Building an Engineering Ladder at Glossier

Bryan Mahoney
Jan 22, 2018 · 9 min read

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?

Why it was time

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

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

Our Three Ladders

  1. Engineering
  2. Data
  3. Design and UX

The Paths

“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

People

“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

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

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.

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