How to Make Career Pathways Work for Your Engineering Org

To thrive and grow, engineering teams must have clear, actionable performance goals that will lead devs to the next step in their careers.
Headshot of author Mark Kinsella
Mark Kinsella
Expert Contributor
September 7, 2021
Updated: September 8, 2021
Headshot of author Mark Kinsella
Mark Kinsella
Expert Contributor
September 7, 2021
Updated: September 8, 2021

 It’s an exciting time to be an engineer. There are massive problems to solve and a ton of technological innovation to help do so — all of which can leave some engineers wondering: What is it that I really want to do? What is my own career path? And how do I get there? 

In my case, I followed my passion for teaching. In college, I was very close to getting my doctoral degree to become a professor. Almost everyone in my family is a teacher, so it’s always felt very natural to me. Though I ended up earning my Bachelor of Science in computer science and engineering, I kept my passion for helping others succeed alive. I started by managing interns and helping new grads, which led me to my career path in engineering leadership. 

It’s critically important for both managers and individuals to understand the pathways they can take in engineering. Engineering organizations must have visible career goals, and team members should have a clear understanding of what those goals look like. This is essential to help both you and the organization grow and thrive. Here’s how to establish career pathways and make them work for you.

What Is a Career Pathway?

Career pathways — also known as career ladders — are a formal process within an organization that shows employees their potential career progression over time. 

 

Career Pathways vs. Career Ladders

Personally, I prefer the term “pathway” over “ladder.” To me, a pathway is a more sensible and practical way to think about your career, rather than something you need to climb, or something that’s an unattainable uphill battle. Career pathways outline the key roles, responsibilities and functions of a job. They ensure that you, as an engineer, know what you are doing right now — and what you can do to get to the next level. They serve as a guide to help you understand what you could be improving or doing more of to grow. For an engineer, having a career pathway is a great way to stay motivated and goal-oriented in your career development. 

These paths can come in different shapes and forms. At Opendoor, we have three: one for engineers, one for engineering managers and one that’s a hybrid of both. Other companies may have more or less than that. I recommend engineers ask to review the available career pathways before joining a company. This provides a holistic view of how the company is evaluating engineers, setting expectations and supporting their career growth.

For engineering organizations, career pathways do a few things. They provide objective, clear expectations for engineers on what they should be doing now and what they could be doing next to continue to grow in their career. They also provide an agreed-upon way for different managers throughout the company to evaluate their direct reports. 

More DevOps AdviceWant a High Performing Dev Team? Improve Your Time to Productivity.

 

When to Introduce Career Pathways

Career pathways are especially top of mind for engineers right now as we enter the performance review and promotion cycle. Introducing pathways doesn’t have to be difficult, but it does require thought and attention. When I was the director of engineering at Lyft and developing pathways for the engineering team, we spent a lot of time researching what other companies were doing only to find out that little information was available. 

One guideline is to introduce them when you have roughly 20 engineers. Less than that is probably too early in the stage of the company. And keep in mind, career pathways are meant to evolve and grow, so the first pass won’t be the final version. At Opendoor, I expect to update our career pathways once every year with minor tweaks and improvements as the company and culture evolves.

 

How to Choose a Career Pathway and Make It Successful

When you have clear roles and responsibilities, there cannot be any surprises. That means, the pathways need to be specific about what the levels are and what the expectations are at each of those levels. This is vital and a core output of a career pathway, which will eventually be used in a performance review. 

For example, an individual contributor (IC), individual contributor manager (ICM) and an engineering manager (EM) are three different roles with unique pathways. These pathways focus on different areas: One is more leadership and strategy-based, one is completely technical and focused on building things, and one combines technical and management skills. If you were to choose the ICM pathway, you would understand up front that the role requires 50 percent of your time to be spent directing, coding and driving projects, while the other 50 percent is managing a small team. The responsibilities and expectations are clear. 

So how do you choose the right path? For me, I loved the hybrid path. I enjoyed both the technical building piece and the strategic component. However, I ultimately made my decision based on what I couldn’t do outside of work. I wasn’t able to fulfill my passion for teaching outside of the office, but I could do coding and more technical projects in my spare time. So at work, I exercise the leadership strategy piece to help others succeed. Then in my spare time, I'm still very involved in coding projects, building out my home network and staying involved in the broader tech community.

One important factor — and a key overlap between engineers and engineer managers — is leadership. As a senior engineer, you’re still acting as a leader. The difference lies in the day-to-day: whether you’re coding as an engineer or more focused on people management, feedback and people’s growth. I always recommend to engineers who are thinking about their pathway to take on an intern or mentor a junior engineer and provide career feedback or delegate tasks. Experiment with a less hands-on approach and see if you like it. If you do, the EM pathway could be right for you.

Now that you have your career pathway, the guardrails of the job and the freedom to execute, it's up to you to be proactive and seek guidance when you need it. A career pathway is intended to set you up for success and growth in your role — eventually propelling you to the next level. 

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