“Designing” a Career Ladder for Product Design

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“Designing” a Career Ladder for Product Design

Since I joined DoorDash back in January of this year, my utmost priority has been to build up the design team. Hiring is one critical part of the effort to support the company’s exponential growth, but equally important is the team’s career development.

Based on the team’s overall feedback, we identified a clear need to establish a career ladder framework that would help designers better understand where they stood in their career and what they needed to do to develop themselves further.

I decided to take a design-thinking approach to this task, and went through a problem-solving process similar to the one we use for our design projects: I defined the audience and their needs; set clear benchmarks and design principles; and generated solutions. Finally, I tested each one then iterated based on the results.

Audience and their needs

I identified three audiences who would use the career ladder: designers, managers, and HR. I also captured what each audience cared about the most:

Designers

  • I want to understand where I stand currently.
  • I want to know what I need to do to get to the next level.
  • I may consider becoming a manager at some point. What skills do I need to transition to that different path?

Managers

  • I need to know how I should level my new hire.
  • I need to calibrate levels across my team.
  • I need to assess who’s ready for promotion in my team.
  • I also want to know where I am at in my own career.

HR

  • How do design levels map to the company’s job architecture?
  • How do pay bands map to the job levels?

Competitive landscape audit

Most career ladders I’ve seen are written in the form of a spreadsheet or a doc like below. The spreadsheet is most common because its grid format makes the presentation of the rubrics easy.For the Product Design positions, the rubrics usually consist of multiple criteria per level, such as tenure (years of experience), execution, product sense, communication, complexity of the role, scope of influence/impact, collaboration, contribution to culture, etc.

But I found that usually these criteria were tightly interconnected and clearly isolating each rubric per level seemed nearly impossible. For example, scope of influence can’t be explained without accounting for someone’s product sense and communication skills.

Also, as you move up the career ladder, not all criteria hold the same weight nor do all skills grow equally. For example, design execution chops become less critical when you’re leading a team.

I wanted to design a solution that is simpler and easier for the audience to consume and comprehend. I also wanted to design it to be better than another mundane spreadsheet – after all, not only is this meant for designers, but I am a designer as well.

Design principles

There were three design principles I considered:

Simple

There was no clear value in introducing complex rubrics at each level. Simpler structure equals to easier comprehension. I hoped that simplified content would also encourage more frequent conversations between managers and designers.

Comprehensive

By showing the overall structure of the career ladder and describing what it takes to get to the next level, I wanted to make sure the relative state of each level was clear.

Human

Unlike many other existing docs that looks like a performance criteria guidance, I wanted to help the team imagine the persona of each level as they read it.

Design Solution

I chose to use a Google doc because it helps the narrative be more conversational. It also made sharing with the team easier.

There were many iterations of content and form designs over a couple of months, but here’s a glimpse of the final solution at a high level.

Similar to any good guidebook, the document opens with a table of contents for easier scanning of the content and navigating through different sections. Next comes the purpose of the document and how it should be interpreted and used.

The below visualization is the overall structure of the ladder and how the influence radius changes as you ladder up. This visualization provides the context of each level, and helps the HR team contextualize the Design team’s level against the rest of the org’s. It was also important to explain what it means to take an Individual Contributor (IC) career path versus a People Management path as well as the commonalities and differences.

As to the actual job ladder definition, there are four sections describing each level: Profile, Hard Skills, Soft Skills and To get to the next level. Profiles generally describe the key attributes of each persona. “To get to the next level” is meant to help designers identify their development area while it helps managers crystalize the promotion criteria for their team members.
There’s a separate chapter for People Managers explaining the general philosophy around culture, people management, and team building. Each level description is laid out similar to ICs but the difference is that it’s more focused on Responsibilities than Skills because many skills are overlapped with the equal-level ICs.

Test and iteration

This ladder was rolled out to the team in June, in time for our mid-year performance conversations. So far, the team’s feedback has been positive, and it’s been a useful guideline in career conversations.

Just like any other design process however, I anticipate it will continue to be iterated upon as the team and the company evolve over time. As with any product, career ladders wouldn’t be very useful if there are no active follow-ups with the audience. After the rollout, I’ve been holding weekly office hours to make myself available to anyone who would like to have a conversation about their career.

We’re also planning to develop a similar document for our other UX functions like UX Research and UX Content Strategy.

Some interesting decisions and learnings

  1. I made a conscious decision not to make the years of experience too explicit and keep it rather looser in definition. When there are specific numbers attached, it can be misleading because tenure isn’t always equal to an individual’s impact or contribution. For example, having 10 years of experience doesn’t automatically mean that you are qualified to become a design lead. Even if you have fewer years under your belt, you can still be a design lead if your talent is exceptional and you’re making a significant contribution to the company. A career ladder has to provide a general framework but with some flexibility.
  2. As you ladder up, the distinction between hard and soft skills become blurry. When you’re operating at the leadership level, even if you’re an IC, your problem solving (which is typically defined as a hard skill) also involves soft skills like negotiation, teambuilding, and cross-functional communication. So I decided that the highest IC role would have an all-inclusive “Skills” section without a breakdown for hard vs. soft skills.
  3. A career ladder is merely a guidebook for your career journey, not the be-all-end-all. At the end of the day, it’s your job to define your own career aspirations/goals, and the manager’s job is to help you get there using the career ladder as a general guidebook. If we were to use travel as an analogy, you must determine your final destination on the map while managers act as guides who set milestones to help you get there. Don’t expect your managers to set the destination for you.
  4. A promotion is an indication of career progression, but it cannot be the actual career goal. Otherwise you’ll find yourself frustrated and anxious all the time. A promotion should be an outcome of your hard effort and outstanding performance. With that said, getting meaningful career experiences doesn’t always mean you need to be looking for your next promotion. Many times, lateral career moves to focus on a different domain or skill can be just as rewarding as a promotion. I want people to see their career more as a jungle gym than a ladder. Some moves will be lateral, some moves will be up, but you should be growing in breadth or depth either way. This is why it’s also important to find a company and a manager who is willing to invest in your career development, and will recognize you for your true value.

What’s your story?

I feel privileged to establish a foundation of the design team’s career ladder definition at DoorDash. For other design leaders who also have gone through similar exercises and challenges, I’d love to hear your wisdom and learnings.

For the designers who have seen career ladders in the past, what are the most important things you’re looking for in such documents, and what matters most to you?

Please share your insights in the comments below!

Special thanks to Tae Kim, our amazing Content Strategy lead at DoorDash and Justin Steffen, my awesome HRBP, for helping me with this article.

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