Tim Addison

What are the costs of an engineering career progression framework?

I’ve rarely seen the costs / return on investment (ROI) mentioned when discussing career progression frameworks. It turns out there are lots of interesting costs to be aware of, and some of them can be significant. If you’re planning to roll out a framework, being aware of the costs as well as the benefits will increase the chance of your framework coming down on the right side of the ROI calculation.

I was inspired to dig into this by Yvonne Lam’s thread what needs do levels serve, which contains the insightful question “what problems are orgs choosing to have when they introduce levels”. The related question of “how else can could those needs be served” is also fascinating, but we’ll stick to costs for now.

Visible Costs

Starting with the costs that are easiest to see, these are costs that will be incurred and are directly linked to building and leveraging a framework.

The first cost is building the framework. Even with a wealth of inspiration to draw from the first draft of the framework will take several hours. Iterating towards a version you’re ready to roll out will take dozens of hours from multiple people, with the cost increasing proportional to the ambition and complexity of your framework (how many roles? how many levels?).

Just like any other product you build, the initial cost pales next to the cost to maintain the framework. Technology definitely won’t stand still, and hopefully neither will your company. There will be bugs and inconsistencies in the framework that will only be uncovered as you start to use it. A rule of thumb is probably whatever it took to build you’ll be spending in annual maintenance costs if you want to keep it relevant.

A well built and maintained framework will need to be used to actually deliver any value - which means you’re going to have to spend time training people to use and apply the framework. If you’re going to use your framework for career growth as well as recruiting, this is potentially going to mean you’ll also need to align your recruiting evaluation with your framework. This is going to be both a large upfront investment as well as ongoing work for every employee and interview loop.

I don’t see any of these costs as avoidable if you want to build an effective framework. The only suggestion I’d offer is ensure you focus on ‘good enough’ at each step and assemble the smallest possible group of people to own the framework. The heuristic I’ve most often used is if adding another person doesn’t meaningfully increase the diversity of the group, don’t make the group any larger.

Now we’re done with the visible and fairly innocuous costs, let’s dig into the tricky ones.

Invisible Costs

The largest cost of a framework is mostly invisible, and is related to incentives. If the framework does not perfectly align with delivering customer value, employees will be incentivised to make decisions based on personal progression over customer value. This ranges from individuals making decisions about the work they’ll pursue, to the managers who will need to make decisions about which projects to give to certain individuals to help them secure a promotion. Incentives are tremendously powerful, and so this is a cost to ignore at your peril.

Pursuing promotion is a perfectly rational motivation. Attempts to paint it as an employee failing - when hundreds of thousands of dollars in a raise can be on the line - typically comes from someone in a position of overwhelming privilege.

Frameworks will also create many opportunities for people to be dissatisfied with their position in the framework. The costs here can range from temporary demotivation, to the loss of an employee, to the inability to hire an employee whose only issue is a perceived (or real) mis-titling. In an extreme situation you may be faced with a candidate who would be a stellar performer in the role, but you cannot hire them as they don’t fit into your framework.

These two costs are significant enough that for me they eclipse the visible costs, and should be front and center when building and rolling out a progression framework.

The final cost I’ll cover is the illusion of objectivity. Being more objective is a common reason cited to build a framework, but most (all?) frameworks have just moved the unconscious bias around. Almost every promotion will be tied to the opportunities afforded to a given individual, which will come back to bias and inclusion. Do you think a phenomenal framework would have changed Susan’s very strange year at Uber? Anywhere you catch yourself discussing something that is more meritocratic remember the paradox of meritocracy.

So, no framework?

I don’t see an alternative to not having a framework, though I’d like to see us as an industry propose and test alternatives. Although Powerful makes a very compelling case for no framework/levels, it glosses over the significant diversity & inclusion challenges a framework can assist with. That alone is reason enough for me to continue to advocate for a framework, even with the caveat around the illusion of objectivity.