In September of 2019, I gave a talk “Developing Your Developers: Constructing Career Paths For Your Technologists” at the Honeypot Hive Conference in Berlin, Germany. The slides from the talk are below. There were many questions from the audience that I didn’t have time to answer. The questions and answers are here. The talk was recorded. I’m hoping that the video will be posted in the near future.

How the organizations you worked in were going about diversity recruiting? What kinds of initiatives were being taken?
In companies where we have had made good progress on diversity recruiting, we used a few different initiatives:
  • Made it clear to the organization that it was a priority by regular communication, and updates on our progress
  • Engaged the recruiting team to ensure that hiring pipelines included a reasonable slate of candidates from underrepresented groups, even if that meant taking longer to fill the role.
  • Incentivized external recruiters with bonuses when we hired candidates from underrepresented groups
  • Actively participated with external groups supporting underrepresented people in the industry
  • Ensured that every hiring pipeline included a diverse panel
Can you give an example of what you retroactively changed in a career framework without being too intrusive?
At Spotify, we created a new framework where there had been none. At Avvo, we completely replaced a very traditional structure with one more suited to our culture. At Onfido, we are currently evolving our framework. We are making conscious deltas from the previous career-pathing model to support how our culture has evolved. We have clear goals and will follow the path described in my talk to make sure that the team understands and supports the changes.
How did you test the distribution?
We tested the distribution by doing an exercise with all the managers where we did a preliminary slotting of each person into what level we thought they would go into, including doing a calibration across teams. We then compared the resulting distribution with the one we expected to have when we designed the framework. This simulation also served as part of the training for the managers in the organization.
How do you roll out an updated growth framework in a company where you have something in place? Do you then re-map existing people within new levels?
You should roll out a new framework in a similar way to creating a new structure from scratch, but you should make the process of how you will map from the existing framework to the new one explicitly part of the plan. The mapping will be unique to the old and new pathing models, but you should do a calibration step to make sure that people get mapped fairly.
A lot of companies do give you more money only when you threaten to leave. Should people be rewarded for staying also when they don’t get promoted with a title?
If the only way for an employee to get a raise is for them to threaten to leave, then the company’s compensation system is broken, and they will struggle to retain employees.
Do you think there is a possibility to develop an application for career development? (If yes, let’s meet :))
I know of one, https://www.progressionapp.com/, our design team uses it at Onfido. In general, it is hard to develop a career development tool that would be useful for multiple companies because, by requirement, it would need to be generic. I’m advocating for each company to build a unique career development framework. So, there is a mismatch there.
Is there a single company doing all of this well?
I think that many companies do this well. I only have direct experience with the ones that I have worked at, though.
Thank you, Kevin, for your interesting speech. I don’t have a question but as introvert I wanted to thank you for bringing up this issue.
You are welcome!
What about the people who are not promoted, do they have to work on continuous improvement to reach the goal.? Or are they considered as under achiever.
That will be contingent on the company culture. Some companies have an “up or out” culture that expects people to be continually working towards the next milestone in their career progression, or they will be moved out of the company. Other companies support folks who do not choose to pursue the next level. It’s a decision that must be incorporated into the design of the framework itself.
What to do when someone wants to be a manager but is clearly not going to be a good manager – how do you present other options to them?

You should have tracks that support people who want to remain and progress as individual contributors as well as those who want to move into management. If people can move forward in their careers in either track, then there is no pressure to move into management to advance in their career.

If you have good IC and manager paths and someone wants to move into management even if they aren’t suited for it, then you can have an honest conversation about how you see their skills relative to the role that they want.

You mention candidates having all the criteria for the next role. In some cases is it not impossible to have this without experience in the next role?

It is the responsibility of the manager to help people progress in their careers by allowing them to grow by taking on additional responsibilities when they are ready.

The manager should be giving the employee chances to get the experience needed to progress.

Any tips on creating a meaningful growth path in a small company without much hierarchy, where vertical growth is very limited?

In a smaller company, people can feel meaningful growth and career progression without a formal career path. If you do create a career path, you have to build it so that people can progress even without company growth.

Rather than building a career path, instead, focus on making sure people have opportunities to learn new things and take on new responsibilities and then find ways to celebrate them when they do. You can give people meaningful milestones in their personal development without having to make a formal career path.

This mostly considers a straight or slight forking line of development. What about moving across the business. A dev becoming product etc. How do you roadmap?

You can decide if you want to support this in your career pathing design explicitly. It does not tend to happen that often, so unless you want this to be part of your culture, you can probably treat it as an exceptional case.

If you don’t want to be explicit about how to transfer between functions, you can have people apply to the role they would like to switch to and evaluate their level against the new career path just like any candidate.

How can you make an attractive offer in regards to career development for developers? Can you give some concrete examples?

Make your career path and core parts of your culture public, given documentation on them to candidates. When you interview the candidate, ask them where they want to go with their career and then discuss how your career pathing framework can support their development.

I’m not sure I understand what you mean by concrete examples here. Feel free to clarify in the comments.

Would you recommend including values into the promotion process? If yes, how?

Your company’s values should be part of your career pathing framework and, therefore, part of the promotion process. If your companies values are not part of your career pathing, then you send a message to the organization that the values are not real values.

One way to tie the values into the pathing is to think about how each value would be demonstrated at progressive levels of professional maturity and use that as part of the requirements for each level.

What do you think about creative naming of roles? A lot of companies are renaming roles to make them sound more exclusive etc does this confuse career paths?

At this point, I think software engineering titles are so polluted from title inflation that it doesn’t matter what we call them anymore.

There are two benefits I see from using a more “traditional” title naming scheme. One advantage is that the job posting is easier to find, and when a recruiter contacts a candidate about the role, it may make it easier to decide if the candidate approaches them back. The second benefit is that people may have a title that they are mentally aiming for, “Principal Developer” is more likely to be someone’s career goal than “Master of the coding arts.”

You can always choose to have internal and external titles. One is the title that people inside the company use when talking to each other, and the other is the one that people use when talking to external people. People will do that naturally when speaking to outside people anyway, rather than try to explain some unique title naming scheme.

How do you make sure we don’t bias towards the people we have now, while ignoring the people who may join in the next year with different motivations?
If you have experience working in companies at different stages, you can try to anticipate what the next set of joiners may want, but it is probably a futile exercise. Focus on the company you are today. Make sure that you revisit and revise your career pathing framework with a reasonable frequency so that if it doesn’t perfectly align with the motivations of a new joiner, then they know they will have an input into the next iteration.
My last company decided to create a career path when I asked and for me that was a red flag. It means they were not thinking about employee progression. Agree?
Without more context, it is tough for me to make a sound judgment. In my talk, I make the point that you can create an employee progression framework too early. The company needs to move from the phase of “will the company exist a year from now?” to “what will my role be if I choose to stay another three years?” If you are asking the second question at a seed-stage startup, you are probably in the wrong place.
Many companies treat tech career pathing by intertwining seniority and leadership. What about people who want to grow and not lead? There can only be one CTO?

I am going to rephrase your question in the way that I believe you intended to ask. Please correct me in the comments if I got it wrong. I think you meant “intertwining seniority and MANAGEMENT.” I expect senior individual contributors to be technical leaders just as much as I expect senior people managers to be leaders.

In my talk, I make the point that companies should not intertwine these two things. There should be an individual contributor track and a management track, and as much as reasonable, the responsibilities and pay should be comparable, right up to the C-level.

  • As you say, there can be only one CTO. However, there can also be a Chief Architect, who may not be part of the executive team, but who has a level of responsibility and leadership equivalent to an SVP or similarly senior role.

  • When you have built a well functioning engineering team and things have stabilized, how do you keep career progression open?

    I have been privileged to work in some very stable, well-functioning engineering teams, including people with multiple decades of tenure.

    The biggest challenge to keeping career progression open is an unhealthy retention rate (too high), especially if organizational growth is near flat. I have seen this create a problem in an organization where up-and-coming talent leaves because they have a cap on their growth since there are no senior roles available. This describes one company I left after several years of very positive career growth. I knew that I had reached a level where I would be stuck, potentially for many years, because there were no roles likely to open above me for some time, and the company kept headcount flat year over year.

    The best thing you can do in that situation is to help your up-and-coming talent find new roles outside the organization, and then keep in touch with them, so that when a senior role does open up, you can hopefully get them to return.

    How do you know an idea is worth stealing/it makes sense in your organisation?
    Has the idea worked in an organization your size? Do you see it scaling up or down to your dimensions of an organization? Does it align with your culture? Would you need to do some culture change work to implement it? Is there a way you can try it in a limited way to test it in your organization? And of course, does it sound like a good idea to you? An idea that you can champion?
    Do you think it’s good to have career path development for start up with 60 people?
    How old is the company? What is the average tenure of an employee? If both of those are low numbers, then probably not. It is maybe too early for you to focus on career path development. Unless managers are getting questions about career development commonly from employees, that should be your first warning sign that it is time to think about career pathing.
    Doesn’t waiting for the timing to build a career pathing seem reactive? Ideally an organization should be proactive i.e think ahead of your employees.

    Yes, it is reactive. I think about it this way: One of the most attractive elements of a startup is the flexibility and freedom that come from being a small, growing company. Trying to impose structure and process too early can feel “corporate” too soon to those employees. It is also hard to establish what responsibilities levels should have as the team is still forming. You are likely to build a framework that matches current employees (who don’t want structure) instead of the one that will work for the employees who join later and are expecting more structure.

    If your company is already established and is of a certain size and attracting employees who want more structure, then you have probably waited too long.

    Do you think a good career development framework kan help with developer retention?
    A useful career development framework primarily exists to support retention. Beyond establishing career paths for employees, it also helps benchmark salaries for new hires. A career development framework ensures that pay is fair relative to the market (which is also essential for retention).

    If you read the slides and have questions not answered above, please ask them in the comments.

    By kevin

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