Square’s Growth Framework for Engineers and Engineering Managers

A system for leveling up at Square

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At Square, we’re building products and services that help consumers and businesses participate and thrive in the economy. To accomplish this, we need to cultivate an environment where engineers can challenge themselves, achieve their goals for professional growth, and do their best work for our customers.

We’ve developed a set of principles, frameworks, and processes to support engineers as they build their skills, assume more responsibility, and grow in their careers. These clear principles and standards give engineers a roadmap for professional growth, even when interests and aspirations vary significantly from person to person. They enable a partnership with their manager to align personal goals with projects that serve our customers.

Our Software Engineering Career Ladder is a crucial element of Square’s toolkit for supporting engineers’ growth. It helps us ensure that we evaluate and reward engineers consistently and fairly, regardless of their team, discipline, or background. Every employee has a level, which describes the scope, complexity, and impact of their role and factors into compensation.

We’re sharing our engineering level definitions and principles to provide a window into how Square thinks about growth and development for engineers and engineering managers. We want to help prospective candidates understand how they’re being evaluated during the interview process and what expectations will look like when they start at Square. Our levels don’t line up perfectly with those of other companies: some have more levels, some have fewer, some are more granular, some less, and some have very different paces for promotion. You likely can’t accurately compare level numbers or titles directly between companies, even with tools that provide mappings between companies. It’s best to consider the actual criteria that define a Square level.

See our Engineering Career Ladder →

Guiding Principles

As we’ve refined our Software Engineering Career Ladder over time, we’ve converged on a set of guiding principles that reflect our values as an engineering organization and that we believe support engineers’ growth most effectively. Here are some of the most important ones:

Two Tracks: Engineers and Engineering Managers are on two distinct career tracks. This ensures that an engineer can grow in their career and take on more responsibility without having to become a manager. While there are some overlapping responsibilities between the roles, the skills and motivations necessary to be effective can vary dramatically. We want engineers to consider becoming managers if they are interested in the core responsibilities of people management; if they aren’t, we provide a path to take on larger scope and demonstrate leadership as an individual contributor. This helps ensure we don’t create an incentive to change roles for the wrong reasons. Engineers and managers at the same level will have comparable scope and impact on the business.

Becoming a manager is not a promotion: As discussed in more detail below, we define a promotion as moving up a level. When an engineer first becomes a manager, they remain in the same level and move laterally to the engineering management track. Again, we don’t want to incentivize becoming a manager solely for career advancement.

Scope & Impact vs. Behaviors: Our level criteria are organized into two major sections: Scope & Impact and Behaviors. Scope & Impact contain the defining criteria of a level. To be meeting the expectations of that level, an engineer or manager must be meeting every Scope & Impact criterion. We also enumerate a set of behaviors that exemplify that level of scope and impact. These are organized into categories like Technical Execution and Team Building. While we don’t expect everyone to demonstrate every single behavior listed for their level, we do need to see criteria from every category.

Years of experience: We do not have strict minimum requirements for years of experience at any given level. We evaluate scope of responsibility and impact, and we never want to fail to recognize high performance because of a litmus test like years of experience. Our ladder does contain years of experience guidance to help set expectations, though. It takes time to demonstrate a track record of performance, to get the breadth of experience necessary to succeed at higher levels, and to assess the impact of long-term decisions.

Generalized across teams and disciplines: Square has a wide variety of software engineering disciplines, including backend, frontend, mobile, security, and embedded to name a few. We also have many business units, products, and teams. We’ve written a single set of levels to apply to all software engineers across disciplines and teams. By ensuring we have consistent standards across the company, we can enable fluid internal mobility and further support individual growth. Engineers can broaden their skillset and perspectives by working on a wide range of products and problems.

Levels build on each other: Each level implicitly includes all criteria and responsibilities of prior levels.

Promotion Principles

Promotions are a powerful tool for defining organizational culture and values because people tend to emulate those who are promoted. A promotion occurs when an individual advances in Square level. Here’s how Square approaches engineering promotions:

Promotions are descriptive not prescriptive: We promote engineers and managers when they have demonstrated that they are consistently performing at the next level. Promotions don’t unlock new responsibilities; the new responsibilities and increased scope come first and then we recognize it with a promotion.

Promotion decisions are structured and rigorous: To ensure calibration across the company and to mitigate individual biases, we take a structured approach to evaluating cases for promotion. Promotions happen twice a year to ensure we’re evaluating everyone consistently. A manager, with input from the promotion candidate, writes a promotion packet that evaluates the candidate against the criteria for the next level. The packet provides evidence to support the evaluation, as well as areas for development and peer feedback. A panel of calibrated engineers and managers at or above the target level then reviews the packet and votes on the promotion. Panelists are trained on unconscious bias every cycle and use a checklist and a rubric to help interrupt bias in the review.

Contributions that aren’t covered by levels: While it’s important to evaluate everyone against the same explicit standards, we also recognize that our levels can’t possibly cover every form of contribution to the organization. Our promotion packets provide space to describe and contextualize contributions that don’t fit our criteria but ought to be considered, such as leadership involvement in one of Square’s community groups.

The Future

Our engineering levels are a living document that we refine continuously. We aim to balance maintaining consistent standards over time⁠—we don’t want to move the goalposts on people working to grow in their careers⁠—with the reality that our company and industry are constantly evolving.

Engineering at Square is distributed across our products and businesses; we don’t have a unified Engineering org like many other companies. To ensure our standards and principles are representative of Square’s wide range of disciplines and focuses, we’ve formed a working group of senior engineering leaders from all parts of the company to refine our engineering levels. The group solicits feedback from every engineering team and incorporates that feedback into changes that clarify our standards and improve the tools available to engineers and managers working to grow in their careers. It also collaborates with other working groups focused on Square’s engineering hiring principles and processes and Square’s engineering promotion cycle.

We hope our engineering levels and principles demonstrate how important growth and professional development are to us. We’re excited to contribute to the industry conversation around building engineering organizations where everyone can grow and excel, and we’re thankful for companies like Khan Academy, Rent the Runway, Medium, and Patreon who have shared their own engineering growth frameworks and informed our thinking. We would love to hear your thoughts and ideas to help us continue to evolve how we think about growth.

Want to grow as an engineer while building products that serve Square’s purpose of economic empowerment? Join us!

Thanks to Alan Paulin, Dave Apgar, Tess Winlock, Willem Ave, Michelle Ngo, Mike Humaydan, Pierre-Yves Ricau, and Phil Zigoris for their work to refine and improve our engineering levels.