Why your engineering ladder doesn't matter, but your foundation does.
I’ve seen and been a part of many engineering ladder revamps. I've seen some great frameworks fall flat and seen some simplistic ladders work well. A good ladder is not one that looks good, but one used by your team and trusted by the org as a whole. The ladders above don't look great, but they are critical to our fishing industry. How do you make sure your ladder gets used and has support?
What is a ladder?
At its core, a ladder is a framework to divide people into groups and pay them differently. However, it can be much more. A ladder can empower engineers to accurately self-evaluate and then advocate for their growth path. It can be used to accurately place new hires in the right role. At the team level, it can be a framework to equitably and fairly evaluate performance and therefore compensation and title.
First, the ladder needs firm ground to stand on.
The ladder foundation
Managers often focus on the great things ladders can do without confronting the uncomfortable core around segmenting people and paying them differently. It is a challenging topic at the individual and team level.
At the individual level, people are not practiced at acknowledging their own gaps or celebrating their successes. Both tooting your own horn and sharing a deep seated insecurity can be incredibly uncomfortable and psychologically challenging in the wrong environment. When people are uncomfortable, they often behave differently than in regular work settings. This discomfort alone can create some difficult situations for managers. Even for individuals who accurately assess their own performance, they may not trust that other people are accurate or being treated with the same level of scrutiny.
At the team level, performance is more of a shared responsibility than many companies admit. It is manager's responsibility to do their best to provide appropriate opportunities and a high performance environment of motivated collaborators. Ladders often do not talk about performance in light of difficult working conditions such as opportunity gaps or people issues that can slow down advancement. This asymmetry of the company evaluating the individual but the individual not evaluating the company can create conflict as well.
Based on those experiences, I believe that ladders need a foundation of two key elements
- Trust of the organization so that employees believe their investment in the ladder will pay off.
- Psychological safety between managers and direct reports so they can discuss performance gaps, seek appropriate opportunities and resolve people issues.
Before rolling out a ladder, you need to ensure that foundation of organizational trust and psychological safety are strong or your ladder will collapse.
1. Organizational trust
First, you should not ask your team members to trust the organization. Instead, ask them to build a robust relationship built on 'trust but verify'. An engineer would not blindly trust an API that said it 'works well'. For an important service, you would want an average response time, throughput limits and uptime in SLA or Service Level Agreement written into a business contract.
An exercise you can use to build that trust is to setup some SLAs for this 'career advancement service'. Start by discussing the types of failures that are expected and how you handle those failures.
Examples of anticipated failures:
- Dividing people into a small number of groups will cause > 0% of people to be in the wrong group.
- People who are on upper or lower bounds of levels will be frustrated due to either struggling with a larger scope, or bordering on higher compensation.
- Due to fundraising or other company wide events, promotion cycles may not happen at their scheduled time.
- Some managers may evaluate their team members differently from other managers.
Based on those failure modes, we could create some SLAs such as:
- Failure rate (how often are people mis-leveled)
- Mean time to restore (once it is discovered that someone is mis-leveled, how fast do we fix it?)
- Response time (do performance reviews happen on schedule?)
- A soft metric such as 'do you feel like you and your peers are evaluated fairly?'
The most important part here is demonstrating that you are aware of the failures that are likely to occur and plan to take action when those failures occur. That alone will help build trust. Additionally, it you can give the team a way to verify that the ladder is being used, the team can more productively channel improvements. For example, if people are being being interviewed at the wrong level regularly (high 'failure rate'), you can focus on that issue directly instead of throwing the whole ladder out.
2. Psychological safety
The foundation of a learning culture is psychological safety — mutual respect and being able to take risks without fear of reprisal. When teams have psychological safety, they’re more willing to acknowledge their own mistakes and figure out how to prevent them moving forward. They’re also more comfortable raising problems and exploring innovative solutions.
The ladder can be a great time to build psychological safety by being vulnerable with your team. Recent research, suggests that as a sharing past experiences when receiving feedback and you current development goals in a group setting contributed positively to team psychological safety.
If your are comfortable sharing in a group, tell your team about a time when you benefited from constructive criticism and identify the areas you are working to improve. This can start a great process where you are open with your team about your areas of improvement and seek (and receive!) their help.
Stabilize the foundation
Now that you have a relatively safe and trusting environment, you can tell the story about why the ladder is important. This will help make the ladder less threatening especially to newer team members.
How to talk about the importance of the ladder
In the past, I under-focused on the business aspects of the ladder. Reflecting on it, I would discuss the ladder in business terms as I believe a ladder is really about setting the terms of a business relationship and it is dishonest to believe it is about more than that. A ladder is an arrangement where the business pays some amount of money to people that can provide services the business believes it will need in the future.
A ladder helps set the terms of that business relationship. Both the capabilities that a business needs and individual's capabilities will change over time. The ladder, and larger performance process are an opportunity to gets together and refresh the terms of that business relationship. For example, if an employee grows and can provide more or better services that the business needs, they should receive more money.
How does the ladder work?
A a high level, ladder placement involves gathering data from three places
- Outside information like certifications, years of experience or degree to get data on your life experiences that may help the company anticipate problems.
- Peers provide an assessment of demonstrated skills. Independence is a great example here. Though solitary work is often a bad idea, the capability to deliver a large feature yourself allows you to help kickstart new projects and is thus an engineer who demonstrates independence can be considered more valuable to a company than someone who cannot work independently.
- Self review.
Above all, remember that a ladder is not personal and you are not your work - this is business.
A ladder isn't successful based on its ability to articulate career levels, but on whether both the team and management can trust it and have a shared understanding of what the words mean. Can the team trust that if they do the things in the ladder, that they will be promoted in a reasonable timeframe? Can managers trust that the team actually uses it? Can both trust that people are leveled the same across teams, gender, race and start date at the company?
Continue asking these questions and seek to improve.
A competency matrix/ladder should be a process of constant improvement. I would recommend checking out the ladder references below and using them as an initial version. You can then edit the ladder to suit your needs and updated it as those needs change