Engineering Career Ladders as Cultural Manifesto

Insights from Code Driven NYC, a community organized by FirstMark that brings together leading developers from across the tech ecosystem to learn about software engineering, get inspired, and have fun.

Engineers working on hard and sometimes tedious problems need to feel that their career is on the right track. This is true even for engineers working on the types of problems that are intellectually challenging and energizing. Invariably, the absence of a clear path for advancement make people less resilient to challenges and less satisfied with their roles.

Now, place these engineers in a high-growth startup, where at any given point in time, half the team has spent less than a year in the company. In such teams, there is a natural ambiguity about how to build things, operate things, and function as a team. This also leads to ambiguity around engineering team’s culture.

An engineer who is facing ambiguity about the operating environment, team culture, and their own career track is on a quick path to burnout, according to Gil Shklarski, VP of Technology at Flatiron Health.

In a talk at FirstMark’s Code Driven NYC, Shklarski discussed the importance of career ladders for engineers and how the engineering team at Flatiron Health has used career ladders as a tool to solidify and formalize its culture.

What is a Career Ladder?

In short, a career ladder is an articulation of a career path. The career path is divided into levels you climb (‘ladder’). At each level it specifies a set of desired engineering behaviors. The same behaviors (‘swim lanes’) are present at each level, with progression by levels.

The ladder provides transparency into what is required to continue advancing at the company. The goal is to offer as much detail as possible around the desired engineering behaviors at each level and consistently achieving those objectives will result in a step to the next rung.

When Shklarski and Maayan Roth (the engineering director at Flatiron who was tasked with building the ladder) looked for a starting point, they found a framework created at Rent the Runway. In a post last year on its engineering blog, Rent the Runway shared their playbook on how to create ladders. Below are a sample of expectations for someone in an “Engineer 2” position at Rent the Runway:

- Engineers at this level are assumed to be constantly making steady progress on tasks that are assigned to them and know when to ask for help when they are blocked. They can own their independent small-to-medium features all the way through from technical design to launch.

- They are capable of prioritizing the work in front of them and able to make forward progress, avoiding the temptation to focus on unimportant details or excessive bikeshedding.

- The impact at this level is focused on task completion and depth in a small area of the code base. Engineers at this level should be capable at release responsibilities for their area as well as on-call support for simple incidents in areas that they are not always familiar with.

Key to this exercise is creating separate ladders for individual contributors and people managers, as Flatiron has done. Separate frameworks keep the best talent engaged and moving forward, regardless of whether an engineer is interested in people management or remaining an individual contributor.

This sounds so formal… why do we need this?

Creating a career ladder can give an employee confidence, motivation, and enthusiasm for a work environment where they know there’s potential to grow, while making clear exactly what it takes to grow.

Career ladders act as a personal guide, setting the stage for meaningful discussions between engineers and managers about career development and mapping that maturation to the greater good for the company.

A key point here is clarity. It’s difficult for an employee to be accountable if any vagary exists around what the company expects them to produce. Using ladders as a performance standard creates a formula to solve for some of those thorny workplace issues like compensation and titles. Both the employee and manager can recognize if the requisites have been achieved and if there’s justification for a reward, such as a promotion or pay.

For Shklarski, there was one fascinating and unexpected outcome of building a career ladder: there is a non-obvious but very deep coupling between your career ladder and your engineering culture. An effective ladder defines actionable steps that lead to career advancement; but, implicitly, you’re also explicitly stating what behaviors matter most to your engineering culture.

Career ladders as a living document

Shklarski said that despite all of the positive experiences his team has had with a system for career ladders, they have yet to perfect their process.

Flatiron Health conducts a deep retrospective after each performance cycle. They quickly learned that the first version of the engineering ladder had too much emphasis on systems ownership and measuring impact by the breadth of this ownership. This provided the wrong incentive; engineers looked to own more and more systems, when an engineer can (and should) make an impact by completely owning a single system. The retrospective helps Flatiron — which is in the middle of its third iteration —continue to improve engineering culture and the career paths of its employees.

Shklarski said it’s important to make sure you’re incentivizing the right behaviors. The closer you move to that state, the closer you move to having culture clearly documented in ladder rubrics. The documentation becomes a window into the mission for individuals, teams, and the company as a whole. This is a huge benefit. When employees are actively working toward personal goals that are aligned with the company mission, a more happy and productive culture tends to emerge.

When should you build ladders?

Shklarski calls ladders a “very big hammer.” It’s an amazing tool to keep people accountable and document the engineering culture. However, it can be tricky to know when it’s the right time for your company to install such a system.

If you build ladders too early, you may have to rip apart much of what you built when the company experiences a phase of rapid growth. In the case of Flatiron Health, the company was 2.5 years old with more than 30 engineers before it felt mature enough to formalize ladders.

There’s also a risk of introducing ladders too late. In this instance, managers may find that behaviors they hope to prevent have already delivered a serious blow to the team’s culture, which can be difficult to correct.

At the end of the day, the hope is that by installing a bit of structure and “swim lanes” for each employee, managers can create teams that are happier, more productive, and more confident about their opportunity with the company.

To hear more from Shklarski’s talk on career ladders for engineers, check out his full presentation in the video above. And, to become a member of the Code Driven NYC community, visit: http://www.meetup.com/Code-Driven-NYC/