Source: The Next Web – As a manager, I view it as my responsibility to provide every engineer with a realistic and achievable growth plan they can execute against. In that responsibility, I try to be fair and objective, ensuring each individual is being held to the same set of standards at each level of engineering growth. This objectivity is important in removing any potential bias from both promotion and compensation conversations. And because the growth of an engineer is a complex thing, I like to have a tool to utilize in that pursuit. I call that tool a “competency matrix.”
At the beginning of 2018, I was working at CircleCI as an Engineering Manager, where we had 32 individual contributors and a plan to double that year. The company already had a competency matrix, but it was outdated and not current with the skills we had grown to value. This made performance and growth conversations extremely difficult, as the tool we had to guide these conversations had to be used with a heavy set of asterisks. We had a problem, and I wanted to be a part of the solution, so I set out to build a new competency matrix for the company. This was a lengthy process, spanning eight months from inception to organizational adoption. Along the way I learned a lot, including what steps we took were wasteful and which were useful. I believe this is a powerful tool in enabling organizations to provide their employees with clear growth paths, and I would like to reduce the barriers to companies developing their own.
So here I present to you the seven essential steps you need in building your own competency matrix. If you want to provide your employees and reports with a clear, agreed-upon, and well-defined path for growth within your organization, then this is for you.
Step 1: Make this someone’s top priority
In retrospect, this was the biggest factor in our lengthy redesign process. I had initially taken on this project as one of my many side projects. The only time I had to dedicate to the matrix were early mornings, late nights, and weekends. This was a passion project for me, and I loved working on it, but I was not able to give it the care it needed.
When Lena Reinhard, our new Director of Engineering, joined, she took this on as her first big project. We worked together closely after this, but the fact that she now “owned” it made it immediately obvious to me how much my limited availability had been holding this project back. If I had continued on driving this during my free time, I don’t know if we would have seen it completed in 2018.
If you are taking this project on, give it the attention it deserves by giving it to someone as their #1 job.
Step 2: Agree on what you are building
Until all stakeholders agree on what your goals are, every attempt at implementation will stall.
A competency matrix is a powerful tool to set a cultural tone and direction, so in designing your matrix, you’ll have many impactful choices to make. Each one has consequences, and you’ll only get through them if the team is aligned.
One of the questions that came up repeatedly for us was: is this codification of the status quo or is this aspirational? (It took us about halfway through the process to explicitly agree it was a blend of both.)
Another key point of agreement is: who is going to be affected by this? In our case this question hinged on whether or not our new matrix would affect our Site Reliability Engineers (we decided it would).
Maybe you are building a matrix for your whole company, or maybe you are building a matrix for your front-end development team. The breadth of roles affected will greatly change the competencies you choose to codify, and the level of abstraction you need to use. So ask these questions, and get explicit agreement.
Finally, we needed to agree on the goals of the matrix. We decided the primary goal was performance evaluation and growth planning with individual engineers. Secondarily, we wanted to use it to influence our hiring process and communicate externally what being an engineer at various levels meant. Knowing the potential uses, and the priority of those, guided certain decisions.
Step 3: Guide by your values
This, for me, was the most fun part of this entire process. This is the part where you sit down and debate “what matters to us?” We had some help from our excellent Head of HR, David Mann, who came in with note cards detailing out ~100 behavior traits that are valuable to have as a professional. These were not engineering-specific, and ranged from communication to political awareness. We also utilized other publicized competency matrices to seed ideas of what could be in the running.