7 mins

Career frameworks are always a valuable resource for engaging and developing engineers, but they become vital as your organization goes through rapid growth or operating changes.

Career frameworks provide employees with an opportunity to own their own career development. They also allow employers to make it clear what is expected of them in their current roles and the ones they’re aiming for in the future. These frameworks can take many forms and embedding one in your organization creates transparency of expectation in a structured, formal manner. 

If your organization’s team topology has remained stable for a long period, it has no doubt gone through its “forming” phase and approached “norming” or “performing”. Approaches to career may be well understood by the teams, or you may have informal processes across teams that have served you well up until now. Whilst some inconsistency or informality might exist, this has likely been a conscious decision, and a formal process may have felt like an overhead.

If you’ve been through or are planning a change to your organization, you might want to begin a process of consolidation, taking parts of what’s worked well and addressing any gaps you can see to embed a process that you can roll out to everyone.

Benefits of career frameworks

A career framework has many benefits, ranging from skills development, engagement, and retention. By having a centralized and commonly applied approach, you are creating a level playing field of expectation and fairness. The aim should be to make expectations of each role in your organization clear so that individuals can develop themselves against set standards.

A framework should help employees to visualize possible future career paths. If your organization assesses talent horizontally via calibration, then having a career framework gives you a consistent rubric on which to base conversations and discuss development across teams fairly. In the case of a promotion process, this can be used to eliminate manager bias.

Having a set of transparent expectations also allows individuals to fill in specific skill or knowledge gaps through mentoring or resources. As managers, we should want to remove the ambiguity in what’s required from engineers seeking promotion, so they can focus on their own development areas.

Why timing matters

Onboarding many new engineers at once can be a daunting and challenging exercise – growing incrementally can allow you to organically build up expectations over time, where your existing culture can influence new hires. 

Not having a shared career framework across a team or department can lead to different managers having varying levels of understanding of what “good” looks like. For new managers, this means they might invest time in setting out their own expectations with team members, duplicating effort, and setting a different level or requirement with engineers across the business. Having a documented approach to your expectations and processes can ensure that new team members have a shared understanding of how the company or team operates, reducing the additional cognitive load.

Designing your framework

There are many ways you can visualize your framework. You can roll your own platform, like Medium has with Snowflake, or you can keep things simple and consolidate all the information into a PDF, as Monzo did. Companies like Progression allow you to visualize the paths, build skills, and create check-ins with your manager. Whatever approach you opt to take, there are some core details that you should consider:

Focus on level, not skillset

A successful career framework should look to make clear the behaviors and responsibilities of a role instead of the depth of knowledge in a particular programming language or tool. While the latter is important, sometimes simplicity in problem-solving, maintainability of code, or the readability of code matters more in demonstrating learning and progression.

Focusing on behaviors and responsibilities allows you to use the framework across all engineers rather than having a framework for each mobile, web, or backend engineer. This, in turn, means you are embedding the same approach across all engineering roles and are shaping your teams accordingly.

Career tracks and opportunity growth

Separate your engineering individual contributor track (IC) from your management track.

Try to avoid scenarios where management can be seen as the only means of upward mobility in a company. Individuals with a strong desire to be hands-on coders, yet still progress, should have options for doing so.

There should be a clear distinction between the roles on the technical track and those that will be managers of other engineers. Roles such as staff or principal are commonly used beyond senior engineer, but that technical bar rises with it. A framework should call out where these opportunities diverge and what the required steps are between the two. 

Having a clear management track can evidence the required effort to get to senior leadership roles and encourage a focus on long-term career planning and growth. If movement is possible between the two tracks, this should be made clear. Over time, some may have drifted into a management role only to want to get back to being an individual contributor. A career framework can help identify how to make this possible and the steps to take in demonstrating that impact.

Clear progression criteria

“How will I know when I’m ready?” is a commonly asked question when looking for a promotion. Having uncertainty about what the requirements are can lead to anxiety and a lack of career satisfaction, ultimately leading to disengagement. By using clear evidence-based examples, the framework can identify multiple tangible steps to demonstrate a skill that someone should cultivate. 

With each outlined skill, look to include examples of how they have demonstrated this ability in their work and provide supporting evidence. You should include 4-5 examples of someone consistently showcasing a certain skill.  

For instance, if you are looking to see a consistent demonstration of good communication, you might ask to see examples of someone’s documentation, how they manage urgent messages in a timely manner, or the channels they have set up for those who wish to raise urgent issues. You may also seek to see evidence of how they’ve influenced a stakeholder and demonstrated communication in 1:1s, during meetings, or in large presentation settings (in size and seniority).

Lastly, encourage people to rate their level of progress while they work towards a skill, whether they are meeting expectations or exceeding them. This helps a manager and individual prioritize the development needs of each area.

A supporting promotion process

A framework can empower long-term career development actions and create more transparency on roles and future progression. For maximum impact, this is best paired with a revised promotion process.  

Having clarity on roles is great, but should be backed up with a straightforward and transparent process for obtaining promotion with time frames and key dates marked out clearly. One method is to use a panel process, where leaders assess a candidate's readiness via a packet submission. These processes require line managers and individuals to evidence readiness through achievement, often being accompanied by lengthy documentation. 

An alternative approach is to empower line managers directly to make promotion decisions within their own teams based on direct conversation. This will depend largely on the culture and size of your organization, but making these expectations and steps clear helps team members own their development.

Continuous feedback

Introducing new processes can be a big change. Spend time with line managers to make sure the manager understands the role they play in implementing and upholding a career framework. Spend time assessing how your career framework and promotion process work together. Hold retros after your first promotion window period and share the learnings and challenges. 

Be sure to provide your managers with guidance on how they can work with engineers to capture the achievements of their engineers, and how these relate to what you have documented in your career framework.

Where possible, document examples for people to learn from, particularly when it comes to demonstrating individual impact on team goals or collaborative projects. How folks track and evidence their goals can help team members look back on past achievements and make it easier for them to find situations in which they have had an impact.