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Engineering Levels: A Case Study From Three Perspectives
The power of a good level framework as seen through three different perspectives
Recently, there has been a lot of debate about engineering levels, whether they are good, bad, or just useless. In this story, I hope to show a positive outcome of a good effort. However, before we get started, let’s take a look at what are the critical elements to make a good framework
You have levels, why?
Although it may seem like an obvious question, the answers can vary a lot. They can range from deciding salary to career growth. Setting your desired outcomes and prioritizing them is essential before designing your framework.
Prioritizing the desired outcomes is a significant component of the framework. If you have a level framework, but don't know which outcomes you are looking for, consult your manager, director, or CTO.
1. Designed for team members, used by managers
You must focus on the principle that levels are meant for team members and not managers. In assessing where they stand and where they lag, team members can determine where they stand and what their future might hold. There are many places where levels are simply ways for leaders to control team members' compensation or make demands. These organizations fail to realize the substantial value that levels can bring.
2. Performance vs. growth
Some managers can mix performance and growth. These might sound the same but are fundamentally different.
A Performance plan focuses on achieving results, whereas A Growth plan focuses on gaining skills, knowledge, and methods to achieve and sustain desired results.
Your 1-on-1s should drive the growth, and on a frequent basis adapt and assess expectations (The Magic of Setting Expectations). The leveling framework should act as a snapshot to measure the delta.
3. Contentious improvements
Do not wait for a leveling exercise. Before each 1:1, review the evaluation and determine where there are gaps. Provide opportunities and feedback to address those issues.
Chapter 1: Dejen the software engineer
Beliefs: I know what I'm worth, do you?
Dejen loves his current team. After working together for nearly a year, things looked promising. In his opinion, his skills were improving, and he was ready to undertake complex tasks, but other team members kept getting all the challenging assignments.
Fortunately, Dejen's company just released a brand-new leveling system. As part of the rollout, he performed a leveling process with his manager. Surprisingly, Dejen realizes that his manager disagrees with his self-evaluation. It was a good turn of events. They found the gaps, and after two months, he was certified as a Senior Software Engineer.
Objective: It's not just my manager
Dejen has been through two managers in the past three years, and now he is about to pass through another one after a company reorganization. One obstacle that made this transition a bit stressful was that Dejen felt he would need to prove his worth time and time again.
Fortunately, Dejen's company just released a brand-new leveling system. He and his manager performed a leveling exercise, and his level was established as Senior Engineer. Dejen will still need to prove his impact when he moves to Jan's team (his new Engineering manager), but he won't have to start from scratch. He will be given challenging tasks that meet his experience level.
Chapter 2: Jan the Engineering Manager
Specialists: Strengthen The Cone Model
The company hired Jan a few weeks ago with a mission to implement a new strategy. He has assembled a team of five talented engineers. After a few more weeks, Jan noticed that the team's growth was directly related to his presence. Some engineers needed more attention to improving their product mindset, while others needed to focus on quality. Jan knows that he can't be everywhere and decides to use The Cone Model.
Leveraging the latest leveling exercise, he was able to identify team members who are strong in these areas and match them with people who needed a push.
Local Maxima: Did you try that?
It has been six months since Jan and Dejen began working together. Jan is pleased with Dejen's overall performance and decides to perform another leveling exercise. The results present a different picture. While Dejen did a terrific job, he reached his "Local Maxima". The exercise revealed a gap in his leadership abilities. While he maintained an excellent delivery record, he did not demonstrate any mentoring skills. In reviewing his 1:1 notes, Jan noticed that no team member mentioned Dejen as an influential figure.
Together, they decide to establish an official mentorship between Dejen and a junior member.
Chapter 3: Amara the VP of Engineering
Framework: a high-quality standard for managers
Engineering managers can have different levels of competence, just like everyone else. Some are fantastic leaders who can inspire their teams, while others are capable managers who can plan and execute complex plans.
As a manager of managers (of directors), Amara needs a tool to ensure all team collaborators receive the best-in-class support and grow healthy. She wants to ensure all Engineering managers have a high-quality feedback loop with their team members. Therefore, all relevant areas are covered, and there are clearly stated expectations for the future. The leveling framework provides some structure for managers who have not yet mastered the skill of evaluating and giving feedback.
Managers typically benefit from a framework that consists of two dimensions, levels, and areas.
Areas of expertise: establish the engineering culture.
By defining areas, Amara (VP of Engineering) can influence her organization's focus and make sure that the engineering culture is growing in line with the company's vision. For example, in the pre-product-market fit stage, the areas reflect more innovation, whereas those reflect quality and specialization after a product-market fit. Having identified clear expectations from each area, Amara can set the tone of what high quality or collaboration means for her organization.
Levels: organizational planning
Generally, a healthy balance of experience and skills between team members facilitates a positive working environment and enhances the value of skills for both juniors and seniors. Juniors help seniors to grow leadership and mentoring skills. This helps keep the team engaged and hungry. On the other hand, seniors can teach juniors from this experience and boost their technical skills.
Unless Amara pays attention, her organization will develop pockets of senior teams. If new teams need to be created, she'll need to decide carefully who'll be assigned where.
An effective level evaluation will let her map the distribution of levels within your team and model potential growth scenarios. Amara will be able to answer questions like, how many juniors do we need to hire? Can we open three new teams?