World-class engineers have an insatiable growth mindset. In order to recruit and retain top talent, growth stage businesses need to prioritize the processes and procedures that facilitate employee development. Introducing an Engineering Career Ladder is a key piece of that puzzle.

An Engineering Career Ladder is a formalized set of expectations for engineers at various levels of seniority. It provides milestones that teammates can shoot for in order to be promoted, receive raises, and advance in their careers. Introducing a formal career ladder has many advantages, including reducing bias in the compensation adjustment process and providing a useful framework to onboard junior engineers. A career ladder also provides a clear path to reach a leadership level, making it possible for individual contributors to advance their career without necessarily moving into a management position.

When should you start building out a career ladder at your organization?

My advice is to move forward if and when your company achieves strong product-market fit and enters growth stage. When you shift from having one engineering manager to multiple, specialized managers, it’s a good indication that it’s time to revisit roles and responsibilities. Before this point, it may be easier for your CTO or Head of Engineering to oversee the whole team.

Here’s how to start building out an Engineering Career Ladder at your organization:

Document Clear Role Expectations

First and foremost, you must define what success looks like for the individuals at your company. There are common themes in software engineering that should be captured in your model, but there may also be requirements specific to your environment.

Common themes in engineering career progression include:

  • Scaling Project Ambiguity: Moving from implementing small, well-scoped tasks to working through ambiguity and creating clarity.
  • Process and Pattern Innovation: Moving from copying existing patterns in software to improving patterns for enhanced maintainability and extensibility.
  • Direction and Communication Responsibilities: Moving from working as part of a project to leading teams and/or directing the efforts of multiple individuals.

Job Titles

Job titles are an important cultural element to consider as you draft your levels and expectations guide. Many companies use a blanket “Software Engineer” title for all levels of seniority and keep each engineer’s seniority level (e.g. Level I, Level II, Level III) private. The intention behind this method is to foster a level playing field and create a culture where great ideas win and titles don’t distract from productive discussion. Other companies publicly differentiate between titles and levels in order to celebrate career progression and provide transparency. In this methodology, “Software Engineer” is used as an entry-level title and each successive role includes a prefix such as Senior, Staff, and Principal Software Engineer. There are tradeoffs to each approach, so choose what’s right for your company!

At OneSignal, we have opted for a hybrid title scheme. There is no public distinction between entry levels E1 and E2, but we celebrate publicly when folks achieve E3. Our levels closely model frameworks that have been implemented at large tech companies like Google and Facebook.

An excerpt of the OneSignal Engineering Career Ladder. Internal documentation is considerably more detailed, and includes up to 10 different considerations at each level.

It’s also worth noting that, especially for very senior engineers, there is no one-size-fits-all job checklist. In order for your career ladder to be inclusive and valuable, the expectations for each role should include some built-in flexibility. As Charity Majors, CTO of Honeycomb, put it — becoming a senior-level engineer is about developing a well rounded skill set, but after that, “the more senior you get, the more very specifically yourself you tend to become.”

Craft Career Plans

With your role and expectations document in hand, you can begin crafting career plans. Before you present this document broadly, it’s important to communicate the reason and intention behind it. Your team should understand that the primary goal in creating a formal career plan is to accelerate their professional growth.

Work with each member of your team to determine where they currently fit into your levels and expectations document. A productive technique I have used in the past is to ask each person to perform a self-assessment. If your framework is clearly laid out, I have found that folks will typically level themselves accurately.

Once you achieve consensus on current levels, your Engineering Career Ladder can serve as a motivational framework. Some managers struggle to provide actionable feedback to their direct reports when they are exceeding expectations. Although encouragement is always valuable, it's important to provide constructive feedback to bolster future growth. A career ladder makes it easy for managers to both offer congratulations and refocus the conversation on their evolving goals. How can you accelerate their growth further? What is their vision for the type of engineer they ultimately want to become? These are exciting questions that a career ladder can help you answer in a concrete and actionable way.

As your team progresses in seniority and demonstrates increased independence, it’s important to continue to provide mentorship as part of career planning and advancement. Self-sustained productivity does not mean a lack of mentorship!

Revisit Growth Regularly

This is not a one-and-done exercise. To maintain the value and fairness of your ladder, you should routinely evaluate your team’s performance and make sure that your expectations remain relevant. At OneSignal, our recipe for success involves a semi-annual performance review and regular feedback. Although establishing a regular performance review cycle can seem daunting, well-executed reviews provide recognition, actionable feedback, and growth opportunities.

When the emphasis is on employee growth, we promise performance reviews aren’t this bad!

The Bottom Line

A key part of your role as an Engineering Manager is to support the growth of your team. By creating a set of clear expectations and being proactive about compensation adjustments, you can increase employee retention and engagement. In a highly functional organization, people should not need to ask for a raise!

If you incorporate an Engineering Career Ladder into your company’s operating model and revisit goals regularly, I’m confident you’ll see significant professional growth for your team as you scale.