PagerDuty Engineering’s Career Development Philosophy
This post is written for engineering leaders who are responsible for building on and maintaining their company’s engineering career track. It’s meant to provide a view into how we look at career progression, explain some of the reasons we would promote someone, the expectations for leveling up, and what the engineers participating in the process can expect from it.
The feelings and questions that often come up during a promotion cycle are not unique to PagerDuty and exist wherever there’s a leveled career architecture. What follows are ways we’ve addressed some of those questions within Engineering at PagerDuty, which we hope can support you in helping your engineers through a similar process.
PagerDuty engineering executes a biannual cycle of promotions. As always, no system is perfect and ours is no different. Our goal is to apply the trade-offs inherent in a system like this to get the most out of it—both for the company and for the individuals in our department. This blog will focus on the individual contributor track for engineering at PagerDuty.
PagerDuty Career Architecture Basics
Let’s get started by talking about some basic foundational principles about career architecture.
At a high level, here is how PagerDuty structures our Engineering career architecture:
- There are six levels for Software Development Engineers: SDE 1 to SDE 6.
- There is no requirement to “go into management” to advance up the scale. All six roles are individual contributor roles.
- We typically refer to SDE 3 and 4 as “Senior Engineer,” SDE 5 as “Staff Engineer,” and SDE 6 as “Principal Engineer.”
- Each level sets out expectations in the following areas:
- Core technical skills
- Business impact
- Problem solving
- The same expectations are in place regardless of the individual’s role and team within engineering. Mobile, front-end, back-end, full-stack, security, infrastructure, SRE, data science, etc., all use the same matrix.
Most people remain in the workforce for roughly 40 years, give or take. So if you divide it evenly, a person would expect a promotion every 5-7 years or so in a 6-step system. Of course, it doesn’t work that way in reality for a number of reasons, and we typically see career advancement happen a bit faster earlier in the progression and then gradually slowing later on.
It’s Not a Linear Progression
Progression from one level to the next gets more “difficult” because the expectations at each level get higher and higher. Attainment of the next level tends to require more breadth of experience, which can take time to accumulate. This can feel uncomfortable—especially at the beginning of an engineering career because school trained us to expect regular, predictable “promotions” to the next grade/level every year.
In a career, things start to spread out and the milestones get further apart. For an individual contributor early in their career, it’s easy to start to feel like they’ve become “stuck” at a level when they’ve been there for a few years. We’d all feel better if we could anticipate how long it should take, but things just aren’t that simple. For that reason, we’ve eschewed tying years of experience to our levels.
An Individual’s Progress Will Speed Up and Slow Down
Sometimes the stars align and the team works on something that gets one of the team member’s motor running. In a few months, they might attain some of the missing pieces that were previously holding them back from getting that next promotion.
Other times, they might find that their head’s not fully in the game for a while. Maybe hardships outside of work are distracting them. They show up and get stuff done, but they’re not really focused on their own growth at that time. And that’s ok—it happens to everyone from time to time.
Much like the levels on our career architecture, our individual growth doesn’t happen at a linear pace.
Progress Happens Even When Not Marked by Promotion
While the rate may fluctuate, growth should be more or less happening constantly. It’s helpful to think of the levels we have as milestones on a long path. The levels we’ve defined at PagerDuty recognize when someone is operating at a given level and provides guidance on where to focus one’s energy. This ensures that progress continues in the right direction.
In a role-playing game, attaining a new level for the character may give it access to capabilities that were previously unavailable. Conversely, a career ladder recognizes that the individual has developed those capabilities in themselves already.
Being at a certain level may appear to grant that contributor some influence or access that people at a lower level might not have; however, the title itself is not what gives them that access, but rather the attributes that earned them the title.
You Don’t Grind Out a Promotion by Earning XP
From time to time, people propose adding specific activities to the career description. The discussion usually goes something like: “We should add [interviewing, giving talks, incident command, etc.] as an expectation for SDEx because the people who are doing it don’t feel like they’re getting credit towards a promotion for it.”
If you’ve organized your career ladder in terms of “credit” or “experience points” when it comes to people’s career, you’re doing it wrong.
Undoubtedly, an individual needs to experience things in order to develop themselves. The more types of things they experience, the more opportunities they will have to learn and grow as an engineer. But the relationship between the activities and the promotion is indirect. An engineer gets “credit” by applying the things they learn, which positively impacts their current projects, team, and the overall business in ways that move them up the career architecture.
For example, imagine two engineers are on the same team. One engineer enjoys interviewing, has ample experience conducting them,, and has provided feedback about the interview process itself that has changed it for the better. They are seen as a go-to engineer for all things interview. The other engineer does not enjoy interviewing as much, and while they participate, they don’t have strong opinions about the process. However, that colleague is the team’s go-to person for postmortems. They write the best documents, conduct great meetings, and have demonstrated substantial influence over the process.
Both of these engineers are developing themselves and demonstrating that they’re likely operating at a higher level on the leadership, problem solving, and collaboration categories to some extent.. Because they’ve both made an impact, they’ve earned “credit” for that work.
However, if we put “run postmortems” or “conduct interviews” as activities on the ladder, it could do a disservice to both of these colleagues who are doing more than just rote participating, which might incentivize working on less-interesting things in order to tick more boxes.
Nonetheless, it is possible to make a custom list of things that a given engineer should work on in pursuit of promotion and, more importantly, further skills development. Their manager should work with them to make sure their short-term goals are compatible with their long-term career aspirations and leverage their strengths to move them along the career architecture.
No Singular, Perfect Process Exists
As a software developer, I love deterministic systems. It would make things very easy for everyone if there were an algorithm we could apply that would tell us what level everyone was operating at (especially if we all agreed that it was the fair and correct algorithm).
But of course, we’re dealing with human beings, so trying to apply deterministic processes to us is bound to fail.
Every time we run through our promotion process, our engineering leadership—with the help of our People team—put a lot of energy into getting this process as right as we can.
It takes many hours of calibration sessions, during which we check each other, help each other out, argue, disagree, etc.—you name it. We get help and outside-in perspective from other departments. We get top-down perspective from our executives. And most importantly, we get and give peer feedback from our diverse and excellent team of managers.
Patience and hard work are the most important elements when thinking about career progression. Even if an engineer doesn’t get that promotion they’re hoping for the next time the opportunity comes around, it’s important for them to remember that it’s a milestone in a long journey. Everyone should be able to look back on the past period of work and feel like they’ve grown their skillset and maturity. As long as they remain on that positive trajectory, the promotions will come.
Try to also remember that titles aren’t standardized in our industry. An engineer may have a friend with a similar level of experience at a small company who bestows a “super senior gold-plated engineer with sparkles on top” title on them. They might be an SDE2 at PagerDuty. Maybe it means their friend is “further along” than they are, but probably not.
We play the long game here. We know PagerDuty won’t be the last place many of our engineers work, but we want it to mean something to have attained a certain level here. We’re well known enough in the industry that coming from an engineering job here where one earned a promotion means that they are not just an excellent engineer, but a well-rounded individual who exemplifies PagerDuty values and offers more than just the ability to type code into a computer.
We’d love to know how you’ve set up your engineering career architecture and how you overcome obstacles with your engineers during review processes. Let us know if what we do is helpful or if you have suggestions for ways that we can improve by visiting the Community page.