This post lists the key insights from this article, by Michael White from Square.
We find it interesting to see how high-growth tech companies like Square build their engineering ladders. You might find best practices there that you may want to apply in your company.
Two Tracks: Engineers and Engineering Managers are on two distinct career tracks. They want engineers to consider becoming managers if they are interested in the core responsibilities of people management; if they aren’t, they provide a path to take on larger scope and demonstrate leadership as an individual contributor. This helps ensure they don’t create an incentive to change roles for the wrong reasons. Engineers and managers at the same level will have comparable scope and impact on the business.
Becoming a manager is not a promotion: If promotion as moving up a level, then when an engineer first becomes a manager, they remain in the same level and move laterally to the engineering management track. Again, they don’t want to incentivize becoming a manager solely for career advancement.
Scope & Impact vs. Behaviors: Their level criteria are organized into two major sections: Scope & Impact and Behaviors. Scope & Impact contain the defining criteria of a level. To be meeting the expectations of that level, an engineer or manager must be meeting every Scope & Impact criterion. They also enumerate a set of behaviors that exemplify that level of scope and impact. These are organized into categories like Technical Execution and Team Building. While they don’t expect everyone to demonstrate every single behavior listed for their level, they do need to see criteria from every category.
Years of experience: They do not have strict minimum requirements for years of experience at any given level. They evaluate scope of responsibility and impact, and they never want to fail to recognize high performance because of a litmus test like years of experience. Their ladder does contain years of experience guidance to help set expectations, though.
Generalized across teams and disciplines: Square has a wide variety of software engineering disciplines, including backend, frontend, mobile, security, and embedded to name a few. By ensuring they have consistent standards across the company, they can enable fluid internal mobility and further support individual growth. Engineers can broaden their skillset and perspectives by working on a wide range of products and problems.
Levels build on each other: Each level implicitly includes all criteria and responsibilities of prior levels.
Promotions are descriptive not prescriptive: They promote engineers and managers when they have demonstrated that they are consistently performing at the next level. Promotions don’t unlock new responsibilities; the new responsibilities and increased scope come first and then they recognize it with a promotion.
Promotion decisions are structured and rigorous: To ensure calibration across the company and to mitigate individual biases, they take a structured approach to evaluating cases for promotion. Promotions happen twice a year to ensure they’re evaluating everyone consistently. A manager, with input from the promotion candidate, writes a promotion packet that evaluates the candidate against the criteria for the next level. The packet provides evidence to support the evaluation, as well as areas for development and peer feedback. A panel of calibrated engineers and managers at or above the target level then reviews the packet and votes on the promotion. Panelists are trained on unconscious bias every cycle and use a checklist and a rubric to help interrupt bias in the review.
Contributions that aren’t covered by levels: While it’s important to evaluate everyone against the same explicit standards, they also recognize that their levels can’t possibly cover every form of contribution to the organization. Their promotion packets provide space to describe and contextualize contributions that don’t fit their criteria but ought to be considered, such as leadership involvement in one of Square’s community groups.
Their engineering levels are a living document that they refine continuously. They aim to balance maintaining consistent standards over time—they don’t want to move the goalposts on people working to grow in their careers—with the reality that their company and industry are constantly evolving.
Engineering at Square is distributed across their products and businesses; they don’t have a unified Engineering org like many other companies. To ensure their standards and principles are representative of Square’s wide range of disciplines and focuses, they’ve formed a working group of senior engineering leaders from all parts of the company to refine their engineering levels. The group solicits feedback from every engineering team and incorporates that feedback into changes that clarify their standards and improve the tools available to engineers and managers working to grow in their careers. It also collaborates with other working groups focused on Square’s engineering hiring principles and processes and Square’s engineering promotion cycle.