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How Individuals Advance at Buffer, Without Becoming Managers

The concept of a career path at Buffer has changed a lot over the past six years. We’ve gone through various phases as an organization: beginning as an early startup stage where everyone did a bit of everything, then to a period when we decided against having managers and leaned into a flat structure, and now to a lean level of management within a more traditional structure.

Currently, we’re a 75-person team. And we’re happy at that size. We have no short-term plans to grow the team any bigger.

As such, we’ve been asking ourselves, “What does a career path look like for someone at Buffer?”

Not everyone can be a manager, especially when the team isn’t expanding. So how does a teammate grow beyond his or her current role or, more specifically, grow horizontally instead of vertically?

To answer this, leaders on a few of our teams have put together formal career frameworks, which include growth opportunities beyond the traditional management track. We’d love for individual contributors to have an equal path for furthering their career and developing their skills. Here’s what we’re trying, what we’ve learned so far, and the frameworks that we’re using.

The Two Factors of Career Growth: Influence and Ownership (not Skills)

Career paths at Buffer aren’t skills based. This means that advancement isn’t based on a checklist of skills that everyone has to complete before moving to the next level.

Our Engineering Manager Katie explains this really well in her post about the Engineering framework:

Comparing a front-end engineer and a systems engineer and an iOS engineer using a checklist of specific skills didn’t lead to transparent and fair outcomes (or outcomes we could make much sense of at all). It also might encourage engineers to grow in artificial directions following a random checklist rather than their true interests.

The same goes for people working in marketing and in customer service.

Instead of skills, all of our frameworks focus on two things:

  1. The scope of influence that a person has on their work, their team, the company, and the industry
  2. The ownership that they have over their area

Scope of Influence

We think of scope of influence as how wide a person’s influence, or impact, is.

An easy way to visualize this is as the ripple effect. If Buffer as an organization were a pond, and ever individual contributor were a new stone in the pond, how far would their ripple go?

The one element missing from this metaphor is time. We expect it to take a lot of time for someone to be able to ripple quite far.

Scope of influence is measured by how much impact an individual contributor makes. Starting with influencing only their own tasks, to at the highest level, influencing not only their whole organization but their entire industry.

Here’s the breakdown of the scope of influence in a five-level framework:

  • Level 1 — Themselves and their tasks
  • Level 2 — Their projects and pace
  • Level 3 — Their area and strategy
  • Level 4 — Whole organization
  • Level 5 — Industry

This scope of influence concept is borrowed from Camille Fournier’s engineering ladder.


The amount of ownership is how we attribute the level of responsibility that a person has within the team. For example, a teammate at Level 1 is just beginning and has no ownership of their area; a mentor, coach, or manager owns the area. A teammate at Level 5 exhibits ownership across the team and is accountable for the impact of his or her area and strategy.

This is what that looks like, level by level:

  • Level 1 — No ownership responsibility. Learning and being actively developed by others
  • Level 2 — Fully owns an area, channel, or discipline. Accountable for deliverables in that area.
  • Level 3 — Consistent record of very strong ownership for their area. Accountable for results in that area.
  • Level 4 — Exhibits ownership across the team, as it relates to the impact of their area. Accountable for executing on their area’s strategy.
  • Level 5 — Fully responsible for all aspects of their area. This person is rare. This takes an exceptional level of dedication to the craft and is a big jump from Level 4. Very few companies will have someone at this skill level.

The framework is also not a ladder. This means that we don’t expect that everyone will reach the highest level in the framework. Rather, we’re looking to focus on the entire career journey and growing in the direction that each person would like.

To borrow from Katie again:

At any one time, you’re simply at one particular point on your path. And no one stop ever describes the whole journey.

What Our Career Path Framework Looks Like

Our career paths are focused on individual contributors, as this is who makes up most of Buffer.

We don’t have paths for managers or coaches as it also only applies to fewer than 10 people on the team at the moment.

These career frameworks have been designed for our Engineering team (27 people), the Happiness team (19 people), and the Marketing team (9 people).

This specifically, is the framework that the Marketing team uses, with 5 levels. The Engineering and Happiness teams have a few additional levels as you’ll see below.

A quick overview of the career framework:

  • Level 1 — Expected to drive results with some support. They have experience in the role, can take responsibility, but are still learning the job and will have questions and need support. They can execute the tactical plan for a project but typically can’t make it.
  • Level 2 —  Progress beyond 1 but not quite to 3
  • Level 3 —  Expected to drive results with little or no supervision** (“set and forget”). These folks know how to do the job. They can make a project’s tactical plan in their sleep. They can work across the organization to get it done.
  • Level 4 — Progress beyond 3 but not quite to 5
  • Level 5 — Expected to make the plan. Your job is to understand the company’s business situation, understanding the marketing vision and goals, make a plan to address it, build consensus and get approval for that plan, then go execute it. The effect of the plan is likely to affect the whole industry. These people are rare.

We’ve added in timeframes for each of the transitions below because each of these advancements will take time.

The full career framework:

Level 1

Scope of InfluenceHow Work is ConductedOwnership Level
Yourself and your tasks. Drive results with some support
· Make a contribution through completing well-defined tasks.
· Receive closer guidance and tactical mentoring to avoid becoming blocked/stuck.
· Receive regular coaching on voice and tone.
· Beginning to learn in a self-directed way.
No ownership responsibility. You are learning and being actively developed by others

Focus: Learning
Timeframe to Level 2: 3–6 months

Level 2

Scope of InfluenceHow Work is ConductedOwnership Level
Your projects. · Make a contribution through self-defined tasks and area ownership.
· Make steady progress on tasks within the area.
· Ship regularly, with guidance and oversight.
· Collaborate directly with peers on the marketing team.
· Are self-directed in your learning process.
· Know when to ask for help when you are becoming stuck; do not go down rabbit holes.
Fully owns an area, channel, or discipline.
You are accountable for deliverables in your area.

Focus: Shipping
Timeframe to Level 3: 6–12 months

Level 3

Scope of InfluenceHow Work is ConductedOwnership Level
Whole area. · Drive results with little or no supervision
· Translate ideas into projects and see to it that they ship.
· Give guidance to others in your area (if applicable).
· Are sought out by others on the team as a resource for your area of expertise.
· Tie projects into results, and measure the impact of all you do.
· Seek advice and input when needed (and know when it’s needed)
· Begin to set strategy and vision for area, with coaching and advice
Have a consistent record of very strong ownership for your area.
You are accountable for results in your area.

Focus: Results
Timeframe to Level 4: 1–2 years

Level 4

Scope of InfluenceHow Work is ConductedOwnership Level
Whole team
· Make a contribution through executing on the strategy of your area
· Exhibit excellent judgment regarding decisions across your area and its projects
· Reduce the complexity of projects/tasks/processes in order to get more done with less work
· Act as a resource to unblock and enable the whole team
· Research and lead adoption of new and innovative ideas to stay current and strive for quality
· Begin to see vision for marketing and Buffer and to create area strategy to support that vision
Exhibit ownership across the team, as it relates to the impact of your area.
You are accountable for executing on your area’s strategy.

Focus: Strategy
Timeframe to Level 5: 1–2 years (If the person chooses to increase influence.) 

Level 5

Scope of InfluenceHow Work is ConductedOwnership Level
Whole industry or organization (Buffer).
· Expected to make the plan.
· Understand the company’s business situation, understand the marketing vision and goals, make a plan to address it, build consensus and get approval of that plan, then go execute it.
· Anticipates challenges across the organization well before they occur and takes preventative action.
· Is a thought leader in industry
· Makes major breakthroughs in tactics and/or strategy
· Drives projects on which multiple organizations depend
· Unblocks multiple organizations of the future
Ownership: Fully responsible for all aspects of your area.
This person is rare. This takes an exceptional level of dedication to the craft and is a big jump from Level 4.

Very few companies will have someone at this skill level.

Focus: Influence

The titles, total number of levels, and even timeframe all change depending on the team.

Here are all the titles for moving through the various levels:

For Engineers:

  • Software Engineer
  • Software Engineer II
  • Software Engineer III
  • Senior Engineer
  • Senior Engineer II
  • Staff Engineer
  • Principal Engineer
  • Engineer of Distinction

For Happiness Heroes:

  • Happiness Hero (I-III)
  • Onboarding and Education Specialist (I-II) – Previous Happiness Hero I-III
  • Happiness Lead – Previous Happiness Hero II-III
  • Tech Hero – Previous Happiness Hero III

For Marketers:

  • Level 1: Main role (content crafter, press crafter, social media marketer)
  • Level 2: Strategist
  • Level 3: Coordinator
  • Level 4: Senior
  • Level 5: Head of …

Over to You

Creating career frameworks is part of our work to make sure that Buffer is an equal and fair place to work for all of our teammates, and that everyone understands exactly how to move ahead and grow in their career.

We’d love to hear about your experience with all things career frameworks in the comments!

  • Do you have a clear career framework at your company?
  • Did the Buffer frameworks feel like good solutions to you? What do you like most or what might you do differently?
  • If you’re up for sharing, what level would you put yourself in right now?
  • Julian Winternheimer

    Great article! I have a question, maybe for Katie: How much do you think individual scopes of influence and ownership levels are influenced by managerial decisions?

    Or more specifically, how does the project/team that an engineer is placed in affect his or her opportunities?

    • Hey Julian! That’s a great question. Maybe we should do a follow up post on that!

      The short answer is yes, there is an effect. A project that requires more leadership and up-skilling, will tend to promote the growth and influence of that person. We need to be very aware of that and help teammates get the right stretch-goal type projects to grow. That’s a key manager duty.

      The effect is greater the further along you go: for example, “fixing bugs unprompted” – you don’t need a special opportunity to do that, you just do it. But “Makes good, informed decisions around technical debt” – the project/team structure you’re in might affect what decisions there are to be made, and who gets to make them.

      The other part to consider critically is influence outside of Buffer. For example, an Engineer of Distinction is defined as someone whose work has industry-wide impact. Influencing non-Buffer teams at earlier stages could count in theory, for example through open source, but this is deeply problematic.
      The problem with that is a teammate may then work on their own time, in order to advance at Buffer, because their regular work blocks growth. That’s just not right. It opens up a lot of unfairness – for example, caregivers (who tend to be predominantly women) are far less able to work a double shift. Doing that would be systemically biased against women advancing, so we don’t and won’t do that. The cure is worse than the disease for that one!

      Teammate growth is a very core accountability for managers, and a big part of meeting that accountability is making sure that teammates get equitable access to teams and projects that will help them advance to the next stage. Being very open about this (like here now!) helps so much. I think there’ll always be some amount of variance in how growth-promoting projects are, and who gets what project should not be random luck, or worse, driven by unconscious bias. So it’s vital that this is an ongoing conversation and we continue to reflect and challenge ourselves to always do better here.

  • Fabricio Buzeto

    This is just a great and insightful content, thanks for sharing Halley.
    Your plan reminds me a lot about the time I’ve had to create and experiment with a plan for my previous company. We used to call these “factors” as “rulers”. For behaviour they worked fine but my biggest mistake was also assigning rulers for technical knowledge, ability and results. Nowadays, in my current company we’re tying results to bonuses (team and individual) and I was not sure how to do progression. But after reading your article you inspired me to go the behaviour route once again.

    Keep up the good work.

    • Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment, Fabricio! I’m so glad this article was helpful. I’d love to hear what you learn when you start implementing it! :)

  • Joe

    This article and the previous one about pay scale’s at Buffer were so good! It’s always fun to see how other companies operate. I was reading the levels and asking myself which one suited me, as I’m a one person social media team but work with other areas of the company to create content. I came to the conclusion that I’m at either level 3 or level 4 and I’ve only been with the company for a year this month.

    Keep up the amazing content!

    • That is really awesome, Joe! Thank you so much for reading and sharing. :)
      A one person social media team totally resonates with me haha, our own Brian Peters is super similar in that regard.
      Hope you’re having a wonderful day!

  • Hi Hailley,

    Thanks for this article. This is a very pertinent framework of professional growth and value maximisation to both the company and to the individual on their road to self-actualisation. I feel that we need more of this type of approach that you use at Buffer in a working world where the culture is increasingly to advance as soon as possible in an often non-organic way. This is not good for the organisation or the employee. In a previous role I progressed in an 18-month period from level 1 to level 3 under the tutelage of a seasoned marketing mentor. I then began my freelance writing career full-time and while I am always learning, I do feel that I have progressed up to level 5, now working with companies regarding their entire content strategy and execution. There have been hiccups along the way for sure, but this is par for the course – the key for me is to aim to stay humble while you grow as a professional, own your mistakes and learn from then moving forward.

    • Hi @disqus_dHf7zY6UMq:disqus! Sorry I missed this comment months ago. I really appreciate you giving it a read! Really neat to hear your experience here.

  • Nice article Katie. Love to understand the “intent” as well as the “trigger” behind creating this “framework”.

    • Great question, @tastemaker001:disqus! We have used experience levels in our salary formula since the beginning but we didn’t feel there was enough clarity to determine when someone should be moves from one level to another without some level of bias. We created these frameworks to help the team know where they stand and to help managers make unbiased decisions.

      • Would you also want to share the outcome of this initiative, perhaps a fresh blog post?

        • Hmm my hunch is that it might be difficult to measure if this worked but one thing we can report is where everyone is at with their experience levels, I might bundle that into our next equal pay post in April. Thanks for the suggestion! :)

  • Brian

    How do you measure that a person is fit to advance in the career? Who set up the conducted and ownership?

    • Hi @disqus_hgDYHFtAbp:disqus, thanks for reading! Generally a manager and their report will chat about career progression every 3 – 6 months. It is on the manager to continue to chat about this with their direct report and ensure that that person knows why they are at their current level and what they need to do to advance.

  • Tom Sebright-King

    Hi Guys, great to read about the way you are structuring this part of the business.

    I have a question: How do you translate the theory and scales of ‘scope of influence’ and ‘ownership’ into the salary calculations?

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