Ultimate Guide on Software Engineer Career Progression

What is an engineer career progression, how to build career ladder for engineers, and how to build career development.

April 29, 2022
20
min read
Valentine Steph
Ultimate Guide on Software Engineer Career Progression

If you are looking for ways to become a better manager and build a high-performing team of motivated developers, you definitely need to know about software engineer career progression and how to build an engineering career ladder.

Successful tech companies like Etsy, Dropbox, Spotify, Buffer, SongKick Technology, and many others, have already developed and implemented their own career path framework, in order to retain top engineers and make better decisions.

Vectorly will help you explore the experience of these companies and help managers to build their own software engineer career progression framework, adapted to the company’s needs.

Contents:

What is a software engineer career progression?

Before we start talking about how to build a successful software engineer career ladder in your company, make decisions about promotions and help engineers skip level and raise grade, you need to define the terms and find out — what is a career ladder, or career progression?

An engineering career ladder is not just a list of developer positions and responsibilities. This is a systematized career growth roadmap, which inсludes skills, achievements, expectations and a vision of a career future. To simplify, the career ladder is a way to chart individual career progress.

Roles and titles

Roles and titles are terms that define the place of a software engineer in a company. However, there are differences:

  • Job role is the area of responsibility of an employee, which reflects what kind of work they perform in the company. The area of responsibility defines the scope of duties: what the employee does at work every day, what kind of tasks they have. Job roles examples: Developer, Designer, Product Manager.
  • Job title is the name of the position that a person occupies in a company. This usually consists of a job level (Junior, Middle, Senior) and a specialization (QA Manual Engineer, Python Developer, Go Developer). If the job role involves managing people, this is also usually reflected in the job title (Team Lead, Technical Officer, Project Manager), etc.

That’s what Chuck Groom says about the importance of defining titles and roles:

 Chuck Groom says about the importance of defining titles and roles
Get free skill matrix templates and career path templates for 50+ tech roles by Vectorly.

Levels (or grades)

Job levels (or job grades) denote the level of responsibility in the company, within the job role. The higher the job level, the more expertise, independence and initiative the company expects from an engineer.

Companies use roles to build grades, designate OKRs for reaching the next level, and motivate an employee to reach new heights. A simple software engineer levels system looks like: engineer level 1, 2, 3, 4 or Junior Developer, Middle Developer, Senior Developer, Tech Lead, but as the company grows, it can become larger or even branch out.

Such systems allow a developer to move along their career path and develop within the company. This means that, if a company uses this method, developers have professional growth opportunities and have more motivation to stay with the company.

Next, we will move on to examples of the different types of software engineer career ladder examples and explore what software engineer career progression frameworks exist, depending on the size of the company.

Software engineer career ladder examples

As we said earlier, the software engineer career ladder can be more or less complex, depending on the structure and needs of the company.

We will give examples of different types of software engineer career frameworks. When building your own career framework, it is important not just to copy existing models, but to focus on the goals and values of your company, as well as discussing its structure with the team at the formation stage.

Small companies (<20)

Often, small companies and startups don’t feel the need to build a career ladder framework and are limited to job titles. Career development implementations happen as the company grows, are often unplanned, and the KPIs that have to be based on the skills and traits of engineers are unclear.

In this case, developers do not have professional development goals and may lose motivation over time. So, the best talent will go to other companies, where they will be offered career growth opportunities.

The basic software engineer career path looks like a change of levels — engineers skip from one level to another within the framework of the role approved at the start: Junior Developer, Middle Developer, Senior Developer, Tech Lead.

Engineer career path
Engineer career path template in Vectorly
Use Vectorly’s engineer career ladder template for your tech team for free.

Medium companies (<100)

As the company grows, the career progression framework should become more complex — intermediate positions (levels) on the career path can be introduced.

But the most important point is to build a career progression for those engineers who want to develop professionally, but don’t have the desire to grow into managers and hone their people skills. Here, a branched career path becomes relevant. It often has two tracks — engineering career path, technical or management, where a developer can become a manager and develop in leadership, or become an IC (individual contributor) and develop as an expert.

This division of the career path is called the dual-ladder approach.

Some successful companies have developed this approach in building software engineer progression for their teams. Here are some examples worth exploring.

Buffer has developed their own career progression framework that allows employees to develop professionally and move along the career ladder without becoming a manager. This framework has two equal growth opportunities - the individual contributor track and the managerial track.

Buffer career ladder template
Buffer career ladder template
You can use the Buffer career path template to build an engineer career ladder for your tech team.

One of the variations of a dual-ladder approach was developed at Songkick Technology.

Songkick career ladder template
Songkick career ladder template
You can adapt the Songkick developer career path template for your own company.

Bigger Companies (>100)

Large companies, with complex structures, develop their own, more complex career progression frameworks. There may be several levels within a career path, depending on the needs of the company.

Levels.fyi collected data from the world's leading IT companies about what levels are present in their frameworks and what is the process of moving from level to level. The companies in the scheme below show several typical cases in the organization of software engineer levels.

Top IT companies' career levels for engineers
Top IT companies' career levels for engineers

You can explore the experience of top IT companies and get more details on how their frameworks were developed and implemented:

With Vectorly, you can build career progression framework using ready-made career path templates for 100+ tech roles.

Benefits of building career paths for a tech team

Career ladders help to achieve the best results in self-developing both employees and companies. Let's take a closer look at what benefits the participants receive from the process.

For developers

A career path helps a developer avoid burnout, due to development uncertainty. Is there a future in this company? Who can I be here? How can I increase my salary? These questions don’t go unanswered, if the company has an employee professional development plan.

  • Gain a broader skill base. A well-built career path includes a professional development plan, within which an employee receives an assessment of the current level of their skills and tasks for developing the focus skills necessary for promotion.

Ben Gateley tells about their experience of implementing a career progression framework:

Ben Gateley tells about their experience of implementing a career progression framework
  • Unlock earning potential. Together with a manager, employees can define professional development goals and career goals, including their salary expectations. Then they build a career development plan jointly, that will help achieve these goals in the shortest possible time.
  • Avoid stagnation. A well-defined development plan allows engineers to constantly develop and achieve their goals in the fastest way, while increasing job satisfaction and feeling their contribution to common business goals.

Anirudh Todi shares Dropbox experience on implementing career path framework:

Anirudh Todi shares Dropbox experience on implementing career path framework
  • Clear promotion requirements. It means employees understand what is required to get promoted and get a pay raise. If the career progression framework is organized correctly, then grade raises take place every six months, which allows software engineering managers to plan the career path of developers.
  • Opportunity to choose and plan the career path. With a career progression framework, software engineers are free to choose in what direction they develop professionally - take the managerial track and improve soft skills, or build expertise by moving along the technical track.

Sarah Drasner explains why career planning talks with employees are important:

Sarah Drasner explains why career planning talks with employees are important

For managers

A job ladder provides a basis for discussing the career development of employees: it ensures the regularity of meetings about professional growth, expansion of responsibilities, and salary increases. Here are the major benefits of implementing an engineer career progression framework:

  • Building a high-performing team. Career progression allows a manager or a team lead to create and maintain a growth mindset and continuous learning in the company. So, the team is constantly growing, developing skills and performs better, in general.
  • Increase motivation. Long-term goals motivate the team and help to avoid stagnation. Motivation directly influences performance, while a high-performing team is one of the business success factors.
  • Improve retention. Career growth and professional development are the best ways to motivate employees, save top talent and keep the best engineers. For most developers, one of the key factors in choosing a job (or when making the decision to get an offer from another company) is the opportunity for career development and getting new professional perspectives.
  • Ability to make better decisions. Having clear guidelines, a manager can make transparent and reasoned decisions about pay rise, grade raise, hiring, etc. And also to make these decisions transparent, both for the team and for senior management and HR.

Bradford Fults speaks of the importance of the professional development for engineers:

Bradford Fults speaks of the importance of the professional development for engineers

For HRs

A hiring bar for each level makes it fairly easy for HR to decide in favor of one or another candidate. It is better to compare specialists with each other, using the system - this is how the company eliminates the human factor.

  • Fairness and transparency in decision-making process. One of the tasks of a recruiter is to find objective criteria for understanding whether a developer is ready for promotion or not. Clear steps towards achieving career goals within the company make employees understand that their growth or lack thereof is a fair decision.

Jerry Talton tells about Carta’s experience:

Jerry Talton tells about Carta’s experience
  • Optimize the hiring process. Understanding the professional level of a potential employee allows you to more confidently determine the cost of hiring, identify the skillset and, in general, clarify whether the developer will fit into the team and can contribute to the company's goals.
  • Transparent decisions on pay raise. If career paths are clearly defined and pay grades are tied to specific levels, then this greatly reduces the difficulty in negotiating decisions on salary increases.

Michael White speaks of how a software engineering career ladder helps to support engineers at Square:

Michael White speaks of how a software engineering career ladder helps to support engineers at Square
  • Improve a company’s brand image. When a company cares about the professional development and well-being of its employees and is ready to invest in their education, this always increases its credibility among candidates, making the company a place everyone wants to work.
Read a successful case study of motivating employees and retaining the best technical talent with professional development - What to Do if Your Developer Comes to Work With an Offer From Another Company?

Now you have an understanding of what a career progression is and why it’s important both for an employee and the company. It’s time to find out how to organize a career progression planning for a team and build a career ladder.

Must-have toolkit for a manager

Before we move to the part on how to professionally plan a career progression for your team, you need to get a basic toolkit. This is a list of tools (with useful links and templates) that will help manage the career growth of engineers and effectively form a career progression framework for them.

Tool #1: Skill matrix

Skill matrices include a set of skills, required for a certain role. These skills are mapped to levels on a career path, so a manager can understand how to identify the grade of each

employee and what skills are required to help engineers skip level.

Companies can create their own skill matrices or simply use skill matrix template and adapt them to the needs of their team.

Useful link: Free skill matrix template for 50+ tech roles.

Tool #2: Career path template

A career path is a roadmap that contains grades and skills and helps developers understand what needs to be done to reach a new career level: both in the manager line and in the expert line.

Typically, grades represent the path from junior to senior. But as a company grows, the engineer career path can become more complex.

Useful link: Free career path template for 50+ tech roles.

Tool #3: Review

Reviews help assess the current skills of a team and identify the requirements for grades. With the help of a review, you can find weaknesses (skill gaps) and points of growth. It is important to hold reviews regularly, to make sure the skills of teammates meet the requirements of a certain grade, as well as checking their professional development progress.

To get more information on how to organize an effective skills review of a tech team - read our most detailed guide ever: Software Engineer Performance Review Example.

Useful link: Vectorly’s 360-degree reviews.

Tool #4: 1-on-1 meetings

Personal meetings help to discuss career goals, set OKRs, and build development plans with employees. Also during these meetings, a manager can monitor the employee’s progress and make decisions on grade raise and pay raise.

Vectorly has one-on-one meeting templates that help save time on prep and structure the dialogue with a ready-made agenda to make it super effective.

Useful link: 1-on-1 meeting templates.

Tool #5: PDP

PDP is a professional development plan that helps a manager approach the engineer career ladder organization systematically and meet both engineer’s career goals and the goals of a company.

Good PDP should include a combination of educational activities and working tasks on developing focus skills in order to successfully implement continuous learning in the workflow of a tech team and meet career goals faster.

To build an effective PDP for your tech team that will really work - read our guide: 4 Steps to Integrate Professional Development Plan Into Your Workflow.

Useful link: Vectorly’s growth plan.

If you’re wondering how to write a career progression plan and what the stages of career progression planning are, this part will definitely give you the answers.

A good manager should make career progression planning a continuous process. And that’s why:
First of all, a manager should regularly hold reviews to check how the skills of a team meet the requirements of their current grades (and desired levels) and monitor the progress of their professional development.
Secondly, the career progression framework should be updated at least once a year, so the requirements and skills included in it are relevant to the market.


Vectorly has come up with a 5-stage career progression planning process. This cycle also includes a meeting schedule, with an agenda and tools necessary at each stage.

Here are five stages of career planning:

  1. Build a career progression framework
  2. Check progress & make adjustments to PDP
  3. Make decisions on level raise
  4. Check progress & make adjustments to PDP
  5. Update the career progression framework
Five stages of career planning
Five stages of career planning

Now, let’s dive into details and get the agenda and the tools for each of the stages mentioned above.

#1. Build a career progression framework

Build a career progression framework

At this stage, a manager creates a career ladder and implements it in the company. This is probably the most time-consuming and difficult stage of the career planning process. Yet Vectorly has prepared a Step-by-Step Guide on How to Build a Software Engineer Career Progression Framework, which will help you to create your own career ladder framework, using templates and customizing them to the needs of your company.

As a result of this stage, teammates will get a clear understanding of their career path and what skills they should develop, in order to get a grade raise.

In short, at this stage, a manager needs to:

  • Create a list of skills
  • Set grades
  • Map skills to grades
  • Hold 1-on-1 meetings to build a PDP plan

Toolkit:

For more detailed info, check out our Step-by-Step Guide on How to Build a Software Engineer Career Progression Framework.

#2. Check progress & make adjustments to PDP

Check progress & make adjustments to PDP

After the career progression framework has been implemented and a PDP plan has been built, a repeated skill review needs to be held, in order to check the progress of an employee on developing the focus skills from a professional development plan. Also, during this 1-on-1 meeting, a manager should make updates to the current PDP.

So, at this stage, a manager needs to:

  • Hold a review to assess the current level of skills
  • Make adjustments to PDP

Toolkit:

This meeting should be held regularly, as you can see in the picture - Q1 and Q4.

#3. Make decisions on level raise

Check progress & make adjustments to PDP

Six months after building a career progression framework, it’s time to make decisions on grade raises. A manager should hold a review, in order to see how well employees have succeeded in developing the required skills for their desired position. On the basis of this review analysis, the manager and HR will make decisions about who will get promoted and get a pay raise.

By doing this, the decisions are transparent to all the parties involved - engineers, team leads, and HR.

To sum up, at this stage, a manager needs to:

  • Hold a review to assess the current level of skills
  • Hold 1:1 to discuss level and pay raise

Toolkit

Decisions on grade raise should be made regularly - twice a year (Q1 and Q3 on the picture).

#4. Check progress & make adjustments to PDP

Check progress & make adjustments to PDP

This stage repeats #2, as this is the time when a manager checks how the current PDP is being implemented by an employee and makes necessary changes to it.

A manager needs to:

  • Hold a review to assess the current level of skills
  • Make adjustments to PDP

Toolkit:

This meeting should be held regularly, as you can see in the picture - Q1 and Q4.

#5. Update the career progression framework

Update the career progression framework

After a career ladder has been built and successfully implemented into the work of a company, a manager’s goal is to make adjustments to the framework. Skill matrices and career paths of engineers should be updated once a year, in order to make sure that the team’s professional development goals are relevant to the current business goals and meet the requirements of the industry.

So once a year, a manager needs to:

  • Update the list of skills
  • Update grades
  • Map the updated skills to grades
  • Hold 1:1s on professional development & discuss level raises

Toolkit:

To sum up, the key factor of successful career planning is regularity. The process of implementation of the engineer career progression framework contains a set of regular meetings, which are:

  • Once a year: create/update a career progression framework
  • Once every six months: make decisions on pay and grade raise, and create new PDP
  • Once every three months: hold a review to assess the skills and make adjustments to the current PDP

This 5-stage career planning cycle will help to make the professional development of every member of a tech team systematic, provide engineers with career development opportunities within the company, as well as make decisions on promotions and pay raise transparent to all parties involved.

How to build a software engineer career ladder (Example)

After reading the previous parts of this guide, you know how the career planning cycle works and have the set of tools you will need to create a career ladder framework for your tech team. Let's move on to the steps of its creation.

4 steps to build engineer career ladder:

  1. Create a list of skills
  2. Set grades
  3. Map skills to grades
  4. 1:1 to build PDP

This picture below shows the main steps on how to build an engineer career ladder adapted to the current skill level of the team and with transparent requirements for each grade and professional development plans to reach the desired position.

4 steps to build engineer career ladder
4 steps to build engineer career ladder

Step 1: Create a list of skills

At this stage, a list of skills is formed that are necessary for a particular role. The manager can create their own list, or use ready-made skill matrix templates and customize them to the needs of their team.

This is how an engineer skill set looks like in Vectorly:

Engineer skill set in Vectorly
Engineer skill set in Vectorly
Get free skill matrix template for 100+ tech roles on your email.

Step 2: Set grades (levels)

Next, a career path is formed. It contains job levels (or job grades) and their description - what skills are required to take a certain position or skip to the next level. Depending on the size of the company, the career path may look different. You can build your own career path, using a ready-made template and customize it to the needs of your company.

Engineer career path template in Vectorly
Engineer career path template in Vectorly
Use Vectorly’s engineer career ladder template for your tech team for free.

Step 3: Mapping skills to grades

In order to set relevant requirements for job levels in your team, you need to assign employees to their current grades and run a skills review. After doing this, you’ll get an understanding of the real level of skills of your teammates of different grades, and based on these analytics, set the requirements for job levels on a career path.

3.1. Assign people to grades

When you have created a career path, distribute employees according to their current grades - Junior, Middle, Senior, Tech Lead (or other levels you have adopted in your company).

3.2. Hold a skill review

Run a review to assess the skills and get the real picture of the current state of a team.

Read: Software Engineer Performance Review Example

The review process in Vectorly
The review process in Vectorly
Hold easy & no fuss 360-degree review with Vectorly.

3.3. Get team analytics

Based on the results of the skills review, get insights on the current state of the team's skills.

Review results in Vectorly
Review results in Vectorly

3.4. Set requirements for job grades

After you have performed a skills review and found the skill gaps, set requirements for every level on a career path. This will help you understand what skills engineers need to develop, in order to get a grade raise.

Requirements for the desired position in Vectorly
Requirements for the desired position in Vectorly

Step 4: 1:1 to build PDP

Once you have determined the current level of skills of the team members and set the requirements for grades, it's time to discuss their professional development plans.

4.1. Discuss and set career goals

To do this, set up a 1-on-1 meeting, where you discuss what career goals the developer has in mind, as well as their plans regarding their future in the company and salary expectations.

4.2. Discuss and set OKRs.

During these 1-on-1 meetings, a manager should also inform an employee about the business goals the company has and set OKRs for them that will help meet these goals.

As a result of this discussion, an individual professional development plan is created, which should include learning and working tasks for developing focus skills.

Read: 4 Steps to Integrate Professional Development Plan Into Your Workflow.

To save time on prep, use Vectorly's one-on-one meeting templates, with a ready-made agenda to have a constructive and helpful dialogue with an engineer.
1-on-1 meeting template
1-on-1 meeting template
A MESSAGE FROM VECTORLY
ARTICLE CONTINUES
A MESSAGE FROM VECTORLY
ARTICLE CONTINUES
A MESSAGE FROM VECTORLY
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.
ARTICLE CONTINUES
A MESSAGE FROM VECTORLY
ARTICLE CONTINUES