Leveling up with Engineering Career Ladders

02 October 2021

Leveling up in video games is easy. As a gamer, I often wish more things like career improvements could be as easy as playing games and in this case, there is. There are a few questions that making video game leveling up easy:

  1. Where I am now?
  2. What does it mean to be at the next level?
  3. What is the path to get from here to here?
  4. How do I track progress?
  5. What is the feedback loop on my progress?
  6. Is the task fun?

What does a career ladder look like?

Career ladders turn the nebulous and complicated career growth into something measurable and trackable and easily understood. There are a lot of creative examples to represent skill progression, radar maps, trees, 3d grids, some video games have notoriously complicated skill trees

"Path of Exile Skill Tree Example"

My preferred format is to keep it simple, a 2d sheet of skills and levels.

Skill Level 1 Current Level Level 3
Water --- example ---
Wind --- --- example
Fire --- example ---

In this simple example, we can answer most of the questions that make leveling up easier:

  1. I am currently operating Level 2, my Wind skill is at Level 3
  2. The next level means continuing to demonstrate Wind Level 3, and also increasing Water and Fire to level 3
  3. Either my own insight or a discussion with my manager can help me identify how to grow Water and Fire from Level 2 to Level 3
  4. Progress is tracked in this sheet, I can always refer back to it
  5. By talking about the career ladder frequently, I can get feedback on that project/initiative I took to push my Water skill to Level 3
  6. No guarantee its fun, but frequent discussions increase the chances you will identify the fun parts

When to use it?

Bring up at least once a month. I subscribe to the FAST method for goal setting and believe the things that are important are discussed frequently. Between all the skills and levels, there is also usually a lot of contexts to digest. The best way to digest that context is lots of frequent discussions with specific examples. For those of us who frequently forget what we did a few months ago, having a frequently visited and updated document reduces the memory burden.

Benefits as a manager

Google has a manager feedback survey, 13 questions to assess how a manager is doing. Using a career ladder directly addresses at least 4 of those questions.

2) My manager assigns stretch opportunities to help me develop in my career.

By reviewing the desired level and current projects, we clearly identify the areas for stretching which makes it easy to have conversations about specific stretch opportunities

4) My manager gives me actionable feedback on a regular basis.

A regular review cadence makes feedback opportunities regular, and the specifics to the career ladder should lead to actionable feedback points. (this should not be your only source of actionable feedback!)

9) My manager has had a meaningful discussion with me about my career development in the past six months.

Assuming you designed your career ladder to tie into promotions, we can check this box!

11) The actions of my manager show they value the perspective I bring to the team, even if it is different from their own.

Part of the career ladder should address challenging the status quo, which includes challenging their manager (you!)

Making a career ladder