Things to know about engineering levels

This twitter thread seemed to strike a chord with people, rather astonishingly so. I am transcribing parts of it for the sake of longevity and findability.

I keep talking to engineers who are frustrated that they aren’t leveling up faster, aren’t reaching senior levels as quickly as other people they know, feel stuck and don’t know how to get to the next level, etc. And I’ve begun to notice a common blind spot around leveling —

✨ not every opportunity exists ✨
✨ at every company ✨
✨ at every time.✨

Sure, if you’re a junior engineer, you should be able to level up to intermediate pretty much anywhere. But it gets progressively trickier after that. Even the path from intermediate to senior can depend on a number of situational variables:

Is there oxygen?

  • How many other senior engineers do you work with? how many other intermediate engineers around your level? All of these people will be pulling from the same bin of work, looking for promo-worthy, solidly-senior projects.
  • Does your ladder explicitly call for mentorship or leading small teams of lower-leveled engineers? Are there enough of those folks to go around?
  • Have you sufficiently wrapped up your last project well enough to move on? Was it actually completed in a way that demonstrated clear mastery and readiness for bigger and harder work, or did you leave a mess behind you? That may limit people’s appetite to take a risk on you with mission-critical projects.
  • What are the biggest needs of the business right now? Any process that generates projects ought to begin with this question before proceeding on to carve out a chunk that fits your promo desires, not the other way around. 🙃
  • Do you happen to work in a niche or specialty area of engineering, particularly one crammed with super-senior, world-famous highly leveled people? This can be fantastic when it comes to your ability to soak up knowledge from the world’s best, but it may simultaneously delay your ability to level up.

In short, is there oxygen at the next level? Does the company need more of the type of engineer you want to be, vs more of the type of engineer you are now? If they need more people pounding out code and fewer architects, they’re unlikely to want to promote you to a role that involves mostly architecture..

Literally no company can possibly make use of a top-heavy eng org stuffed with senior+ engineers, if all of them are expected to demonstrate company-wide impact or global impact every review period. There’s only so much high-level work to go around for every fifty engineers writing code and features and executing on those systems.

There is only so much oxygen at each level.

Inflation.

Of course, this is all assuming that your company takes leveling seriously. Most … really … don’t.

It’s tough. It’s tough to hold your ground when a valued engineer is complaining and dropping hints they may leave if they don’t get that promotion soon. It’s much easier to give in, make an exception, argue for rounding up.

This may sound good, but it is not ultimately in your best interests as that engineer. Seriously. </3

There is sooo much title inflation in this industry already. People are given the title “senior engineer” in just 3-5 years, need I say more??

If you let a little inflation into your system by making exceptions, it causes more trouble than it’s worth. Always. The only leverage you have when people try to get you to make exceptions is if you can honestly say, “no exceptions.” Give in just once, and your moral authority evaporates.

Leveling up.

I would urge you not to make most, if any, career decisions based on levels or titles that are offered you. But I do understand how frustrating and infuriating it can be to be in a situation that is clearly unfair (usually because a manager got pressured into making an exception… tsk tsk), or if you don’t understand how to move your career forward.

So, here are a few strategic tips for leveling up.

  1. Generalists level up faster than specialists.
     
  2. When evaluating roles, choose ones where your specialty is part of their mission, or at least key to its execution. It has a far lower likelihood of getting outsourced, deprioritized, lacking investment in, or just forgotten about if what you do is core to what they do.
     
  3. Always ask to see the job ladder when interviewing. If they hedge or fumble, don’t take that job.
     
  4. Talk to your manager about the job ladder. Talk to your skip level about levels too! Managers love this shit. They can talk on and on and on about levels, long past your exhaustion point. It can be annoying, but it’s actually a sign of a good manager who cares and thinks about the edge cases in processes, and their impacts on people and teams.
     
  5. That said, don’t take the ladder as a checklist to memorize or thing to be pored over and obsessed over. It’s an incomplete attempt at both shaping and reflecting relative impact. Focus on impact.
     
  6. Is it easier to level up as a manager than as an engineer? Sorta-kinda, I guess so? There are at least two real phenomena at play here.
    1. There are simply more roles to go around in the management track. You need like, what, 1-2 E7/E8 (or principal, or architect?) level engineers per 100-500 engineers, but several managers/directors/etc
    2. Manager effectiveness is grounded in their relationships. It takes managers longer to have impact after they start a new role, but their potential impact grows and grows as their tenure gets longer. So yes, there’s a bit more of an escalator effect if you stay on the manager track at a company for several years. There is no similar escalator on the eng side; you have to be truly exceptional or truly lucky.
    3. But it really depends on the organization.

     

  7. It is much easier to level up quickly at fast-growing companies. When there is far more work than workers, and everyone is getting dropped in the deep end to sink or swim, you level up fast. Don’t underestimate what a stressful and awful experience this can be, though.
     
  8. Many engineers get stuck on the bubble getting to senior because they are impatient and want a map. They just want someone to *tell them what to do*. Which is the very opposite of what a senior engineer does. 🙃  Develop your judgment around what needs to be done, and do it.
     
  9. Your relationship with your manager matters. So does your ability to communicate about the work you are doing, its difficulty, its unexpected challenges and triumphs, etc. This is called “managing up”, and it is an actual skill which I am *terrible* at. So are most of you. 😉
     
  10. TLDR, if leveling matters to you (and it should matter to everyone, to some extent!), then look curiously and critically around for opportunities, and seek to maximize them. Want to become an E6/E7? Probably don’t join a startup that doesn’t have any very high-level work to do, or already has more than enough people functioning at those levels and many more nipping their heels looking for the same opportunity.
     
    This sort of thing is very obvious to us with the manager track (if you want to go from M->Dir, don’t join a startup that already HAS directors and managers who want to level up), but seems less obvious with engineering.

Most reasonable, non-desperate companies with options won’t hire you directly into the next level up which you haven’t done before, on either the manager or the engineer track. (Yellow flag if they do.)

But it is perfectly reasonable to express your career objectives in the interview, and make sure you’re on the same wavelength and seeing the same opportunities. Do you want to become a manager or a tech lead in a few months? Say so.

If it doesn’t exist now, do they think this opportunity may soon open up? Can they see a path forward for you there, if all goes well? Would they be interested in helping you get there? How many people may already be eyeing that same path? Is there enough opportunity for more than one? On what timeframe? Who will decide who gets the role, and how?

Engineers tend to find these conversations uncomfortable, and so they tend to avoid them because they don’t want to make the hiring manager uncomfortable by being pushy.

Relax. Managers don’t find this uncomfortable at all, it’s their bread and butter. (And even fi they do find it uncomfortable, tough beans.. it’s their job.) Ask away. ☺️

Misc notes on leveling.

P.S. Engineers seem to have a very sparse mental model of how leveling works, so here are a few more notes on how levels work at Honeycomb, which is adapted from conventions at Facebook/Google.

  • Each level after senior engineer (E5 for us) gets approx an order of magnitude harder to achieve, and an order of magnitude fewer engineers hold that title.
  • E5 is considered a “terminal level”, which sounds scary, but just means “you do not have to advance beyond this level.” If you never get promoted again, you won’t get fired either.
  • Whereas if you do not advance from E3-> E4 within 2 years, and E4->E5 within 3 years, you are automatically put on a performance improvement plan (at Facebook, I mean, not Honeycomb).
  • We (Honeycomb) hire into E5 as our highest level to start at, both because a) our interview process is not designed to let us parse differences between senior vs super-senior or super-duper senior, and b) we figure nobody is really able to come in the door with >E5 impact for the first 6 months anyway. So we can level them up quickly after they join and we get a feel for their work.

<3 charity.

Things to know about engineering levels

5 thoughts on “Things to know about engineering levels

  1. Joe Mahoney says:

    This is a great post that I’m going to share widely and often. Terminal levels or career levels are something I’ve been talking about in relation to work on the career ladder at my work. We’re not an “up or out” organisation so it’s been a bit difficult put it into context. This article will definitely help.

  2. scuzzaman says:

    Great observations and insights.

    Can I add one? I’ve found it extremely effective to tell my manager (sometimes in the interview stages) that my objective is to make myself redundant. Some get it immediately, some ask why. I tell them straight, so I’ll never be unemployed. Making yourself un-necessary is the exact opposite of what most people try to do, and it not only will make you stand out, it will make you invaluable. It is so rare as to be almost unknown and yet it is what every organisation always lacks.

    1. There’s an enormous difference between being “invaluable, because nobody wants to work without you”, and “invaluable, because nothing works without you.” 🙂

  3. T. W. says:

    I’ve been with one of the three big tech giants for almost 8 years now and recently made it to Principal SDE. This blog post has a LOT OF GOOD advice that certainly applies at my company and my organization inside that company. The best piece of advice is: think about your impact. But also: think about how you enabled others to have impact. Both are equally important – at least how things are run in the org I work in. You always need to be able to illustrate both when review periods come up. Talk to your peers and gather written peer feedback with a good enough detail level. Document your impact.

    And looking at that coffee mug: one thing that might also come into play – and I certainly know that’s the case in my company: diversity policies around hiring, role and org moves and promotions. You don’t have to be a white man anymore to quickly progress through the ranks. In fact, it might even slow you down. It’s a double edged sword that needs to be balanced. But in general, the outcome is a more diverse, more interesting work place. Remember that level is not everything. Good companies reward impact in many different ways – not just by level promotions. Talk to your manager about that to find out more.

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