in this room, I think, the Lead Dev being a pretty progressive conference,
are engaged with diversity and equity and inclusion at our organizations, and there’s
a lot of activity around that. You’ll hear me kind of talk about being more
consistent with how to help people grow. And one of the reasons for that is that improving
things like inclusion requires a lot of trust. Like, you ask for a lot of trust from your
team. And building trust requires having a consistent track record for helping people
manage their career at your company. Right? I’m gonna say that again, because it’s early
in the morning. Super important. Building inclusion requires trust, and you build trust
when people feel like their manager is showing up and helping them understand how to be successful.
Not just giving them more work. Not just patting them on the back when they finish work, but
this is a place we want you to stay, and I’m gonna show you by working with you to show
you what progress looks like here. Because the longer people don’t feel progress
at your organization, someone else is gonna show them progress. Another organization is
gonna show them progress, or they’re gonna make a choice that they’re gonna do better
somewhere else. So getting into more of the concrete aspects of a career ladder, we’re
gonna talk about what a career ladder might look like. And so the takeaway here, the senior
level is your anchor. It’ll become more clear as we go through it. What is a career ladder?
There might be some people in the room, when we talk about it, they don’t get a picture
in their head of what it is, so I want to spend a second. In its simplest form, a career
ladder specifies levels that an engineer can attain at your organization, usually represented
by numbers or some kind of title. And a level designation is how someone understands what
is expected of them. How they are supposed to perform. Right? So you have people at your
organization who may be just starting out. Maybe they just got out of school or out of
a boot camp. And those people are gonna have very different expectations from a person
who’s got five or six years of experience and considers themself to be a senior engineer. When you have a flat organization, both of
those people have no idea what the difference is between their work. Right? They don’t know
how to think about what they’re supposed to be capable of, versus what this other person
is capable of. I hear a lot of this all the time, when I talk to people and engage them
on career ladders. Right? So the main thing to take away from this is that: When you release
a career ladder, moving from one level to the next should be a significant event. For
that engineer, for your organization, like… It should be the thing that makes them feel
like progress. And it should be something that is celebrated, ideally. And promotions
usually come with compensation adjustments, which people love. You know. Who knew? But
people like getting money. So talking about… You can kind of create
a document that has some levels in it. But there are so many unanswered questions. You
have to start digging in and figuring out what are the details of how a career path
works at your organization. How many levels do you have? I did some research. I was looking
at huge companies like Google and Microsoft, and I’ve created career ladders mostly at
startups that look like mid-sized maybe Series B, Series C type companies. And there are
really small companies, which I’ve been at as well, have that flat structure or no career
ladder, and have tried to introduce some. There are other questions that you can see
here. And the one at the end is the one that I like
to talk about. Which is like: Which level is the senior title? You have to have one.
I don’t like for a lot of this to be prescriptive, but this is the one that I have strong opinions
about. You have to choose one of those levels and you have to make it senior. Right? You
have to decide. Because… Senior is the only level that anybody understands. (laughter) Okay? When you talk to people about levels,
they have no idea what level they are. They have no idea what level anybody else is. But
everybody has opinions about who is senior and who is not. Right? And that includes managers.
That includes managers. That includes people who are not engineers. People who come up
to your team and are like… Oh, I need this person. It’s really important. But I need
so and so, because they’re pretty senior. Right? I’m like… I don’t think you really
know what that means. But they have an idea of who they want, based on this idea of who’s
senior. Right? And I talk about using this as an anchor,
because everybody has a relationship with senior. Right? People below senior — that’s
something for them to aspire to. That’s what you’re giving them, when you talk about progress.
You’re gonna be like: Stay here. We’re gonna help you grow, and one day, you are gonna
be senior. And you’ll be able to take that with you, even if you leave the organization.
Right? People who have reached senior, they want that to be recognized. They want the
recognition that comes with that. Whether it be more responsibility, or the ability
to make big decisions, and things like that. And so when you tell them that you have a
flat organization, and you tell them: We don’t really talk about senior… You’re really
taking that away from them. That’s why it’s kind of weird that people talk about it like…
Oh, I’m doing you a favor. You don’t have to think about it. What do you mean? It’s
the only thing I’ve been trying to do for the last X years. And there are also people with really strong
expertise who are having really high impact at your organization, and they’re wondering:
What’s next? They’re not confused about whether they’re senior. Even if you don’t want to
talk about it, they’re like… Whatever. I am senior and I’m gonna tell people that.
You can say whatever you want. But more so, I’ve been doing this for, like, 15 years.
I’m pretty sure that if there’s a thing after that, I’m whatever that is. So that’s what
I want to talk about. (laughter) Right? And so you kind of have to set an anchor
for people, and you have to help them progress along that ladder. Because they all have opinions.
They all care about it. And the more you tell them that you’re not thinking about it, they’re
gonna go talk to somebody else who’s thinking about it. So you’ll hear a theme here, by
the way. I’m really into hiring, also. So let’s look at some career ladders. I thought
about kind of diving in to… Like, what it actually is to create one. But I thought probably
leaving people in this room — there are a lot of different kinds of organizations. You
may be starting at different places. And instead I wanted to do a quick tour of different kinds
of things that you might engage with, rather than choosing one and having it feel like
it doesn’t really work for you. I gave them all clever names, and they all
start with an S, so you know that I thought about it a little bit. (laughter) But let’s take a look. So the first one is
one that I like to call the starter kit, because it’s where a lot of people start when they
go from being flat to saying like… We’ve got to have something. Right? It’s just a
really simple kind of 3-level system. And it usually doesn’t come with any kind of descriptions,
but it’s more like… You’re having that conversation with that person who has been doing this for
5 or 6 years, like I said, and then you hire someone who’s relatively new, and you kind
of have that conversation with this senior person, and they’re like… Well, I don’t
think it makes sense for us to keep being flat. I’m doing way more work. You can have
that conversation. It’s really unpleasant. But you’re gonna have to stick with it. It’s
like… Yeah. You are doing a lot of work. It has to be a thing that we talk about. Maybe
we need these levels so I can talk about it with you. You definitely are a senior at this
organization and I can paint a picture of that. So it looks super simple. You just start with
three things. And one of them is like you’re just starting out, and another one is you’re
senior, and then you put one in the middle, because it takes a while to get from one to
the other one. Right? And it kind of looks like this. And it’s fine. Especially if you’re
small and you’re just growing. Right? But I kind of wanted to illustrate what this feels
like to your team. I drew this myself, because I really wanted to capture what I’ve seen
and what I feel from people when I exist in this starter kit kind of mode. Where, like,
junior people, people that you just hired, they are ecstatic. They’re enthusiastic. They’ve
got a job. They’re like… Great! Whatever! I’m gonna do the thing! They have lots of
questions. They don’t know what anything means, but they’re excited. And you don’t have to
spend a lot of time on it. The senior people, they’re usually good. They know that they’re
senior, even if you won’t talk about it, like I said. They know. You don’t have to really
tell them. But then there’s this vast space in between. Where you’ve allowed someone to
graduate from being junior. That’s the only question you get from junior people. How do
I not be people? How do I get them to stop calling me that? But then you get into this
nebulous, midlevel space, and the only definition for this level is “not senior yet”. Those
people just ask you… Hey, I am kicking ass. Aren’t I senior yet? You’re like… Eh… Not quite. Right? It’s
an extremely unsatisfying answer, but you will answer it like every week. When you ask
how you’re doing… Get ready. Right? So this one, I think, I think the main thing is that
this one doesn’t scale. Right? I’ve got these slides. Take my advice. It doesn’t really
scale. You can live here for a little bit, but when you’re starting to feel that strain,
when you’re getting these questions, when it’s been a while, when it’s been two years,
and that person who is junior really doesn’t want to be junior anymore, you’re gonna have
to start moving people along this track. If you take that person and you say… Fine.
You’re not junior anymore. You can start along this long desert of “mid”. And the person
who has been doing it a long time… They’re like… Okay. There’s clearly a difference
between me and that person. I’ve been doing it for much longer. And X, Y, and Z. They’re
at the beginning of infinity and I’m far into infinity. Okay? So this doesn’t scale with
you. You really want to blow this out. And that’s where you get more into the nitty-gritty.
There’s work to do after the starter kit. So I put these slides in after each one, and
that’s just something to kind of noodle on. There are things that are intriguing about
each one of these models that might feel like it’s a good fit for you, and I also listed
some things that I would worry about if you’re going into this model and either address those
explicitly or do some things to kind of mitigate. The biggest problem with the starter kit is
that your senior people are topped out. They don’t have anywhere to go. And the longer
they stay there, you’re gonna be at risk of losing them, because they also need to feel
that progress. Right? So the next one is the snowflake model. This
is one that a lot of people have actually heard about and get asked questions about.
If you’re a manager, you get asked questions about it. It was popularized by Medium, they
did this whole series of posts digging in and explaining why they did it and how they
came up with it. It’s a really robust and sophisticated system for taking these different
dimensions on how you might want to evaluate an engineer, giving them these scores, and
coalescing that score into some kind of level. At the end, they get some kind of level and
a number. But the process is much more sophisticated. And I like this a lot, because if we go to
the next slide… It gives people a lot of fidelity. Right? People can really try to
get a sense for a lot of the different things that you care about. When you have no ladder, people just… What
they ask you about is like… I finished that last project and it was good. Doesn’t that
mean that I did well? And as a manager, you want to be like… Yeah! But also… Oh, man,
there’s so much more stuff, though. And we’ve only got 30 minutes in this one on one. Right?
I’ve got a hard stop at 3:30. Sorry. But you’ve really got to start unpacking those things
for them. And the thing that I really like about what Medium and folks that are doing
the snowflake model are doing is that they’re creating these tools so that engineers can
engage with them on their own. They can go look and be like… Oh, I really need to push
along this axis if I’m really trying to make it to the next level. It’s something that’s
really engaging for them. Right? Engineers love numbers. They really want to
put a number on this. And say… When I reach this… There’s a thing that says — points
to next level. Oh, man! People love it! Okay? But this is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work.
Right? When you go down this road, you are taking on a significant project. And engineers
love this kind of thing, because it takes away a lot of the ambiguity, but that also
adds a lot of risk. If you find that you got this wrong and you want to change the model
and how it works, all of a sudden their numbers don’t mean the same thing? Oh, man, they’re
not gonna be happy. Right? So you have to put the time into making this good. Let’s kind of keep moving forward. There are
some things that are intriguing about this. It escapes the rigidity of a ladder. I’ve
called this a ladder because I think it makes sense to people. People kind of move up a
ladder. But what’s nice about the snowflake model is that it really kind of highlights
that each person is actually gonna have a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses,
which all your engineers know, and they get really antsy when they feel like this area
that they’re weak in is keeping them from getting promoted. But this kind of thing can
really open it up and say… Well, I do want you to continue work on that, but you’re really,
really strong over here, and at some point, we’re gonna make a decision to move you into
the next level, because you kind of have a lot of these offsets. So it’s nice in that
sense. It’s difficult to onboard into, as a manager.
You bring managers on, and they have to explain this to people. Especially new managers. They’re
gonna have a tough time. Right? If you have a new manager and they’re managing a relatively
senior engineer, that engineer is just gonna run over them. They’re gonna use this model
to make their lives very hard. Right? So keep that in mind. This is the one that I like.
This is the one that I would talk to you about. It really strikes a nice balance. It’s one
document. And it strikes a really nice balance between, like, flexibility, but not kind of
being so much of a project. And it’s just like a spreadsheet. It’s a matrix spreadsheet.
And down the left side is each level, forming a row. And across the top is any different
criteria that you want to speak to, whether it be technical skill, whether it be communication,
collaboration, anything you feel like you want to put into your career ladder as something
that’s important. You kind of put it along the top row. And
it ends up looking like this. Something like this. So when I got into career ladders, the
thing that I ran into was the career ladder that Camille Fournier released when she was
at Rent the Runway. And I ended up kind of talking to her, and Camille and I are acquainted
now, and she talked a lot about how she ended up here, but it was a concrete example. You
can go look at it. There’s a link down there. Just copy this, actually. I’m not trying to
create work for you. Just copy this and start with this. But the idea is that you sit down
with this matrix, and you have X number of levels on the side. And columns along the
top. And you start to fill those in. Right? And so my advice on this… Fill in every
box. It’s one document. But fill in every box. If there’s a person who is at this level,
and they scroll over to that column, and there’s nothing in that box, you’ve just created problems
for yourself. I know it’s gonna be hard. It’s harder even than you think, when you start.
You have six levels, and you have… Four columns. That’s a lot of boxes. So many boxes
that you have to write words in, to describe what is needed. So hard. Do it anyway. All
right? It’s perfectly okay to also put “no expectations at this level”. At a previous
company, I created a category that I thought was really, really important, and I called
it “strategic alignment”. Like, I really want engineers to care if they are strategically
aligned with where the business is trying to go. Rather than just kind of working on
whatever they think they want to work on. So hard to fill in that box! And to tell a
level 1, entry level person… Like… What do I need you to do for strategic alignment?
Nothing. Nothing. Just take some Jira tickets. It’ll be great. We’ll get there later. No
expectations at this level. Totally okay. We’re not going fast enough, so I’m gonna
speed up a little bit. Right? So just to round this out, again, senior is the level that
you use as an anchor, and you build outwards from there. Spend some time formalizing what
that means. Talk to people about it. Use the levels below senior to help people focus on
their growth and getting to full autonomy and developing the depth that they need in
order to be senior. And then spend the levels above senior getting people to engage with
higher impact stuff. Take on much, much more responsibility. Those senior people are asking
you: What does it mean to be a principal engineer? It’s like… Okay. Well, first of all, it
means that you can’t ask questions anymore. Right? You’ve got to be the person to figure
things out. Let’s talk about that. But there is a level, and when we get there,
we will talk about it. So I want to go through this last piece, because it’s super important.
I’m gonna run over time a little bit. But hopefully you’re getting a sense for what
kind of project this is. But it’s not just creating this document. There’s always more
there. And the messaging and rollout of this is gonna be really critical. It’s not just
important for your engineering team, but it has impacts on a lot of other stakeholders.
Right? You kind of have to get buy-in from your executives, you may have to dig into
new compensation bands, to go along with your new levels. You have to talk to HR and recruiting.
This is gonna go in some HR system that a person is like a level 3 engineer. You have
the message to the team, and you have to do a really critical exercise, where you take
people and place them in the new levels. Like, the rollout of it — everybody in your organization
currently is gonna find out what their level is. Those are some interesting conversations.
I could paint a really quick picture of where I went from having the starter kit with three
levels to blowing out to like 7 levels, and I kind of picked senior to be level 4. So
there’s a bunch of people who were at level 3, which they considered senior, and then
had to be placed in either level 3 on the new ladder, which is not senior, or level
4 on the new ladder, which is senior, and like… That was our call. The manager’s call is we talked about what
level they were at. And then we had to explain to those people how we made that decision.
These things get really real, really fast. Many other policies you’re gonna have to engage
with. Budgets. Creating three more levels above senior. It blew up some people’s spreadsheets.
They wanted to have a conversation with me. Interviewing and hiring. I want to go to the
hiring slide. One thing that happens here is you get to start talking about your career
ladder with candidates. They come in and they want to know: How do I grow? Boom. I can draw
these levels for you. I can pull up a spreadsheet right now. They love it. And they can see
that you put thought into it, and they want to work with you on that. Oh, I can see right
now that if I do these things, then I can be senior. Right? I feel like I understand
I’m not that now, but I want to be there, and you’ve thought about this, and you’re
gonna help me with it. You can close people with this. Trust me! But make it clear in
your offer. If you are making someone an offer, it has
to come with a level. So that they know: Are they coming in at senior or not coming in
at senior? Don’t wait until after they accept to explain that to them. And finally, kind
of leaving you with the main takeaways: We talked about a lot of things. I know I breezed
through a lot of things. Please come back to these slides. But you do not have a flat
organization. You just have one with no career ladder yet. Use senior as a way to help explain
it. To yourself, to your peer managers, and to your team. And really spend time, after
you’ve created the ladder, really spend time on the messaging and rollout. Get people involved
with how to make it successful. Otherwise, it can be pretty disruptive. And you’ll spend
a lot of your time managing it. Like, if you don’t change manage well, then the change
will manage you, and everybody here knows what that feels like. It’s not great. Right?
So I’m over time. So… That’s pretty much it for me. Please do reach out. I would love
to talk to more people about this. And I’d love to hear what you think. That’s it.

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