What Is the Technical Ladder?

Have you ever wondered why corporations refer to their promotion paths as ladders? Maybe it’s because you need to be able to climb to get to that next promotion. Maybe it’s because you need to build something before you get to that next rung on the promotion ladder. Maybe it’s because the image speaks of being higher than others. Maybe I’m getting carried away.

As an engineer matures in their career there comes a certain point in which they determine if they want to move their career along the management path or technical path. Both paths involve leadership; yet, I think engineers often get confused as to the difference. In an engineer’s mind the words leadership and management become so interchangeable that an engineer mistakenly avoids any activity that smacks of “management.” In my humble opinion the difference is one of emphasis- a manager focuses on a business result and a technical leader focuses on a technical result.

The more complexity involved with a technical result the  more leadership skills you need. So, don’t miss out on opportunities to build your leadership skills. Such skills enable you to lead engineering teams in solving complex problems or in delivering a game changing product to your industry.

The technical promotion ladder at first provides the titles of each level/grade of an engineer. Some companies have a fairly flat structure with titles limited to engineer, member of technical staff, distinguished member of technical staff. Others list multiple grade levels. For instance at Intel, it went from grade 3 (BS in engineering) up to grade 13 (senior fellow). To get to that next rung on the ladder, that next promotion there are expectations in multiple areas.

A corporation’s human resources department often describes these expectations in terms of a skills matrix.  To attain that next level, you need to demonstrate that skill in accordance with the expectations set. Consider, “Demonstrable Influence” and how it changes with each promotion level.

• Growing your influence on your team
• Growing your influence within your department
• Growing your influence within your business group
• Growing your influence your company
• Growing your influence industry

These skills fall under key areas of focus, which I call attributes. I have observed that the attributes fall into four major categories as I have depicted below with some additional descriptors.

Diagram illustrating 4 attributes of technical leader
Four major categories for technical leaders attributes: technical, business acumen, leadership, growing others

While a ladder depicts the promotion path, I look at the attributes as legs of a stool.  If you exhibit strong technical skills yet the other three legs are weak, your stool topples over.  Basically, unless you grow in those other areas you are unlikely to get promoted.  Note, the legs don’t need to be perfectly even and think about, a stool is stable with 3 legs.  I recommend engineers to look at their own technical growth in terms of these four areas. Then pick an area of development and start traveling some trails that develop that area. This will take time and success will come to you, be patient with yourself.

“Being successful doesn’t make you manage your time well. Managing your time well makes you successful.” -Randy Pausch

A couple of years ago I attended a small conference for engineering career development.  A speaker showed an image of an engineer climbing a ladder and stated it didn’t resonate with her. She showed a new image of an engineer climbing a mountain face. The image illustrated that there’s no straight line up; and that it takes strength and perseverance and may involve some lateral moves before you reach the top of the mountain.

I liked her transformation of ladder to her image. Here’s mine.

Engineer career development as a rope net playground

Consider your workplace as a playground. You build your skills as you climb up and across the net. The good thing is that traveling this technical path takes you to fun places.

Come back again for another walk,