What Is an Engineering Ladder? (Key Features and Benefits)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published April 14, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Effective management strategies can help employees better understand their expectations, grow in their roles and develop their skills successfully. An engineering ladder is one tool software engineering managers can use to offer their teams direction and communicate career expectations. Learning how the ladder works can help you successfully implement it into your own techniques and strategies. In this article, we define what an engineering ladder is, explain its importance, list its key features, discuss its benefits and provide helpful tips for using engineering ladders effectively.

What is an engineering ladder?

An engineering ladder is a framework software engineering employers and managers can use to guide employees and communicate expectations. The ladder provides helpful guidelines for employees so they can plan for the next phase of their career successfully. You can find existing ladders that list roles and requirements. These ladders are based on industry standards, but individual companies can adapt them to reflect their own hierarchies, positions and expectations.

Even though it's called an engineering ladder, the shape of the ladder more closely resembles a pentagon with five career levels inside. Structured like a radar chart, each point of the pentagon denotes a unique axis comprising different performance levels. Individual roles often favor specific axis points, so a junior developer might work to develop different skills from a technology lead, for example. As engineers grow within each axis, they learn to master each performance level, bringing their combined knowledge of each level as they ascend into their careers. Here's a closer look at the five axes:

Technology

The technology axis refers to technological tools and expertise that help software engineers build confidence using specific technology stacks. There are five levels within this axis:

  • Adopt: The first phase of the technology ladder is adoption. This means new employees are focusing on adopting and understanding the tools a team uses to complete their projects.

  • Specialize: The next level is specialization. At this point in an engineer's career, they have confidence using specific technologies, can educate others on those technologies and actively seek new knowledge on other relevant tech tools.

  • Evangelize: The third level, evangelization, focuses on research and improvement. An engineer at this phase might focus on creating fresh proofs of concept and bringing new technology ideas to the team.

  • Master: At the master level, engineers have confidence over the system's entire technology stack. They're often an excellent resource for others and an active force in improving technology offerings.

  • Create: Creation, the ultimate phase in the technology axis, is a level engineers reach when they actively inspire changes and innovations that benefit internal teams, external teams and clients.

System

Another axis in the engineering ladder is system, and it refers to an engineer's ownership of various system elements. Here's a closer look at system's five levels of performance:

  • Enhance: At the first level, enhancement, engineers focus on improving the existing system. This could include executing bug fixes, expanding existing capabilities or finding areas for positive development.

  • Design: The second level, design, focuses on creating original features that can aid the system and reduce the costs. They can work to prioritize long-term solution development over short-term fixes.

  • Own: At this stage in the system ladder, engineers focus on system monitoring and operations. They might also work to define service level agreements (SLAs) for the system.

  • Evolve: Evolve is a more action-oriented and progressive phase of the system ladder. It requires engineers to expect needs, improve system architecture and further define SLAs.

  • Lead: The last phase, lead, means that engineers have total confidence and control over a system. Their actions actively support outage reduction and SLA definition.

People

The next axis within the engineering career framework, people, focuses primarily on team relationships, communication skills and group contributions. Here's a closer look at the five levels within this axis:

  • Learn: Learn, the first phase, is for new engineers who primarily focus on gathering knowledge and gaining experience from fellow team members. It's important for those in entry-level positions or new roles to take initiative and learn as much as they can from others.

  • Support: As an engineer grows within an organization, they can focus more on being a guiding force for others. This can ensure the success and development of the entire team.

  • Mentor: Moving beyond support into a mentorship role is important for developing leadership skills, helping others in their roles and improving the success of the entire team. By encouraging others to participate and grow, mentors can provide valuable guidance to new or learning team members.

  • Coordinate: The fourth level, coordination, focuses primarily on managing teams, providing feedback and improving communication channels. They might help with delegation processes or discussion moderation.

  • Manage: Last, management requires engineers pursuing this ladder to use their skills to help others succeed in their roles. They might offer guidance to others at different phases of their career paths or work with them to ensure their satisfaction in their role.

Process

Next in the list of engineering ladder axes is process. This axis focuses most heavily on process engagement and development. Here's a closer look at the levels for this category:

  • Follow: New employees often spend most of their time learning processes and following procedures. This can build their confidence in company operations and expectations.

  • Enforce: The next phase, enforcement, emphasizes others' actions related to processes. Employees at this performance level might strive to educate others on process benefits, best practices and the importance of teamwork.

  • Challenge: Once engineers have mastered existing processes, it's important they look for ways to improve operations to optimize performance and team success. By challenging existing norms, they can help create new processes that better support the team and the company.

  • Adjust: In the adjustment phase, engineers continue to look for optimization opportunities. They might use feedback to perfect processes and deliver exceptional results.

  • Define: The last step, definition, works to align the team with the processes they execute. This requires knowledge of the team's maturity level, a strong sense of discipline and the ability to navigate unforeseen circumstances.

Related: What Is Software Engineering?

Influence

The last axis in the engineering ladder is influence. This axis is unique because it's applicable to all the other categories. It refers to the level or scope of influence someone achieves in their position. As someone grows within an organization, their influence likely grows too. Here are the different levels for influence:

  • Subsystems: In this first phase, when an engineer starts their career, their scope of influence is probably relatively small. They might affect individual subsystems within their team or with those they interact with directly.

  • Internal teams: The next level of influence is on the engineer's team.

  • External teams: Moving on, influence can grow to affect multiple teams, even those outside an individual's group.

  • Organization: As they continue to develop in their roles, an engineer in a leadership position can influence the entire organization.

  • Technology field: Finally, the top level is having an influence on the industry. This means making changes or affecting others within the community, not just the individual's organization or team members.

Related: How To Manage Effectively

Why is an engineering ladder important?

Engineering ladders are important for many reasons, including:

It can make it easier for managers to communicate expectations

One reason engineering ladders are important is because they help managers communicate expectations and needs to their employees. The chart is very explicit, and it's a useful tool for relaying information that's direct and specific. Because employees can see the performance level they're working toward, it's often easier for them to create useful goals and perform actions that get them closer to their goals.

It offers a visual representation of an engineer's career

Another reason engineering ladders are important is because they communicate performance levels visually. This makes them a very useful tool for those who prefer to learn visually and want to chart their progress on the chart. Looking at different careers and their orientation within each of the levels can help engineers create career goals and understand where to prioritize their investments of effort.

It's a useful tool for beginning engineers wanting to pursue a specific career direction

The engineering ladder is a useful tool for those who fulfill or aspire to fill roles like developer, development or tech lead, program manager or engineering manager. Individual companies might have specific names for these roles that differ, but often the focus of those within these positions remains consistent. Each of these positions carries a different level of experience, influence and seniority within a company. Some focus more heavily on specific axes.

A senior developer, for example, might only influence their individual team, but it's important for them to reach the third performance level in the other categories. An engineering manager often focuses heavily on people and process performance levels, but maybe less heavily on influence, system and technology.

Related: How To Manage a Team

Features of an engineering ladder

Here's a breakdown of some of the engineering ladder's key features:

  • Ladders: The framework focuses on four different ladders: developer, tech lead, program manager and engineering managers. For each of these roles, engineers must prioritize different performance levels within the five categories.

  • Axes: Each of the axes: technology, process, people, influence and system, represent different areas engineers can focus on developing in their careers. Some careers might focus more heavily on certain aspects than others.

  • Performance levels: Within each axis are the performance levels. As engineers grow their careers and discover their career trajectories, they can create goals that reflect the performance levels within each axis.

Engineering ladder benefits

Those who use engineering ladders in their management strategies and processes can often see significant benefits like:

  • Increased reception to ideas: Because employees can clearly see their position within the chart, it can be easier to help them understand your expectations for them.

  • More focused culture: A second benefit is a more focused culture. When everyone has specific goals and is developing toward an ultimate standard, the whole company can benefit.

  • Enhanced communication: Using the chart can make it easier to point out performance concerns or career path expectations. It's a useful tool for evaluating performance and guiding engineers toward more senior roles within the company.

  • Adaptability: If the exact role title, performance expectations or performance levels don't align with your organization, it's easy to adjust the ladder to meet your specific needs as a manager or employer.

Related: Job Search Guide: Product Management and Software Engineering

Engineering ladder tips

Here are some additional tips that can help you maximize your success using this management tool:

Adapt the ladder to fit your needs

The categories, axes and performance levels within each ladder are generic and relate to a general understanding of popular engineering roles. If you plan to use the ladder in your own management strategies, consider relabeling some categories and levels. This can make the ladder easier for employees to follow and more relevant to your processes and needs.

Ensure employees understand how the ladder works

For many, the ladder is an accessible and effective visual learning tool, but it's not always going to be the best tool for every employee. When using the ladder to work with employees and discuss career goals, be sure to ask if they have questions. Complete understanding of the ladder's functions and goals can make for more meaningful career development conversations and performance evaluations.

Use the ladder with other management strategies

While the ladder can make management tasks like expectation communication easier, it's important to have open dialogues with employees and to try multiple management strategies. Some employees might not be visual learners and the ladder may not apply to every aspect of a position. You can use the ladder to supplement existing strategies, but be sure to offer different tools to employees to help them succeed in their roles.

Explore more articles