Credit : This blog post was written by former Bench employee, Geordie Henderson, who introduced this valuable career development track framework during his tenure at Bench.
Career development tracks are conceptually simple. They describe the scope of responsibility for all levels of seniority in a given role.
I’m most familiar with career development tracks for software engineering teams but I have seen them benefit many parts of a software business.
This diagram shows the career development track levels that we use at Bench. For each level, there is a corresponding role description that describes the scope of responsibility and what success looks like.
The effects of this simple governance document are far reaching, nuanced and generally positive.
Here are three unexpected ways that career development tracks can help any software engineering team:
1. Empowers Individual Contribution
The first thing to notice about the above career development tracks is that they explicitly articulate that there is a viable path to grow one’s career as an individual contributor. And this path has just as much room to grow as the people manager’s path. This simple attribute has huge consequences for the happiness and productivity of software engineering teams.
We have an industry-wide pre-disposition to think that to succeed in our careers in the technology sector, we have to become people managers. This notion is as incorrect as it is pervasive and leads to structural issues with the team. The most common way this bias hurts a team is by leading senior technologists into team lead roles they may not want. This often happens if their managers think they could and should or because they think such a move was required to continue growing their career.
There are two big downsides when this happens. First, you lose the influence of a strong individual contributor on the technology that drives your organization. Second, you now may have a subpar manager who is the unhappy leader of an unhappy team.
Career development tracks have the power to completely avoid these pitfalls, simply by declaring that individual contribution is as valued and has just as much career growth headroom as people management.
2. Reduces Unhealthy Comparisons Between Team Members
In the absence of documented career development tracks, a team tends to benchmark what it means to have a given role against those on the team who have the role and are perceived, rightly or wrongly, to be doing the job well. This is problematic for a few reasons but most notably:
a) Different People in the Same Job Succeed in Different Ways
One Staff Software Engineer who is excellent at her job is likely to do the job very differently than another Staff Software Engineer on the same team who is also excellent at her job. For example, one might wield huge influence for their ability to consistently deliver great technology solutions to very hard product problems, which quietly sets an example for everyone else. Another might wield as much influence but do so by using great communication to drive technology adoption across the team and make thereby increase total team productivity.
With career development tracks, we can articulate how both are delivering on the scope of responsibility expected of their role, but in very different ways. Without them, the Staff Engineer becomes an archetype that others feel they must emulate themselves to grow into that role. When in fact, there are likely many other ways to be a great Staff Software Engineer. The role is about their influence on technology and there is a lot of latitude in how that is achieved..
b) People are Poor Judges of Those They Don’t Work Very Closely With
In the absence of career development tracks there is a tendency for people to look at those in more senior roles who they don’t work close with and think,
“I can do that, I’m just as good as that more senior person. Therefore, I’m undervalued and underpaid!”
or even worse,
“The person does not deserve to be in that job, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
Career development tracks supported by a good people leaders move comparisons out of the realm of individual against individual and into the realm of measuring individual performance against a clearly articulated and consistent set of expectations for the role.
3. Make Performance Discussions More Collaborative and Less Formal
Career development tracks are visible for all to see and get referenced often. People and their managers use them to reference how they are doing in their role, what they might work on if their goal is to be promoted and even what moving to a different track might look like.
And this ongoing referencing generates discussions most often between people and their managers at 1:1s but also between team members. When performance discussion are ongoing and informal like this, everyone knows where they stand. This reduces the risk of misaligned expectations between how one thinks she is performing and how one’s peers and manager think she is performing.
Regular discussions about performance gauged against the scope of the role described in a career development track results in more healthy discussions about difficult topics. As a manager I’ve found regular informal feedback means that there are no surprises. I know sooner when people are thinking of leaving the organization and folks on the teams I lead know where they stand whether they are doing very well or not so well in their roles. This gives everyone more time and room to course correct and put people into the best roles for them, positioning them to do things they are the most passionate about. The other consequence is that promotions, formal performance management and even terminations become collaborative exercises instead of exclusively top-down decisions.
The above are just the unexpected benefits. There are a myriad of more obvious benefits as well. Career development tracks also:
- Facilitate the establishment of equitable compensation
- Make planning & hiring easier because you know what roles to post
- Lead to better recruiting discussions because you can clearly articulate role expectations to candidates
If you are on a software engineering team of ten or more people without career development tracks, then it’s probably worth the investment of time required to develop the right tracks for your organization.
Lastly, while this framework was development for software engineering teams, we have seen it adopted across other non-technical business units who are seeing the same benefits.