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Working without an engineering ladder

Advice for engineers and managers at early-stage startups

Early-stage startups don’t usually have an engineering ladder. When you only have a handful of engineers and no HR team at all, implementing a formalized evaluation and promotion process for engineers generates unnecessary bureaucracy. On these very small teams, engineering leaders can typically just get in a room together to align expectations for the team.

But once an engineering team reaches a certain size, an explicit engineering ladder becomes necessary overhead for a smooth functioning team. The engineering organization can no longer reach a consensus on performance by all getting in a room together and having a conversation. Advice differs on exactly what team size forces the creation of an engineering ladder, but informal expectations likely start to break down around 20-40 engineers.

There seems to be a general perception of engineering ladders as a necessary evil, a less-than-ideal “management artifact” that is required because coordinating large teams of humans is a messy endeavor. I know quite a few senior engineers who find the formalization of engineering ladders quite tedious and the hoops to jump through promotion very irritating.

And these explicit performance frameworks do not entirely eliminate subjectivity and bias, and often end up incentivizing the wrong behavior. By definition, engineering levels are attempting to translate a subjective set of requirements into a consistent evaluation standard, so they will inevitably miss important nuance and context. The lack of 100% objectivity is frustrating to technical folks, myself included, because we want such frameworks to neatly capture every possible edge case.

So an early-stage startup can be ideal for experienced engineers. The informal environment allows high-performers to be recognized and rewarded without a convoluted HR process. At the same time, it’s easy for these experienced folks to forget how much latent knowledge we have accrued about engineering career progression and industry expectations.

Junior engineers do not have a mental framework for how to grow as an engineer. Though engineering ladders are imperfect, they help provide reassurance to engineers that they are gaining skills and progressing in their careers. When there is no formal engineering ladder and managers don’t communicate well, it isn’t clear to engineers that they are doing work that will help them grow into senior engineers or accumulate experience that will be transferrable to other companies.

One thing we can do as engineering leaders in early-stage companies is to decouple skill progression from a bureaucratic promotion/leveling process. It’s important to give early-career engineers the knowledge to contextualize their career growth. Managers can outline expectations clearly and provide a growth plan, even if engineering levels don’t exist at the company. And educating these junior engineers on industry standards can also help highlight the unique advantage of being at a startup: namely, that they can level up their skills and title much faster than at a large company with formalized level requirements.

In the next sections, I give a general overview of the standard industry framework for career progression and tips on how to work without an engineering ladder.

What is an engineering ladder, anyway?

I was fortunate to realize early in my career that software engineering ladders are largely made up. The career ladder at a specific company is simply a system that senior leaders and key decision-makers have collectively agreed on as a reasonable way to outline growth and compensate employees.

I saw the creation of an engineering ladder first-hand at Pinterest in late 2014, a few months after I joined in my first full-time role. The team was about 100 engineers at the time. Over a series of months, Pinterest engineering leadership debated everything from the requirements for each level to the details of how the promotion process should be run. When the final framework was revealed, it was obvious to everyone that it drew heavily from Google and Facebook’s engineering ladders. The similarity was unsurprising given that most of the senior leaders had most recently worked at Google and Facebook.

There is some standardization of engineering career ladders because of the realities of technical hiring. When hiring managers recruit talented engineers from established companies, there must be some one-to-one mapping to give new employees the compensation and title they want and expect. In addition, creating an engineering ladder from scratch is extremely difficult, so it’s easier to use FAANG ladders as a jumping-off point. FAANG companies have had decades to refine their career resources and also have time and money to respond effectively to hiring market change. These large company frameworks are pretty reflective of accepted industry conventions.

pinterest-faang-levels Pinterest continues to have a direct mapping of levels to Facebook and Google, according to the compensation and level data from levels.fyi which were submitted by employees of these companies.

In general, the industry has converged on a standard set of levels and titles for engineers:

  • Software Engineer
  • Senior Software Engineer
  • Staff Software Engineer / Engineering Manager
  • Principal Software Engineer / Director of Engineering
  • Fellow / VP of Engineering

Engineers can also expect their development at companies to align with industry expectations for career progression in the first handful of years:

  • Junior: 0-2 years of experience
  • Midlevel: 2-4 years
  • Senior: 4-5 years

Senior is considered the first “career level”—in other words, an engineer can remain as a senior SWE for the rest of their career and is seen as a successful contributor to the team and company. Beyond that, there is no expected timeline for promotion to staff software engineer and above, because these roles are often highly specialized or are given to individuals with unique, outsized impact on the company.

So what does this all mean for engineering teams at early-stage startups?

Tips for working without an engineering ladder

For managers:

Empathize with the junior engineers on the team who are not only learning and ramping up in a new role but also slowly figuring out the broader tech industry. Make all the above information about industry expectations clear to junior engineers. Overcommunicate how the work at your startup will be recognized by future employers as valuable experience.

The upside of working at an early-stage startup is that there is not a fixed promotion process and complicated bureaucracy involved. Reward contributions and impact that fall outside of the traditional promotion career track at a large company. A huge selling point to engineers for early-stage startups is that they can learn faster and grow quickly. Make sure to promote individuals that display significant and sustained performance at the next levels, even if they don’t have the “standard” years of experience yet.

Promotion without a formalized career ladder can be susceptible to internal biases and misaligned expectations, even if there are only a handful of engineers. Engineers will find it hard to self-advocate for promotion without a level expectations framework. Individual contributors are more dependent on the skill and ability of their managers than at a large company with career progression resources laid out explicitly for anyone to evaluate. Therefore, in this ambiguous and undefined environment, do extra work to align with other engineering leaders and proactively set goals and expectations for engineers.

For engineers:

Educate yourself on industry standards and performance expectations for different levels of seniority. There are many open-sourced career ladders from a wide range of tech companies that will help you understand the shared, underlying standard for what defines an effective senior engineer. (See the next blog post for links to resources and an open-sourced version of an engineering ladder.)

Hold your manager accountable for clear expectations and a path to grow to the next level. Hopefully, they are already doing most of this work to disambiguate the informal promotion process and level expectations. But even the best managers can benefit from direct communication from you about your current projects and goals.

Get comfortable with the subjectivity of engineering level expectations. All career ladders are imperfect frameworks that attempt to apply rigor and consistency to a fundamental squishy question: “How good is this person at their job?” Even when engineering ladders are implemented, there are likely unspoken aspects that are guiding performance at higher levels. Find out which performance requirements are unique to your company and which can be generalized to the broader industry. Look to real-life role models, such as more experienced engineers on your team, as a way to see these expectations in action.

This article was last updated on 4/2/2022. v1 is 1,388 words and took 3.75 hours to write and edit.