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Leadership

How Individuals Advance at Buffer, Without Becoming Managers

The concept of a career path at Buffer has changed a lot over the past seven years.

We’ve gone through various phases as an organization: beginning as an early-stage startup 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 an 80-person team. And we’re expecting to grow some, but not rapidly in the coming years.

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

At the core of this question is the unspoken acknowledgement that it’s often unclear how to level up when your team size isn’t scaling up. Not everyone can be a manager, especially when the team isn’t expanding. So how does a teammate grow beyond her or his current role?

Is it possible to grow horizontally rather than vertically?

To answer this, leaders on a few of our teams have come together to create a formal career framework that includes 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 how you can get started on your own multifaceted career framework.


A Maker & Manager Career Framework

The two-path framework we’ve adopted at Buffer

Our previous career framework placed a lot of emphasis on typical career growth paths —  moving from one level up to the next, all within clearly benchmarked role descriptions. We didn’t have as adequate a solution for managers (of which we had few when Buffer was smaller). And we didn’t have clear career progress events for makers who have less interest in traditional people management paths.

Here’s a basic look at our previous career framework:

traditional career framework ladder

Now we feel we’ve made some good strides for both managers and makers, as well as giving our teammates more opportunities to be recognized for the great work they’re doing.

Our latest version of a career framework includes paths for makers (individual contributors) and for managers, and in addition to traditional, vertical career levels, teammates can now also progress horizontally with steps.

Here is an overview of our current career framework:

career-framework-maker-manager

To give a couple examples, a newly-promoted Customer Advocate II might be a Maker at Level 2 and Step 1. (Everyone has at least Step 1 on the horizontal Step chart. There is no Step Zero.)

And if someone is an Engineering Manager, they might be a Manager at Level 4, Step 3.

About Levels and Steps

With this latest version of our career framework, we’ve introduced the following definitions for Levels and Steps.

  • For a teammate to go from one Level to another is a large and distinct jump in terms of area knowledge, role complexity, and overall scope. It would be what a typical promotion at most companies looks like, and was the traditional framework we were previously using. A change in Level happens through a calibration process and involves our People/Finance team for guidance.
  • The second part of our framework, the Steps, are horizontal in nature, and there are four housed within each level. These Steps serve as smaller milestones of growth in terms of ownership and initiative. They are not a “progress bar” and are not necessarily meant to be a strictly linear progression; a teammate could potentially advance multiple Steps at once. A change in Step can happen at anytime through each area director’s discretion and requires no approval or discussion outside of the area.

Building the Framework

Details on how we determine each teammate’s level and step

Below are excerpts from our role leveling and step progression guides. Many elements of these charts have been adapted from Radford, our provider for compensation and role benchmarking. The Step charts are adapted from our own area frameworks as well as other public tech frameworks from likeminded companies like Fog Creek, Medium, and Rent the Runway.

Each chart is reprinted in its entirety below, just as we have it in our team handbook. If you’d like to adapt any of these charts for your own use, we’ve made them all available in a doc here.

For Makers

maker individual contributor career level chart
How we decide the career levels for Makers (individual contributors) at Buffer. Click to enlarge.

While the Level charts are meant to be thoroughly discussed with our People/Finance team before making a move, the Step charts are suggestion only, and area directors can interpret them and/or build onto them, to create area-specific guides with examples and principles that resonate for the work each teammate does.

maker individual contributor career step advancement
How we decide the step (horizontal) career growth for all career levels. Click to enlarge.

For Managers

We use a similar chart to assess where a teammate falls on the manager career framework. Here are the four manager levels and what goes into each consideration:

In addition, Managers have a series of Steps, just like Makers. Here is what goes into the Steps for Managers at Buffer.

If you’d like to adapt any of these frameworks for your own use, feel free to copy and paste from the free doc file of the Level and Step charts here.


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?

(Ed’s note: We’ve updated this blog post from its original 2017 version when our career framework looked different than it does now. If you’re looking for that older version, you can find the archived page here. Thanks!)

  • 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?

  • Thank you for sharing so detailed information. It’s very valuable. I have a few questions:

    1- I see that there is no “years or time” as requirement to progress in a level or step. ¿What do you think about time based progression, do you use “time” as a predictor or factor?
    2- When someone goes from one step to another ¿Is it there a monetary compensation? ¿A level II step 4 salary is close or can be equal to a Level II step 1?
    3- If managers can decide the step advance, ¿How do you prevent managers “over-stepping” their people, which can lead into frictions between team members or frictions with members of another team?

    Cheers!

    • Nicole

      I would like to know the answers to these questions as well.

  • Aislinn Herrera

    Hi Hailley!

    This was a great article and especially helpful for me as I’m transitioning my career and looking for some roles in sectors that I haven’t actually worked in but have experience in. Thank you so much (as always) for sharing with us and being transparent about the way Buffer operates.

  • Anthony Harris

    Did you borrow from Undercurrent’s Skill’s Maturity Matrix at all? Looks quite similar.

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