Engineering Career Development at Etsy

Posted by on October 2, 2019

In late May of 2018, Etsy internally released an Engineering Career Ladder. Today, we’re sharing that ladder publicly and detailing why we decided to build it, why the content is what it is, and how it’s been put into use since its release.

Take a look

Defining a Career Ladder

A career ladder is a tool to help outline an engineer’s path for growth within a company. It should provide guidance to engineers on how to best take on new responsibilities, and allow their managers to assess and monitor performance and behavior. A successful career ladder should align career progression with a company’s culture, business goals, and guiding principles and act as a resource to guide recruiting, training, and performance assessments.

Etsy has had several forms of a career ladder before this iteration. The prior career ladders applied to all Etsy employees, and had a set of expectations for every employee in the same level across all disciplines. Overall, these previous ladders worked well for Etsy as a smaller company, but as the engineering team continued to grow we found the content needed updating to meet practical expectations, as the content in the ladder started to feel too broad and unactionable.

As a result, we developed this career ladder, specific to engineering, to allow us to be more explicit with those expectations and create a unified understanding of what it means to be an engineer at a certain level at Etsy. This ladder has been in place for over a year now, and in that time we’ve gone through performance reviews, promotion cycles, lots of hiring, and one-on-one career development conversations. We’re confident that we’ve made a meaningful improvement to engineering career development at Etsy and hope that releasing this career ladder publicly can help other companies support engineering career growth as well.

Designing the Etsy Engineering Career Ladder

We formed a working group focused on creating a new iteration of the career ladder comprised of engineers and engineering managers of various levels. The working group included Miriam Lauter, Dan Auerbach, and Jason Wain, and me. We started by exploring our current company-wide career ladder, discussing its merits and limitations, and the impact it had on engineering career development. We knew that any new version needed to be unique to Etsy, but we spent time exploring publicly available ladders of companies who had gone through a similar process in an effort to understand both tactical approaches and possible formats. Many thanks specifically to Spotify, Kickstarter, Riot Games, and Rent the Runway for providing insight into their processes and outcomes. Reviewing their materials was invaluable.

We decided our first step was to get on the same page as to what our goals were, and went through a few exercises resulting in a set of tenets that we felt would drive our drafting process and provide a meaningful way to evaluate the efficacy of the content. These tenets provided the foundation to our approach for developing the ladder.

The Tenets

Support meaningful career growth for engineers

Our career ladder should be clear enough, and flexible enough, to provide direction for any engineer at the company. We intended this document to provide actionable steps to advance your career in a way that is demonstrably impactful. Ideally, engineers would use this ladder to reflect on their time at Etsy and say “I’ve developed skills here I’ll use my entire career.”

Unify expectations across engineering

We needed to build alignment across the entire engineering department about what was required to meet the expectations of a specific level. If our career ladder were too open to interpretation it would cause confusion, particularly as it relates to the promotion process. We wanted to ensure that everyone had a succinct, memorable way to describe our levels, and understand exactly how promotions happen and what is expected of themselves and their peers.

Recognize a variety of valid career paths

Whether you’re building machine learning models or localizing our products, engineering requires skills across a range of competencies, and every team and project takes individuals with strengths in each. We wanted to be explicit about what we believe about the discipline, that valid and meaningful career paths exist at all levels for engineers who bring differences of perspectives and capabilities, and that not everyone progresses as an engineer in the same way. We intended to codify that we value growth across a range of competencies, and that we don’t expect every person to have the same set of strengths at specific points in their career.

Limit room for bias in how we recognize success

A career ladder is one in a set of tools that can help an organization mitigate potential bias. We needed to be thoughtful about our language, ensuring that it is inclusive, objective, and action oriented. We knew the career ladder would be used as basis for key career advancement moments, such as hiring and promotions, so developing a clear and consistent ladder was critical for mitigating potential bias in these processes.

Developing the Etsy Engineering Career Ladder

With these tenets in place, we had the first step towards knowing what was necessary for success. In addition to creating draft ladder formats, we set about determining how we could quantify the improvements that we were making. We outlined key areas where we’d need to directly involve our stakeholders, including engineering leadership, HR, Employee Resource Groups, and of course engineers. We made sure to define multiple perspectives for which the ladder should be a utility; e.g. an engineer looking to get promoted, a manager looking to help guide an engineer to promotion, or a manager who needed to give constructive performance feedback.

Implicit biases can be notoriously difficult to acknowledge and remove from these processes, and we knew that in order to do this as best as possible we’d need to directly incorporate feedback from many individuals, both internal and external, across domains and disciplines, and with a range of perspectives, to assure that we were building those perspectives into the ladder.

Our tactics for measuring our progress included fielding surveys and requests for open feedback, as well as direct 1:1 in-depth feedback sessions and third party audits to ensure our language was growth-oriented and non-idiomatic. We got feedback on structure and organization of content, comprehension of the details within the ladder, the ladder’s utility when it came to guiding career discussions, and alignment with our tenets.

The feedback received was critical in shaping the ladder. It helped us remove duplicative, unnecessary, or confusing content and create a format that we thought best aligned with our stated tenets and conveyed our intent. 

And finally, the Etsy Engineering Career Ladder

You can find our final version of the Etsy Engineering Career Ladder here.

The Etsy Engineering Career Ladder is split into two parts: level progression and competency matrix. This structure explicitly allows us to convey how Etsy supports a variety of career paths while maintaining an engineering-wide definition of each level. The level progression is the foundation of the career ladder. For each level, the ladder lays out all requirements including expectations, track record, and competency guidelines. The competency matrix lays out the behaviors and skills that are essential to meeting the goals of one’s role, function, or organization.

Level Progression

Each section within the level progression provides a succinct definition of the requirements for an engineer with that title. It details a number of factors, including the types of problems an engineer is solving, the impact of their work on organizational goals and priorities and how they influence others that they work with. For levels beyond Engineer I, we outline an expected track record, detailing achievements over a period of time in both scale and complexity. And to set expectations for growth of competencies, we broadly outline what levels of mastery an engineer needs to achieve in order to be successful.

Competencies

If the level progression details what is required of an engineer at a certain level, competencies detail how we expect they can meet those expectations. We’ve outlined five core competency areas:

For each of these five competency areas, the competency matrix provides a list of examples that illustrate what it means to have achieved various levels of mastery. Mastery of a competency is cumulative — someone who is “advanced” in problem solving is expected to retain the skills and characteristics required for an “intermediate” or “beginner” problem solver.

Evaluating our Success

We internally released this new ladder in May of 2018. We did not immediately make any changes to our performance review processes, as it was critical to not change how we were evaluating success in the middle of a cycle. We merely released it as a reference for engineers and their managers to utilize when discussing career development going forward. When our next performance cycle kicked off, we began incorporating details from the ladder into our documentation and communications, making sure that we were using it to set the standards for evaluation.

Today, this career ladder is one of the primary tools we use for guiding engineer career growth at Etsy. Utilizing data from company-wide surveys, we’ve seen meaningful improvement in how engineers see their career opportunities as well as growing capabilities for managers to guide that growth.

Reflecting on the tenets outlined at the beginning of the process allows us to look back at the past year and a half and recognize the change that has occurred for engineers at Etsy and evaluate the ladder against the goals we believed would make it a success. Let’s look back through each tenet and see how we accomplished it.

Support meaningful career growth for engineers

While the content is guided by our culture and Guiding Principles, generally none of the competencies are Etsy-specific. The expectations, track record, and path from “beginner” to “leading expert” in a competency category are designed to show the growth of an engineer’s impact and recognize accomplishments that they can carry throughout their career, agnostic of their role, team, or even company.

The competency matrix also allows us to guide engineer career development within a level. While a promotion to a new level is a key milestone that requires demonstration of meeting expectations over time, advancing your level of mastery by focusing on a few key competencies allows engineers to demonstrate continual growth, even within the same level. This encourages engineers and their managers to escape the often insurmountable task of developing a plan to achieve the broader set of requirements for the next promotion, and instead create goals that help them get there incrementally.

Compared to our previous ladder, the path to Staff Engineer is no longer gated by the necessity to increase one’s breadth. We recognized that every domain has significantly complex, unscoped problems that need to be solved, and that we were limiting engineer growth by requiring those who were highly successful in their domain to expand beyond it. Having expectations outlined as they are now allows engineers the opportunity to grow by diving more deeply into their current domains.

Unify expectations across engineering

The definition for each level consists only of a few expectations, a track record, and guidelines for level of mastery of competencies. It is easy to parse, and to refer back to to get a quick understanding of the requirements. With a little reflection, it should be easy to describe how any engineer meets the three to five expectations of their level.

Prior to release, we got buy-in from every organizational leader in engineering that these definitions aligned with the reality of the expectations of engineers in their org. Since release we’ve aligned our promotion process to the content in the ladder. We require managers to outline how a candidate has met the expectations over the requisite period stated in the track record for their new level, and qualify examples of how they demonstrate the suggested level of mastery for competencies.

Recognize a variety of valid career paths

We ask managers to utilize the competencies document with their reports’ specific roles in mind when talking about career progression. Individual examples within the competency matrix may feel more or less applicable to individual roles, such as a Product Engineer or a Security Engineer, and this adaptability allows per-discipline growth while still aligning with the behaviors and outcomes we agree define a level of mastery. A small set of example skills is provided for each competency category that can help to better contextualize the application of the competencies in various domains. Additionally, we intentionally do not detail any competencies for which success is reliant on your team or organization.

Allowing managers to embrace the flexibility inherent in the competency matrix and its level of mastery system has allowed us to universally recognize engineer growth as it comes in various forms, building teams that embrace differences and value success in all its shapes. Managers can grow more diverse teams, for instance, by being able to recognize engineering leaders who are skilled domain experts, driving forward technical initiatives, and other engineering leaders who are skilled communicators, doing the glue work and keeping the team aligned on solving the right problems. We recognize that leadership takes many forms, and that is reflected in our competency matrix.

Limit room for bias in how we recognize success

The career ladder is only a piece of how we can mitigate potential bias as an organization. There are checks and balances built into other parts of Etsy’s human resources processes and career development programs, but since a career ladder plays such a key role in shaping the other processes, we approached this tenet very deliberately.

The competencies are not personality based, as we worked to remove anything that could be based on subjective perception of qualities or behaviors, such as “being friendly.” All content is non-idiomatic, in an effort to reduce differences in how individuals will absorb or comprehend the content. We also ensured that the language was consistent between levels by defining categories for each expectation. For instance, defining the expected complexity of the problems engineers solve per level allowed us to make sure we weren’t introducing any leaps in responsibility between levels that couldn’t be tied back to growth in the previous level. 

We also explicitly avoided any language that reads as quantifiable (e.g. “you’ve spoken at two or more conferences”) as opportunities to achieve a specific quantity of anything can be severely limited by your role, team, or personal situation, and can lead to career advice that doesn’t get at the real intent behind the competency. Additionally, evaluation of an individual against the ladder, for instance as part of a promotion, is not summarized in numbers. There is no score calculation or graphing an individual on a chart, nor is there an explicit number of years in role or projects completed as an expectation. While reducing subjectivity is key to mitigating potential bias, rigid numerical guidelines such as these can actually work against our other tenets by not allowing sufficient flexibility given an individual’s role.

Most importantly, the ladder was shaped directly through feedback from Etsy engineers, who have had direct personal experiences with how their individual situations may have helped or hindered their careers to draw on.

We’re really passionate about supporting ongoing engineer career growth at Etsy, and doing it in a way that truly supports our mission. We believe there’s a path to Principal Engineer for every intern and that this ladder goes a long way in making that path clear and actionable. We hope this ladder can serve as an example, in addition to those we took guidance from, to help guide the careers of engineers everywhere.

If you’re interested in growing your career with us, we’d love to talk, just click here to learn more.

Posted by on October 2, 2019
Category: engineering, people

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