It is critical that both managers and individuals understand the paths they can take in engineering. Engineering organizations must have clear functional goals and team members must have a clear understanding of what those goals look like. This is essential to help you and the organization grow and thrive. Here’s how to create career paths and make them work for you.
What is the career path?
Career paths – also known as career ladders – are a formal process within an organization that shows employees their potential career progression over time.
Personally, I prefer the term “path” to “ladder”. To me, a path is a more logical and practical way to think about your career rather than something you need to climb up or something that can’t be achieved in an uphill battle. Career paths define the roles, responsibilities, and key functions of the job. They ensure that you as an engineer know what you’re doing now – and what you can do to get to the next level. It serves as a guide to help you understand what you can improve or do more to grow. For an engineer, having a career path is a great way to stay motivated and goal-oriented in your career development.
These paths can come in different shapes and forms. On Opendoor we have three: one for engineers, one for engineering managers, and one for a combination of the two. Other companies may have more or less than that. I recommend engineers to request a review of available career paths before joining the company. This provides a comprehensive view of how the company evaluates engineers, sets expectations, and supports their career growth.
For engineering organizations, career paths do a few things. They give engineers objective and clear expectations about what they must do now and what they can do next to continue growing in their careers. They also provide an agreed-upon method for different managers throughout the company to evaluate their direct reports.
When are career paths offered?
Career paths are especially high on engineers’ minds right now as we enter the cycle of performance review and promotion. Submitting tracks doesn’t have to be difficult but it does require thought and attention. When I was director of engineering at Lyft developing pipelines for the engineering team, we spent a lot of time researching what other companies were doing only to discover that what little information was available.
One of the guidelines is to introduce them when you have about 20 engineers. Less is probably too early in the company stage. And remember, career paths are meant for development and growth so your first pass will not be the final version. At Opendoor I expect to update our career paths about once a year with minor tweaks and improvements as the company and culture evolve.
How to choose a career path and make it successful
When you have clear roles and responsibilities, there can be no surprises. This means that the paths must be specific about the levels and what the expectations are at each of those levels. This is vital and a key output of the career path which will ultimately be used in a performance review.
For example Individual Contributor (IC), Individual Contributor Manager (ICM), and Engineering Director (EM) are three different roles with unique paths. These tracks focus on different areas: one is leadership and strategy, one is quite technical and focuses on building things, and one is a combination of technical and management skills. If you are going to choose the ICM path you will understand up front that the role requires 50 percent of your time to be spent directing, coding and leading projects and the other 50 percent managing a small team. Responsibilities and expectations are clear.
So how do you choose the right path? For me I liked the hybrid track. I enjoyed both the technical building piece and the strategic component. However I ultimately made up my mind based on what I couldn’t do outside of work. I haven’t been able to fulfill my passion for teaching outside of the office but I can do coding and more tech projects in my spare time. So at work I practice the leadership strategy part of helping others succeed. Then in my spare time I’m still very involved with coding projects, building my home network, and staying involved with the broader tech community.
An important factor—and the major overlap between engineers and engineer managers—is leadership. As a Senior Engineer you still act like a leader. The difference is in the day-to-day: whether you code like an engineer or focus more on people management, feedback, and people growth. I always recommend engineers considering a career path to take on an intern or mentor a junior engineer and provide professional feedback or delegate tasks. Try a less applied approach and see if you like it. If you do, the EM track may be for you.
The difference between hard skills and soft skills
Now that you have your career path, work railing, and freedom to execute it’s up to you to be proactive and ask for guidance when you need it. A career path aims to prepare you for success and growth in your role – and ultimately propel you to the next level.
What are the survival measures?
Before we get started let’s have a quick refresher on the survival metrics that help the product team decide whether the initiative is worth investing in more, pivoting, or stopping altogether. It is a mandatory function that prevents product teams from suffering due to the sunk cost fallacy. Survival metrics put resource allocation and company incentives either tacitly (think policy) or directly (think data) in front of the team before the project begins and again at regular intervals giving everyone permission to act quickly.
Survival metrics create a clear picture of what could go wrong during project implementation. By articulating potential limitations ahead of time, you’ll have created a warning system for both the team and the company
It makes any necessary interlocutors more effective because you won’t be spending time convincing the organization to join in the necessary changes.
Survival metrics have three levels, each based on the information you will get from answering questions about the project. If there is something worth stopping a project for, the metrics are STOP. The one that is leading us to reconsider the direction we are going is the PIVOT data. Anything that indicates that you tend to take initiative while building, even if things are a little difficult, is an INVEST statement.
We have the scales. What now?
So I’ve amassed a wealth of survival metrics. what happened after that?
You need to create a story that can help maintain metrics and keep it fresh in people’s minds. To do this use the three concepts we mentioned above: lead with evidence, repeat the story, and then repeat.
The primary advantage of survival measures is that they are repetitive. Every time you start a project with survival metrics you will notice that some metrics disappear and a few survive. The ones you keep coming back to are a clear gauge of what your company cares about most. As your survival metrics get closer to reality through each iteration the process you build with your company will grow.