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Investing in Career Growth & Team Development – Advice From 3 Engineering Leaders

Perspectives in Engineering

Investing in Career Growth & Team Development – Advice From 3 Engineering Leaders

As engineering managers and leaders, our job of course is to help our teams deliver value to the organization and its customers. That’s our sprint-by-sprint purpose in a nutshell. Yet from a higher level, our role is to ensure that both engineers and teams continue to grow and develop.

With an eye on the long-term health of our teams, our engineers, and our companies, that latter responsibility is at least as critical as the products we deliver.

So what exactly does career growth mean, and how can managers and leaders invest in it?

That was the subject of a webinar we held with Matt Greenberg (VP of Engineering at Credit Carma), Erica Stanley (Software Engineering Manager at SalesLoft), and Lara Hogan (founder of Wherewithall and author of the book Resilient Management).

(You can watch the full discussion here, listen to it on Soundcloud, or keep reading for the key takeaways.)

Even though career growth can be slippery to pin down with a definition, the panelists assembled these key points:

  • Career growth at most companies is associated with career progression and promotion, which often correlate to the impact an engineer brings to the business.
  • Career growth is not a one-track railroad. People can certainly move between engineering and management, between engineering and product, between different areas of engineering, and so on.
  • Within each career ladder or framework, there exists a skills matrix. People need to grow and develop skills in order to move within the framework.
  • Promotions are not the be-all and end-all of career growth, even though they are its most easily recognizable aspect.
  • Leaders can focus on enabling and fulfilling their engineers—such as through a culture of teaching and learning—as they progress in their careers.

With these definitions of career growth as a base camp, Hogan, Stanley, and Greenberg scaled into high-level discussion of other aspects of how engineering leaders can invest in their developers and their teams.

Their key takeaways include how leaders can create a sense of growth and added value for engineers between promotions, advice for implementing career ladders and growth structures in an organization, and how to help individuals grow by helping their teams grow.

How do you create a tangible sense of growth for engineers between promotions?

Promotions and title changes are the obvious markers of an engineer’s progression. Yet career growth is not a game of leapfrog—a whole lot of development happens between the mile markers.

It’s critical to recognize and foster a sense of growth between promotions. Our panelists offered their insights into how to mark the continuous journey of a software engineer between the big promotions.

FIND OTHER OBJECTIVES TO COLLECT ALONG THE WAY

Lara Hogan sees these interim growth periods as an opportunity to help engineers custom tailor new objectives for themselves—objectives besides promotions.

“The question I usually ask in coaching is, ‘What’s one thing you want to gain—an experience, a skill set, or something else?’” she says. “Participating in hiring panels, mentoring someone who’s fresh out of college. Whatever the thing is, I’ll try to coach them through setting objectives that we can then track and measure. That way we have incremental progress in between those levels.”

Even when an engineer’s top goal is a promotion or a career shift, Erica Stanley helps break that down into sub-goals along the way.

“I like to take the descriptors for a certain role and come up with some milestones for how to make it to the next level,” she explains. “Some of those milestones might be based on the career ladder, and some of them might be personal, and we’ll discuss them at our one-on-ones. So you can see the growth, and we can talk about your accomplishments together.”

FIGURE OUT HOW YOUR ENGINEERS LIKE BEING RECOGNIZED

The flip side of engineers making strides is that leaders can encourage them by recognizing those gains in ways that each engineer can best appreciate.

“You have to understand how people like to be recognized, so you can fill their bucket,” Matt Greenberg says. “Some engineers respond well to gifts, whether that’s a bonus or a trip out to lunch. Others look for words of affirmation, or quality time.”

He offers the caveat that the recognition needs to be authentic and realistic. Leaders are not well served by giving recognition for actions that aren’t actual forms of growth, or that don’t reinforce the behaviors those engineers need to learn. Those empty-calorie recognitions cheapen the real deal, as well as setting poor expectations.

But real recognition goes a long way toward encouraging an engineer’s progress. “By tailoring it to them, it feels like they’ve reached a tangible moment in their growth,” Greenberg says.

COACH GROWTH TO MATCH THE COMPANY’S NEEDS 

The panelists agree that an engineer’s growth is most meaningful and significant when it’s intrinsic—motivated by bettering themselves and their teams, rather than simply to earn the next tier in the company. Yet no engineer is an island, either, and their progress takes place in the context of an organization.

And engineers can utilize that context to further their own development.

  • Identify your organization’s values. “Every organization values different things,” Hogan says. “Maybe it’s hitting a particular OKR for the business, or maybe public speaking tends to get recognition and reward. We might talk about impacting a larger circle of folks.” So by identifying what an organization values highly, leaders can support their engineers in those directions.
  • Ask questions about how to better the organization. Engineers can ask their direct manager—and managers can ask their own leadership teams—about what, essentially, the organization needs moving forward. “How can I build that impact? How can I build that influence?” Stanley asks. “By understanding the needs of the business and how you can contribute to them, you start to build a checklist of things you can break down.”
  • Create a personal self-narrative. Whether or not engineers can get a clear sense of how to grow in their specific role within the company, they can still take charge of their own growth in that context. “I found it powerful to create a self-narrative of who you want to become, get that picture in your head, and run toward it,” Greenberg says. “Whether it’s what’s recognized in your company, or it’s a person who you really look up to, or it’s a way you wish you were seen by others. I think that’s going to end up paying dividends in most healthy cultures.”

How can Engineering get started with putting growth frameworks in place?

Promotions are not the be-all and end-all of career growth and personal advancement—but they are an undeniable component. And jinkies, it’s much easier for everyone in an org to understand the options available when they have access to a clearly defined career ladder.

The hardest part of implementing a growth framework may be just getting started building it. Some organizations already have existing structures, and Engineering just needs to flesh its own one out. Still others are flat, or new, or both, and are starting to realize that implementing even a basic structure will aid them immensely.

But how to get started even thinking about growth frameworks?

DON’T WORRY ABOUT THE COMPLEXITY

Particularly in high-growth companies, gaps (such as missing growth frameworks) exist until someone decides to step in and fill them. Greenberg, for instance, wrote the first career framework at Credit Karma. “We didn’t know what we were interviewing for. We didn’t have anything defined,” he says. “That led us through three years of career framework development, which started with defining competencies from engineering, how we recruit, how we do performance management.”

In the end, this framework helped the organization align its philosophies for people management and compensation and resolve all sorts of other conundrums that spilled out of that first paper. But Greenberg didn’t set out to solve all those problems. He started writing one simple document.

“It’s definitely a complicated thing,” he acknowledges of establishing a full-fledged growth framework. “But in most growing organizations, if it doesn’t exist at all, I would say, just start it. Writing that first draft, and circulating it around, and getting feedback is such an amazing start to solving a problem and taking action.”

GET ALIGNED WITH THE REST OF THE ORGANIZATION

Engineering organizations tend often to be the first ones to develop a career progression or framework within an organization, Hogan notes. But even then, an engineering department’s structure isn’t actually all that different than a company’s overall framework.

“That’s why it’s important to think about it at a company level,” she says. “Obviously, every single function is going to have unique specifics. We’re not talking about those. But I think it’s important to define what entry-level means, what mid-level means, and what director means. Have those definitions at similar levels on all paths.”

In other words, these frameworks don’t have to explain the nitty-gritty of every position in the organization. They can start with broad strokes that apply to Sales and Manufacturing just as well as Engineering.

Adding to that idea, Hogan stresses the importance of having different paths available for different kinds of careers—for example, one for individual contributors, and one for managers. “Still,” she says, “see if you can make sure it’s going to be useful to the whole company, even if the day-to-day specifics of how it’s implemented in your roles might be different per function.”

LOOK AT WHAT OTHERS ARE DOING BEFORE YOU REINFENT THE WHEEL 

Committing an initial growth structure to paper really can feel like starting from scratch. But chefs don’t have to invent cooking from scratch to cook a meal from scratch. Just the same, engineering leaders aren’t the first ones to create a career ladder—even if they’re the first in their particular organizations.

“I would start asking questions of the people around you,” Stanley says. “You don’t want to build a career ladder that takes into consideration only your needs. So start building it based on the answers to your questions. Do some research, see how other companies have done this really well—but also couple it with talking to the people around you.”

To the point about research, Hogan suggests two great resources for getting started with the journey of writing your framework:

  • The first is a talk Marco Rogers gave at the 2019 LeadDevNewYork, “Creating a Career Ladder for Engineers.” (His slide deck is available here, and the video of the full talk here.) His talk covers the why, what, and how of building career ladders, all the way from construction through messaging and rollout.
  • The second is Camille Fournier’s new book, The Manager’s Path, which contains a section on writing a career framework as well as communicating it, all with an eye on what a company is actually ready for. (We interviewed Fournier after her book’s release about scaling, structure, and growing as an engineering manager.)

Whatever resources a scaling engineering organization has at hand when it’s time to implement that initial framework, just remember that a lot of people have walked this path before—and many are happy to share their experiences with others.

Teams are where the growth happens. So how do we help teams grow?

A practically endless supply of sports axioms spouts the idea that a team can accomplish more together than its individual players can individually. It turns out that, well, playing for your team actually does improve your individual performance.

Many surgeons often rotate hospitals. They’ll have one hospital that serves as their home base, and then they’ll conduct operations in other facilities in the area. Hogan points to a study about cardiac surgeons that she says blows her mind.

“The study took a look at these surgeons and assumed that over time, the more surgeries they perform, the better they are at their jobs,” she summarizes. “And actually, no. They only got better at their jobs at their home hospital. For all of the additional expertise and experience that they were getting, it only translated to better patient outcomes at their home hospital.”

This result, the study theorizes, occurs because the home team is critical to an individual’s success. We understand our team norms, the people we work with, and the organization we work within.

“All of that stuff is way more important to our success, and our experience levels, and how good we are at our jobs, than any individual factors,” Hogan says.

So extrapolating these findings outward, developing an engineering team and encouraging the growth of individual contributors may actually be one and the same mission. Our panelists offered some advice based on how they grow their own teams.

THE “STARS” FRAMEWORK

Greenberg references a model developed by Michael D. Watkins, cofounder of Genesis and a professor at IMD Business School, called STARS.

STARS stands for the situations that leaders might find themselves moving into with a new team. The acronym contains start-up, turnaround, accelerated growth, realignment, and sustaining success.

“STARS talks about the state of a team and what needs to happen with it,” he explains. “Is it doing well currently? You maybe don’t want to add fuel to the fire if it’s just starting out. Or is it doing really badly? Do I actually have to shut down what they’re doing today?”

This model is one of those outside resources that leaders can delve further into. What Greenberg stresses is the importance of knowing the current state of a team, as well as the future state of where its leadership wants it to go.

“No team is staying in the state it’s in,” he says. “Even if they’re doing well, you want them to continue to accelerate. So you need to know what state of transition you’re looking for with each team in your ecosystem.”

ESTABLISH TEAM HEALTH INDICATORS

Using metrics that provide visibility into the health and productivity of the engineering organization can help leaders better support their teams.

Stanley says, “as an engineering management team, we get together once a quarter and evaluate all of our teams on the health indicators we’ve established.”

Those health indicators typically take on various shades and textures, encompassing both qualitative and quantitative measures. They may include leading indicators (metrics about trends and team work patterns) and lagging indicators (features shipped, customer-facing metrics). They can also be more qualitative: how are teams interacting with each other, how well are team members holding each other accountable, how are our managers doing?

“What’s important is setting those expectations and clearly communicating those to your team,” she says.

Stanley’s teams also codify many of these expectations in team charters. These charters are living documents that evolve as the team grows. Anytime the team experiences significant change—movement of engineers, for example, or a change in mission—the team revisits its charter.

“It’s about coming up with that agreement of what we are contributing, and committing to, within the team,” she explains.

Conclusion

In conversation with panelists Erica Stanley, Matt Greenberg, and Lara Hogan, we learned about how these engineering leaders encourage growth in individual contributors and how they go about developing teams.

  • Create a sense of growth for engineers between promotions by identifying other goals along the way, striving to recognize growth in ways that are meaningful to individual engineers, and coaching them to tailor their growth to the company’s own needs.
  • Implement growth frameworks where they don’t yet exist. Their advice with this monumental task is to start with simplicity and not worry about complexity; think on an organizational level, which guides you toward defining broad levels rather than specific roles; and turn to other resources, both other people in the organization as well as outside research.
  • Grow engineering on a team level too, because research shows that the home-team advantage is very real for skilled professionals. Understanding what stage a team is in, as well as communicating expectations and metrics with a team, will assist in developing a healthy ecosystem.

Lara Hogan stresses that much of this process is not simple, nor is it fast, though it is also indescribably rewarding. “We talk about growth like it’s this beautiful, shiny thing and we should all aim for it,” she says. “But actually, growth can be really hard, and awful, and painful. It stretches you. These uncomfortable, sticky situations are actually levers for us to grow.”

And Matt Greenberg adds that as you learn to focus on growth, it really presents itself everywhere. “You can look for levers to drive your growth, basically, in all aspects of your life,” he says. “And that’s pretty awesome.”

You can watch the full “Investing in Career Growth and Team Development” webinar, which includes further discussions about the lessons these leaders have learned about helping their engineers expand into their potential.