Leveling your Engineering Team

As you scale your startup from seed stage to Series A (ie. headcount is going to rapidly grow), you need to start considering levelling as an Engineering leader. The good news is you have probably 6 months till the world is on fire and a decision must be made / solution implemented.

I say 6 months because you focus on refining your onboarding process (Get’s someone from day 0 to 90 day) first. Then you should let them get a few projects under their belt to evaluate the results. This will mean 6 months from now.

For existing employees - they’ve been happy with scrappy survival mode startup up to this point, and leveling probably isn’t crossing their mind.

You shouldn’t consider this till you’re seriously ramping up hiring, and you’ve confirmed that you have product market fit.

The Framework

Most Engineering leads, take their experience or a big tech leveling rubric and try to apply it to their company. We’ve made this same mistake. The challenge is the number of levels and the job scope for people at bigger organizations look entirely different to a startup. You don't need 15 levels.

At a startup, it’s mostly about driving customer value. Their are some second priorities and a lot of big company priorities that don’t qualify. My old boss, Elliot came up with a pretty great framework for matching Engineering to level. I like this framework because it’s results oriented and simple.

  • Level 1 — Scoped Tasks
  • Level 2 — Scoped Projects
  • Level 3 — Unscoped Projects
  • Level 4 — Team Force Multiplier
  • Level 5 — Group Force Multiplier
  • Level 6 — Company Force Multiplier

Here’s a good quote from his post:

Don’t pay people for the number of people they lead or the lines of code they write. Pay them for the results they generate.

Just some my own takes on each level.

L1 to L3

It’s also simple enough people understand why they are the level they are, and how to move up. You should expect most team members to be an L3. Either they start Junior, and have a fast growth rate that will get them to up levels. If someone isn’t junior and isn’t an L3 material, then you should consider if you are holding a high enough of a quality bar during hiring.

L4 to L6

I also recommend avoiding hiring people directly into L4 or above, unless you are ready to fire if they don’t meet that expectation. De-leveling people isn’t an enjoyable process. Just because someone is a team force multiplier at one company, doesn’t mean it carries over. Don't trust titles from other companies. It’s always easier to move people up.

You may get tempted to start your existing team members as an L4 or above because they were around during the scrappy days. Try to separate having institutional knowledge from truly being a team force multiplier.

I tend to think L5 Group Force Multiplier as someone who’s raises the bar cross the function. It could be renamed to “Engineering Force Multiple”. If your Engineering team is two teams, it raises the bar across both of them. Again, easier to promote into as you scale.

You should also try and understand which archetype those who are L4+. It helps to defend your reasoning.

My last recommendation as I reflect on my experience, do this leveling conversation with yourself early on. Keep track of results from projects, and where you believe to rank your current team. Keep this to yourself, because someone may be a company force multiplier when you are a company of 5. As you scale, does that change? When you officially do this because you’re entering scaling mode, you should re-validate each one.

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