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Engineering growth expectations

Open-sourcing my version of an engineering ladder

In my last post, I discussed why providing structured career resources at early-stage startups is vital.

In the public resources section, I have collected all the public information I referenced when considering how to structure an engineering ladder. This information is also useful to share with junior engineers since it will help them contextualize their growth with broader industry expectations.

Engineering growth expectations outlines my informal version of a career ladder. I show a matrix of skill areas crossed with expectations at each level of seniority. The ladder was created through a combination of consulting public resources, discussing with peers and mentors, and leaning on my own experience with existing career ladders. These expectations emphasize engineering values or skills that are specific to me and my current team, so you may want to alter them to better suit your own environment.

Public resources

Here is a list of company career ladders I used as references:

Marco Rogers has a great presentation that breaks down the process of creating a career ladder for engineers. He identifies three different systems for career ladders: the starter kit, snowflake model, and spreadsheet matrix.

ladder_models From left to right: (1) “Starter Kit” has three simple levels of junior, midlevel, senior. (2) “Snowflake model” is a system to score individuals across many dimensions and using a formula to determine their level. (3) “Spreadsheet matrix” outlines the expectations at each level across several dimensions.

I chose to use the spreadsheet matrix for my version of a skill ladder since I am most familiar with this system. It’s also the format most used in the tech industry, pioneered and perfected (arguably, at least to the extent that you can formally encode a fuzzy set of subjective expectations) by Google. This precedent has in turn has influenced many other companies which came afterward, including my previous companies. Choosing the most commonly-used ladder system is actually very useful since one of the original goals of creating an informal ladder is to provide enough information for junior engineers to understand their career progress in the context of the overall industry.

Engineering growth expectations

In this section, I have tried to distill down areas for growth and development that are important for engineers. These expectations incorporate what I value on my past and present teams, as well as accepted industry conventions.

You do not have to comprehensively fulfill all the expectations for the next level to be considered “at that level”. 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. Treat these level expectations more as guiding principles rather than a checklist you have to complete. Look to real-life role models, such as more experienced engineers on your team, as a way to see these principles in action.

This guideline is first and foremost a tool to help you and your manager to talk about expectations and growth. Feel free to copy, remix, and/or adapt this ladder to best suit your needs.

(Click here to open in Google Spreadsheets.)

One major caveat to the usefulness of any leveling system is overindexing for the specific requirements of that particular system. It can be easy to get caught up in climbing the ladder at your current team/company without really interrogating if what you’re prioritizing will actually be valuable for your career long-term, especially in different companies or other situational contexts. Therefore, I have included some links to great resources to make sure you are working towards a long, successful career as an experienced engineer:

As Simon Gerber says in his very interesting and thorough history of career growth frameworks in software engineering,

You don’t need a whole lot of process — and for a young startup, less is more! But if you can assure regular feedback and attempt fairness as best as you can, it goes a very long way to providing mastery, autonomy and purpose.

This article was last updated on 7/21/2022. v1 is 711 words and took 3 hours to write and edit.

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