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Why You Need an Engineering Career Ladder—And How to Get Started

Engineering Management

Are you seeking a way to attract quality hires, implement a structured framework as your company grows, and integrate core values while scaling?

Look no further than the engineering career ladder.

An engineering career ladder serves as a career growth roadmap for both new and existing employees. It concretely defines the roles, skillset and expectations needed for individuals to progress.  A career ladder is far more than a set of job descriptions set against a time frame—it’s a framework to conceptualize how individuals fit into the bigger picture. In software teams that evolve and scale, career ladders are also crucial in that they inspire the development of individual contributors (ICs) with varying goals. 

A recent industry survey showed that over 43% of respondent engineers rated ‘opportunities for professional development’ as among their top three priorities. By establishing a clear system for how engineers can develop and the directions in which they’re able to go, you can reinforce a positive work culture that fosters long-term growth.

Read on to learn about what goes into a successful career ladder, how to design your own, and explore the ladders of industry leaders.

Engineering career levels 

As the term ‘ladder’ denotes, engineering career ladders outline a progression of roles from the bottom all the way to the top. Within a ladder, you’ll find what are known as levels, or the individual stages that describe seniority, responsibilities, compensation, and more. 

When you look to the bottom rung of the public ladder of Amazon, Apple, or Facebook, for instance, you’ll see that each has its own terminology: SDE I, ICT 2, and E3 respectively. And while Microsoft’s ladder has thirteen levels, Amazon’s has only six. So why, exactly, is there so much variation?

For tech companies developing titles and descriptions for the levels in a ladder, there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ model. Levels will differ based on the characteristics of a company—a tech giant with thousands of employees will undoubtedly need more levels than an early-stage startup with just a handful of team members.

Typical tracks and the dual-ladder approach

Just as job titles and the number of levels vary, so too do the possible endpoints of a career ladder. Today, it’s understood that engineers possess different goals; some might prefer to continue working individually while others strive to reach a management position.

In order to facilitate professional development for software engineers with both types of aspirations, many organizations now employ a framework known as the dual-ladder approach. This features two distinct tracks: IC (individual contributor) and Management. 

As described by, a typical career leveling scheme for someone on the IC and the split with the management track might look something like this:

Components of career levels

There’s much more that goes into devising career levels than just a name, a time frame, and a compensation package. It takes a more holistic view—incorporating both technical skills and the values of your team and company—to get it right.

Some of the key areas to include in career levels are:

  • Craft: This describes the technical skills and domain knowledge of a software engineer. In the case of DropBox, for example, as a software engineer rises they develop a deeper breadth and are able to find “creative, generalizable approaches to non-obvious problems in a domain.”
  • Delivery: This encompasses how ICs prioritize tasks, their ability to set realistic goals, and—depending on the level of seniority—if they’re able to predict bottlenecks or holdups.
  • Culture: How collaborative is an engineer and how well are they able to communicate—both within their team and cross-organizationally? This criteria also accounts for how an individual contributes to the broader community within a company, such as helping onboard newer staff.
  • Leadership: This is a key consideration at both the top and bottom levels of a career ladder. Leadership may mean taking the initiative to find mentors for junior engineers or studying up on best practices. At the highest levels, it involves helping to measure improvement and define metrics for their respective team.
  • Strategic impact: As outlined in CircleCI’s ladder, strategic impact describes business acumen, strategic work, and product thinking. In differentiating an associate and senior engineer, for instance, associates may be expected to understand only the product’s basic utility. Senior team members, however, could work with the product team on feedback for roadmaps and understand the business domain of adjacent teams in addition to their own.

Given the differing priorities of individual contributors and the logistical challenges of providing clear oversight to a fast-growing team, it’s important to introduce your levels as you expand. One useful barometer for the question of ‘when?’ could be at the time your team needs to hire multiple engineering managers.

As we know, opportunities for career development sit squarely in the focus of many of today’s most talented software engineers. If you can communicate your career ladder in the interview process—especially if it features multiple pathways for advancement in IC or Management tracks—it can help attract a wider range of new hires.

Creating and maintaining your own engineering ladder

Much like developing and refining a software product itself, building a successful engineering career ladder is an iterative process. 

In determining what fits best for you, it’s useful to take into account your company’s values, goals, and, most importantly, decide what problem you are trying to solve

Career levels, as noted, hinge on considerations like company culture and capability for cross-collaboration. That’s why it’s crucial to define your engineering team’s values in advance of creating specific hierarchies. These values should be a key part of the interviewing process that, in turn, serve as building blocks for levels within a career ladder.

Drafting a successful career ladder is itself also an exercise in collaboration. As detailed earlier, constructing useful levels means understanding the ins and outs of what makes a software team innovative. But it also takes deep knowledge of the organization; therefore, when building yours, you should coordinate with a team of leaders that spans HR, Engineering, and Product. 

As you draft a career ladder, a few questions to ask yourself include:

  • Is there a logical progression in your ladder?
  • Do you use language that is precise enough to indicate differences at each rung of the ladder? 
  • Could the values and responsibilities be understood by those both in and outside the company?
  • Do you have a framework that addresses progress tracks for both ICs and managers?

After drafting a V1 of your ladder, it’s time to get feedback and update. You can start by sharing it with a wider group of engineers and inputting their suggestions before rolling it out to the full team of developers. And, once it’s been distributed, that doesn’t mean the process has come to a close.

To ensure your engineering career ladder is as strong as possible, it should be a living, dynamic document. If you want to keep improving your career ladder, make it a part of the annual planning process—as the org adapts and grows, so too can the ladder. You can also incorporate questions about a ladder’s clarity and effectiveness into employee eNPS surveys.   

Exploring engineering career ladders from leading tech companies

Now that you have a feel for how engineering career ladders work and why they’re a useful tool in the first place, you might be interested in taking a detailed look at how a few prominent tech companies organize theirs.

Here’s a selection of a few more public ladders we recommend checking out: