Career Paths and Circles

I’ve been spending a fair amount of time recently reworking our career paths. Our current documents are heavily based on the work by Radford, which defines 6 levels for each job family. Whilst our career path was very well defined and comprehensive, we are finding that the documentation is a little incomprehensible and causes difficulty as people try to self-assess their position on the career path.

Through conversations about this, it’s clear our team members want something simpler against which they could measure their progress and plan their development. This is one of my key tasks for the coming weeks, and I’ll drawing inspiration from the many public career paths that exist, such as the one from Rent the Runway.

In the meantime, in conversations with our engineers I’ve found myself boiling down the career path to a few key competencies. Two of these are impact and influence, and I’d like to focus on these here.

As I talked about the changes in expectations across I have for the impact people have, and the influence they exert across the levels, I found I need for a visual aid. So, I took to drawing a set of concentric circles on the whiteboard to demonstrate my arguments.

We start from the centre of this diagram, where we find our entry level engineers (Engineer I), and slightly further out our Engineer II’s. At these levels, your impact and influence is expected to be on an individual level, as you use your new and existing skills to be a competent individual contributor and collaborative team member. Your focus here is on growing as an engineer, taking opportunities to learn and develop new skills.

Moving outwards, our Senior Engineers are expected to have impact and influence over their individual scrum and delivery teams. At this level, you’ll be expected to be co-ordinating others to solve problems and motivate the team to achieving their goals. To do this, there’s an expectation that you’ll need to have achieved a strong base of knowledge in our products and in at least one of key technologies.

Looking to our Staff Engineer circle, this is the first time your influence and impact starts to transcend your immediate team. Here you’ll be expected to be defining the approach for not only your delivery team, but also starting to influence other members within your own discipline. For example, as a Staff Test Engineer, you could be helping to define the approach to testing RESTful services across the group.

In the Principal Engineer circle, you’ll be starting to change the agenda for the engineering group. This will involve working across boundaries of disciplines or delivery teams to define processes, practices and behaviours or to deliver large pieces of work co-ordinating amongst several groups. Alternatively, as a Principal Engineer you could be the one using specialist knowledge to solve particularly sticky issues for teams.

Finally, at the edge of the diagram we find out Distinguished Engineers. At this level, engineers are supporting technology initiatives at a company or industry level. Your impact and influence is no longer limited by the boundaries of the company, and you use your skills to drive significant change to not only the company, but also to the wider industry.

I’ve found this 5 circles approach as a good way of showing the expectations at each level in a way which is simple and understandable. It clearly shows the differences between each level, and gives people a lens with which they can better understand their own position on the career path.

In doing some research for this piece, I was pleased to see other companies use similar mechanisms to describe the progression through an engineering career path. One such example is Spotify whose process is described in “Spotify Technology Career Path”.