Reimagining how we think about career development

People are dynamic and creative, so why are our career development frameworks... not?

Some years ago, I started asking myself the following question about tech industry best practices: For whom is this practice best?

Work has evolved considerably over the last century, but the paradigms being applied to running companies have been adapted from practices that were originally designed for work that was repeatable, predictable, and highly racist and inequitable.

The next series of posts will talk about how—as an engineering leader—I've been spending the last handful of years unpacking and dismantling many of the systems built on these inequitable practices. I'll eventually cover hiring, onboarding, employee retention, offboarding, performance management, remote work, distributed teams, and everything in between, but first up today is career growth and development.

Ah, the dreaded performance review. Anyone who has been working in a corporate job for a while has almost certainly encountered the annual or semi-annual performance review, a meeting in which their manager delivers an evaluation of their work based on some predefined checklist of job competencies. Sometimes individuals are compared and ranked relative to their peers, as if they were wholly interchangeable, like cogs in a machine. Sometimes there is surprise feedback that has never been shared before, often used as justification to defer a promotion or raise. By and large, it's a highly unenjoyable experience for all parties involved, yet the practice remains firmly embedded as an "industry standard" process that all organizations should do if they are moving towards operational maturity.

At the core of the performance review is usually some sort of career ladder or matrix. Common career ladders model a linear progression, consisting of a spreadsheet that maps job titles or levels to a finite set of competencies. While detailed, these matrices are not easy to comprehend.

Where am I within this spreadsheet? What skills am I missing to be considered for the next level? What if I'm good at, or interested in, something that isn't accounted for in this leveling matrix?

The reality is that most career development (especially in tech) these days is non-linear, and one person’s journey is unlikely to mirror someone else’s with any degree of fidelity. Work requires creativity, insight, and innovation, and a rigid, two-dimensional leveling matrix does not incentivize nor motivate individuals to operate in this way. Many frameworks focus heavily on technical or domain skill progression, and neglect to emphasize the skills that help build cohesion, increase effectiveness, and enable collective growth—the “glue” that elevates teams beyond their individual members.

My take is that the impact that someone is able to have over the course of time is what drives career growth. As one gains experience, they are typically given both the trust and expectation to guide decisions of larger magnitude and consequence, thereby influencing long-term product and team outcomes. So here is my thesis about impact—what it is, and how it presents itself at work:

Impact is driven by a combination of traits and abilities that are tied to collaboration, communication, dependability, emotional acuity, and domain skills.An organization’s culture and values define how these attributes of impact show up as behaviors in day-to-day work.

Reimagining how we think about career development

Last year, I encountered Emily Freeman's Revolution model for software development, and from it, was inspired to similarly visualize career development as a set of concentric circles that represent the magnitudes of impact one might have in their role: self; immediate team; department, company, community. On top of those circles is a set of spokes that represent categories of competencies (collaboration, communication, dependability, domain skills, emotional acuity) that individuals are expected to demonstrate regardless of their level. Someone doing a self-reflection exercise should be able to plot out their magnitude of impact along each of these axes based on the types of projects they do, who they work with, and the types of decisions they make.

Diagram of five concentric circles, labeled from the innermost circle outwards as: Self, Team, Department, Company, Community. There are five spokes that overlay the circles, which are labeled: Collaboration, Communication, Dependability, Domain Skills, and Emotional Acuity

This format allows individuals to quickly assess themselves in the current moment, without the need to sift through dense spreadsheets filled with irrelevant text. If published internally, it can also help teammates discover mentorship opportunities amongst their peers. It not only answers the question of, "What is the shape of my current skill set?" but also, "How might my teammates help me—regardless of their level—that I may not have been aware of?"

Here are some examples of how hypothetical people at different points in their career might map out their competencies. Certain competencies may not be as developed because they are growth opportunities, but they may also be the result of an intentional choice to not over invest in areas that aren't critical for success in day-to-day work, eg. the manager in the third chart who isn't doing hands-on individual contributor work anymore, but still understands their domain well enough to facilitate decision-making.

Three diagrams that show competency maps for hypothetical team members. The first shows the map for an early career team member, the second shows a map for a mid career team member, and the third shows a map for a late career team member.

Despite the level difference, the mid career team member might learn some things about managing their emotions from the early career team member.

While useful as a self-reflection tool, the true strength of this visual model is in mapping an entire team’s combined skill set—superimposing individual competency maps over each other—in order to assess if there are certain categories that may be over- or under-represented. Where gaps exist, individuals may volunteer to fill a need for the team and learn new skills in the process. In the absence of individual interest, a manager can use this information to drive conversations around hiring needs.

Overlay of three competency maps

This team is decently balanced as a whole, but could probably benefit from building out stronger domain skills.

But here is the point I need to stress:

It is unrealistic to expect that every individual fill out every spoke on every circle, however, a team should strive to do it collectively.This model is meant to help produce teams where individual strengths can be recognized and rewarded, but where success is achieved by having a well-balanced group with a diverse set of skills.

That said, it’s worth noting that the competencies I've presented are often interdependent and overlapping. For example, it is highly unlikely that someone who does not invest time in building communication skills will be an effective collaborator or seen as a dependable member of the team. The behaviors that define what "good" looks like in different orgs may also vary. This is why the leveling matrix is still an essential part of the career development conversation, though not in its currently accepted form.

So next time, I'll get into what I think leveling matrixes should actually look like, and explain more about what traits and skills make up the five competencies. Stay tuned!


p.s. I've been iterating on versions of this model for almost two years. Aside from the aforementioned post by Emily Freeman that renewed my interest to develop it further, my original source of inspiration is credited to this excellent talk that Meri Williams gave about career vectors for technical leaders. Recently, someone also shared with me by jorgef, which I had never seen before, but shares many similarities with what I've written here. I'm glad to see other leaders reaching for new tools to visualize the how and why of work—change doesn't happen unless you keep challenging the status quo. ❤️