Building an Engineering Ladder at Glossier

Along with Glossier’s tremendous growth over the last two years has come a lot of opportunity, excitement, and a much bigger technology team, currently made up of roughly 50 people across Engineering, Data, User Experience and Design in New York and Montreal. As I was sitting with our VP of Digital Products MZ Goodman last summer mapping out the engineering work that needs to go into building the next iteration of Glossier’s e-commerce platform, we realized it was time to bring some added structure to our department, beyond job titles and managerial tracks. Inspired by other forward-thinking tech companies who have published and written about their ladders, we decided to launch the first iteration of our Engineering Ladder. Here is a look at our process, goals and more generally, how the technology department views career growth at Glossier.

First of all, what’s an Engineering Ladder?

Similar to what you might call a corporate hierarchy in a less technical company, engineering ladders abound in the startup and tech worlds. A quick search reveals dozens of forums with discussions on the number of career levels at tech giants such as Google or Microsoft, and how long it might take to get from one to the next. In our case, we started doing some research and were most inspired by the FourSquare and Kickstarter ladders. We wanted to solve this problem in an innovative and simple way, and an engineering ladder seemed like an elegant solution. We weren’t looking to reinvent the wheel, but rather to adapt a model that has proved successful elsewhere to Glossier’s culture and values.

Why it was time

The most obvious reason we decided to implement a structured ladder amounts to growth. When I started at Glossier in 2015, we were less than ten engineers, and pretty flat as an organization — there was essentially one manager, me, and several individual contributors. Then over time, the engineering team grew, and people started to progress in their careers. Looking ahead, as a technology company planning to add another 100 or so engineers over the course of the next year, having a structured ladder in place will be instrumental in achieving our goals.

Although Glossier was already developing career advancement tracks, they were largely focused on progressing as a manager. I wanted more specificity — if you’re going to be an individual contributor for the next five years, what does that mean? What is your title? If you’re an individual contributor as an engineer, is that a level 4, or 5, or 6? What are your corresponding expectations and responsibilities? We needed a more detailed framework to figure this out, not only for the benefit of management, but for everyone on the team.

How we structured our Ladder

We started by keeping our role definitions intentionally lightweight — providing room for interpretation. For example, we don’t have separate titles to distinguish between frontend, backend, or devops roles, but rather have laid out a set of definitions that describe what we expect from people at each stage. We also wanted to ensure that there was a sense of ownership on behalf of the team, so they’ve been involved from the outset in providing feedback and edits to the Ladder in Gitbook. In a direct sense, they’re helping to shape the career path that they will ultimately move along.

While our Ladder is based on the Kickstarter and Foursquare models, we wanted to create something that was written in Glossier’s own voice. We’re a technology company, but Glossier also has a unique brand that we wanted to respect. So we’re working hard to make sure that we get that voice and tone right, so that it’s not only something that resonates internally, but that can also inspire other companies.

Values > Skills

In an effort to make ladder progress more measurable and unique to Glossier, we decided to map our values to specific skills. As mentioned in a recent Times article by Adam Bryant, too often large companies institute a set of values such as ‘courage’ and ‘respect’, without including any way to measure them, often leading to individual interpretation and friction. We wanted to avoid this, so have not only mapped each value to a skill, but then concluded each job description with a grid that specifies the behaviour we’re looking for in each of these skills.

Our Three Ladders

Since our Technology Team is made up of Engineering, Data and UX & Design roles, we’ve created a distinct ladder for each. (As of writing, V1 of our Engineering ladder is complete, while the other two are still in progress. This will be an iterative process, and we’ll be documenting the process as we go, so look out for posts about V2!)

  1. Engineering
  2. Data
  3. Design and UX

The Paths

At Glossier, we’ve started to focus more on this idea that you don’t need to necessarily become a manager to advance, you can add value as an individual contributor. What at some other companies may be referred to as an ‘architect track’ vs. a ‘managerial track’, we’ve named our ‘technical path’ and ‘people path’, terms that we feel are more inclusive for our engineering, data, UX, and design teams.

“We don’t see management as a promotion, but a career change.”

Choosing a technical or people path is a point that everyone on our tech team will reach at some point in their career. The Chartbeat Engineering team sums up the distinction nicely: “Do I want to build bigger and better systems, or do I want to manage bigger and better teams?” One path is not superior to another, they both require leadership. In this sense, we don’t see management as a promotion, but a career change. There is no one path through the framework, it’s up to our team members and managers to navigate together, finding the best way to align individual skills and motivations with Glossier’s evolving needs. Here is how they break down:

Technical

Like a typical Architect track, these are primarily technical roles that don’t generally involve people leadership. As individuals move up, they’ll assume increasing levels of technical leadership and responsibility. As thought leaders, they’re looking longterm and getting the team to share their vision. Most of the Engineering and Data teams will fit into these roles.

People

Like a typical Management track, these roles represent the people leadership and management paths within the Engineering and Data team. While of course we still expect technical proficiency from everyone in these roles, these team members are more focused on hiring, team organization, and helping people up the ladder than those in a strictly Technical path.

“Our main goal is to provide a clear path forward, not to fuel an ambition to get to the top as fast as you can.”

What we hope to achieve with it

1. Provide a clear path to progress

Our main goal with publishing this ladder is to provide a clear path forward for the engineering team while driving Glossier’s success; not to fuel an ambition to climb the corporate ladder as fast as possible. Of course, it’s human nature that people will want to advance. but in my experience, it’s difficult to manage these ambitions without a clear hierarchy in place.

Like anything else, it’s about setting the right expectations. If a manager can give an engineer things that she needs to work on to move forward, then it’s less important how long it takes her to get there, it’s more important that she’s actually doing it. Once she progresses to that next level, the expectation is that she’s operating at that level. Without clear definitions of a job description and responsibilities at the next level, often decisions around promotions boil down to years of service. You might find yourself in a conversation where an engineering is saying something like, “So we’re at a startup where things move quickly, I’ve been here for 6 months and I think I should be promoted”. Then the situation can become extremely subjective. Maybe this person has been here for six months and is doing good work, but she needs to be doing even better work in order to be promoted. We wanted to remove the ad hoc nature of these conversations.

2. Foster the growth of a talented team

Our second major goal with the ladder is that we want it to serve as a recruiting and retention tool. As mentioned above, there’s a lot of online discussion about the ladders at tech giants such as Google or Microsoft. As a growing technology company with a focus on transparency, we’re competing for the same talent, so it’s important for us to be part of this conversation. In practical terms, publishing our ladder publically also precludes a lot of questions that people are going to inevitably ask during the recruitment process.

In terms of retention, having a clear career path and proper framework is a big incentive, and reviews are a big part of this process. We wanted to remove any subjective criteria, which is why each one of our job descriptions has a built-in our skill-value matrix. Now, employees can sit down every six months and complete a self-evaluation report within a specific framework. They can look at how they’re doing within their role currently, and also look to the future and say, “to get to the next level in the ladder, this is how I would need to demonstrate these skills — this is what my team and manager expect from me”. From the perspective of our managers, this is a simple tool that they can use to make performance reviews easy, straightforward and mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

3. To serve as a testing lab within Glossier

The concept of a managerial ‘People’ track and an individual contributor track is something that is talked about within Glossier at large, but the level of specificity that we’re introducing in the Tech department is unique.

In this sense, we’re hoping that the ladder will serve as a test for the rest of the company. In fact, our department is often testing things, because we have an inherent openness to change. A desire to innovate and iterate is something that you find at all great tech companies, and one we’ve taken on wholeheartedly. We want to figure out not only the right processes for pushing code into production, but also for better communication and career progression.

A structure to set you free

Although it’s early days in our engineering ladder’s history, to date, feedback has been unanimously positive. We’re really excited to officially launch this and get some momentum behind it. Before it was finished, we used a beta version for a first round of reviews this past fall, and it was really nice to have this framework, it provided a level of focus that we didn’t have before. The ladder and skill matrices added a much appreciated additional structure. There’s always going to be a subjective component to a review, but it’s clear that we’ve taken a step forward in this regard. The increase in transparency in terms of what it takes to advance, and where to advance, has also been great for managers and their direct reports.

Going forward, we’ll continue to improve and refine the ladder as Glossier grows. One area that I imagine we’ll be iterating quite a bit is the skills matrices, as people spend more time on them. I’m also looking forward to continued input from the team as they advance in their careers. In the same vein, if you’re curious check out our ladder here and let us know what you think!


When not doing all things CTO at Glossier, Bryan is loving life with his wife, daughter, and two dogs in NYC.