By Ben Eater
At Khan Academy, we see ourselves as part of a broader engineering community and just as we aim to open-source much of what we build, we also want to share what we learn while growing and maturing as an engineering team. We’ve previously shared our Engineering Principles. Today we’re releasing our Engineering Career Development guide.
We want to share this with the community in the hopes that other engineering teams may find value and give us feedback, just as we’ve used/stolen/gained so much value from Fog Creek, Stack Exchange, Rent the Runway, and others in making our career structures stronger.
Why do we care so much about this stuff?
Focus on the learner
Like many companies, at Khan Academy we have a list of company values that drive what we do and how we do it. Topping our list is “Focus on the learner.” Perhaps that seems obvious—who else would we be building Khan Academy for, if not the learners who use it? We’re a non-profit, so it’s not shareholders—we don’t have any. But much of education (non-profit or otherwise) is focused on every stakeholder but the learner. It’s important we don’t lose sight of our goal of making the education system better for more than just parents, teachers, or a small set of privileged students.
Only as continuous learners ourselves can we really empathize with and understand the mind of our learners. Consequently, our second company value is “Keep learning.” Not surprisingly, there’s no lack of opportunity to learn at Khan Academy. Apart from all the amazing content we produce for our learners, we love to teach each other too. We’ve had fellow team members teach us everything from bookbinding to cooking to coffee roasting to zumba. But the one thing everyone on our engineering team is continually learning is how to become better engineers.
As an engineering manager, I see it as a primary part of my job to support the other people on my team through their individual learning journeys. It’s pretty neat that by working on that challenge, we get to improve ourselves and simultaneously build even better empathy for our users. Our career development guide is a small piece of that puzzle.
But it took us a while to get here. Our career development guide started the way most of these career ladders do—and for similar reasons: We needed some sort of framework for figuring out how to hire and pay people with different skillsets and impact to the mission, we wanted it to be fair, and we needed to be able to talk about performance and growth. So we copied a lot of stuff from Fog Creek’s professional ladder and tweaked it a bit to meet our needs. That first version served us reasonably well for about 3 years, but over time we discovered its limitations.
The original version described each level with a single paragraph, making it hard for someone to really know what it took to move from one level to the next. As a manager, I had a shared understanding with other managers about what each level meant (or at least I assumed I did) and could give individual guidance to people. But that’s not good enough. It’s not good enough for me to be the only one to understand the full career progression and just tell you what the next step is—even if I’m right (which is far from guaranteed).
As we were learning that lesson, it was teaching us the parallel lesson that even if we built the world’s best personalized learning system with all the fanciest artificial intelligence that always gave perfect recommendations to each of our students, it wouldn’t be good enough.
It turns out that true personalized learning requires more. It requires students to fully understand the path that they’re on. It requires students to know where they are, where they’re going, and what steps stand in the middle. Ideally, armed with this understanding, students have the agency to choose their own path. The teacher’s role is to help students understand and internalize the context, motivate them, reassure them, and give feedback along the way. But it’s the student who’s really driving things.
Changing the broader education system is going to take a bit more work, but this seemed like something we could try for our engineering team pretty quickly. So about six months ago, we added a ton of additional clarity to our engineering career development guide. We wanted everyone to have a shared understanding of how you grow as an engineer. For example, what skills does it take to become an engineering lead for a major initiative? If that’s still a few years away and you have trouble ever imagining yourself as a lead, what can you work on now to take a step towards being able to imagine that? We wanted the shared ~understanding that we had as managers to actually be shared by every engineer in the organization. We may never fully meet that goal, but we’ve made a lot of progress.
As a manager, I now find myself in a lot more of the kinds of conversations I want to be in. I’m having a lot fewer prescriptive conversations—e.g., “here’s the next thing I think you should work on”—and more conversations where I’m brainstorming possible career arcs with someone who knows how to take the next step and feels empowered to do so.
Shipping beats perfection
We know this document is still far from perfect. We like to look at the way our team functions the same way we look at everything else we make: Something we constantly iterate on. I’m hopeful that by sharing this (far from perfect) document, we’ll get some feedback that helps us learn from others outside Khan Academy.
Feel free to fork our guide and modify it to use it in your own organization. If you do, please reach out to me and share what you learned! Or if you don’t want to bother implementing this in your own organization, you could just join on our mission to provide a free, world-class education for anyone, anywhere. We’re hiring! 🙂
Thanks again to the many shoulders we stood on: