Lessons learned from building and implementing engineering growth frameworks

by David Morgantini

More and more software engineering teams are creating growth frameworks. This post looks at why I created a growth framework for my team and the lessons I learned along the way.

In my experience, when you’re in a leadership position of a software engineering team you’ll regularly get asked something along the lines of “What do I need to do to get a promotion?”. If you’ve been given the opportunity to lead a team, I believe it’s your responsibility to have a good answer.

Unfortunately, many people in leadership positions aren’t able to do so. I was one of those people and felt that finding a way to provide clarity was an essential part of my role in helping to build a more skilled, motivated and effective team.

Creating a growth framework allowed me to give an actionable response when someone asked me how to progress.

What is a growth framework?

I’m going to use the term ‘growth framework’ here, but I’ve seen the same concept called a number of things. ‘Career path’, ‘competency matrix’ and ‘career ladder’ are some of the other commonly used terms. Whichever one is your favorite, all of these terms are referring to a guide that your team can use to understand how to grow within your organization. There are different ways to structure growth frameworks, but fundamentally they aim to provide a clear set of steps that someone can take in order to progress.

What impact will a growth framework have on my team?

I built and implemented my first growth framework for a team that grew from 20 to 50 engineers under my watch. Here are some of the effects I observed:

  • The team were encouraged as they were getting recognised for their growth.
  • It helped to improve the engineering culture by surfacing the behaviours important to the team.
  • Motivation increased as the team was equipped with a clear understanding of the opportunities available to them and how to achieve them.
  • Conversations around learning and development were far more focused.

What will my team think of having a growth framework?

The reaction to a growth framework depends on your communication, the framework itself and your process for creating it. Here are some tips on how to avoid common challenges:

  • Make it about growth: The growth framework you define is a tool that empowers your team to have fair discussions around compensation that are driven by growth. Communicating this effectively is crucial.
  • Involve your team: Don’t create your growth framework in a vacuum, doing so may leave you with something that doesn’t represent the team you’re building and can lead to disengagement. From the outset, you should involve all levels of your team to help shape the growth framework.
  • Reduce ambiguity: The aim of a growth framework is to reduce confusion with regards to growth. If the growth framework you create contains too much ambiguity there will likely be debates over which level engineers are at [1]. An effective growth framework should aim to minimise room for interpretation and expectations need to be clear.
  • Focus on individuals: Your growth framework should allow people to have their own, unique growth, rather than enforcing a single, one-size-fits-all track. Doing so allows engineers at the same level to have different specialisms.
  • Hold regular reviews: If you only review progress on the growth framework once a year, the review will take a long time and the pressure felt by your employees will be higher than if you were to have reviews at more regular intervals.
  • Give your team a voice: We’ve found people to be more receptive to feedback when they’ve had a chance to voice their opinions first. Make sure you give your employees the chance to review their own growth before their colleagues share their opinions.

How should I use a growth framework?

A growth framework is only as valuable as how it is used within your team. If you take the time to create one, don’t just share it and hope for the best, its usage needs to be structured if you want to get value from it.

In my role as the VP of Engineering at Tes Global, I used spreadsheets, to begin with. Each team member had their own document with a copy of the growth framework and colours were used to record their progress. At intervals of ~6 months each team member would review their growth on the map with assistance from their mentor and myself.

Whilst I found this approach to work reasonably well for a small team of 5–10, it didn’t scale as the team grew. The review process was consuming too much time, updating skills meant I had to make the same changes for each individual’s document, there was no easy way to create valuable visualisations, the poor UX led to un-reviewed skills and I had to manually keep track of who had done their reviews and who needed to be nudged to complete theirs.

The pain of using spreadsheets led me to build SkillsMap.io. The aim of the tool is to make the process of creating, updating and using growth frameworks easier and more valuable. The tool achieves this by allowing you to:

  1. Build and modify your own growth framework, with as much or as little help from us as you’d like.
  2. Identify individual, and team-wide skill gaps with visualisations.
  3. Carry out efficient and structured reviews at intervals of your choosing.
  4. Send automated reminder emails to individuals who have not completed their reviews.
  5. Assign user roles, which specify who should be involved in the review for each individual.

Where do I start?

Getting started can be daunting so you may find it useful to have a look at some growth frameworks created by other companies.

Alternatively, if you’d like to have a chat with the SkillsMap team for some advice, or if you’re interested in using our tool, feel free to send us a message.

[1] http://dresscode.renttherunway.com/blog/ladder