The Intersection of Capability and Opportunity

If you take even a cursory glance at some of the blog posts that I’ve written here over the years, it’s not a surprise that I’ve thought a fair amount about career ladders, particularly for software engineers. They’re these systems that are meant to codify the growth and maturation arc of a job function, encapsulating the possibilities of all the professionals in that role. And while these ladders tend to be similar—like many other aspects of our industry—they’re not exactly the same either; at one point, it was a popular pastime for engineering teams to publicly post their ladders and leveling criteria.

This time around, I want to focus on upper rungs of the ladder: the directors, staff and senior staff engineers and the like. Some common attributes for these senior roles, across all the ladders and companies I’ve seen apply them:

  • They often require exponentially1more years of experience than earlier levels;
  • There tends to be fewer and fewer of them as the levels rise;
  • They’re considered role models and exemplary within the organization and of all the folks at lower levels of the ladder;
  • Their value to the organization is attributed to some general sense of scope and impact, where the areas they can influence gets bigger and broader;
  • Not everyone is expected to reach these positions.

Digging into that last point, it’s synonymous with the idea of career ladder terminal levels: levels where it’s acceptable to perform well without striving to advance to the next one. Most of the time, the implication is that the ability required for advancement is not universal, that perhaps not everyone—or not even most people—want to grind their way up the corporate hierarchy.

But opportunity is an under-appreciated factor for senior promotions as well. If seniority implies broader impact, which itself implies bigger and more complex projects, then those tend to be few-and-far in between and would likely take longer to complete. For those looking for the chance to showcase their abilities and get due recognition, a part of the challenge is capturing the opportunity itself. Sometimes, no such projects actually exist; for instance, few startups would be able to make use of the technical capabilities of a Google Fellow or Microsoft Distinguished Engineer and someone looking for an equivalent distinction at a smaller firm will be waiting for a long time.

Other times, it’s the case that the most senior positions are singular, and the slightly-less-senior roles are also basically singular. Say, you have the skill and the drive and the support to be a CEO; if there’s already an entrenched chief executive at your firm, then that appointment is unlikely to happen regardless of qualification. A couple years back, this was essentially what played out when Square’s then-CFO Sarah Friar left the company2, because she wanted to be a CEO, and took that title at Nextdoor in a heartwarming retelling of the transition. It’s the same dynamic described in the book Superbosses—a great boss is someone who is able to cultivate talent to the level where they butt up against this rarity of opportunity and have to move on to fulfill their potential.

The takeaway is that, if you’re someone striving for ever-increasing levels of seniority and position, don’t feel too bad about things taking longer than they did compared to earlier levels or longer than your own expectations. For all the reasons above, every step is substantially harder than the last—that’s kinda the point!

  1. In the common linguistic sense and not in the mathematical sense, where it’d be closer to a quadratic.

  2. Which she successfully took public a few years prior.

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