The Trident Model of Career Development

Many tech companies use a growth framework or a career ladder to aid managers and staff with growth or promotion conversations. You can see many real-world examples of these over at https://progression.fyi/. These tools create a structure and define shared expectations of how people should perform at a certain level with a certain title/role. But like with any model, career ladders have pros and cons.

Career ladders are a starting point for shared expectations across an organisation so that different managers across an organisation roughly treat employees equally. A good career ladder means that a person at a certain level in a certain role performs roughly the same as a different person in another part of the organisation with the same level in the same role. Without a defined career ladder, it’s easier for one manager to promote someone to “senior” when they might not be considered “senior” from a different manager’s expectation.

But career ladders cannot be comprehensive. I’ve seen people try to define a very prescriptive framework but end up with so much detail that no one really understands the framework, or is too inflexible to suit the dynamic organisations of today. Similarly, a career ladder has some level of subjectiveness because each employee is unique and rarely fit perfectly into boxes. Another downside of career ladders is that people can quickly treat them as a checklist, trying to check as many points as quickly as possible to gain a promotion.

More modern tech companies often use a two-track career ladder, one called the Management track and another called the Individual Contributor (IC) track. Two tracks are generally better than one because those companies who have only single track force people to take on management roles when they don’t want to or shouldn’t in order to earn more recognition or compensation. While two tracks are great, I see great problems by calling the second track an IC track because it overemphasises the idea of individual contribution, when most organisations want and need technical leadership. You can see this focus in Will Larson’s Staff Engineer book which calls out “Leadership beyond the management track.”

To solve this, I think organisations should consider a Trident Career Model which I describe below.

The Trident Career Model has three tracks. Each track represents where people spend most of their time or energy.

The Management Track

In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) on management activities. This still includes leading people, supporting people, managing structures & processes and organising. People in this track must still have some background in the topic they are managing.

Most importantly, their main value add is not necessarily through making decisions related to the specialist field (e.g. system architecture). Instead, they manage the surrounding system & structure to ensure people closest to the work have the best context and information to make better decisions. They provide enough support, time and/or budget to enable others to do what they do best.

Example roles in this track: Engineering Manager, VP Engineering, IT Manager

The Technical Leadership Track

In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) leading people on a technical topic. People in this track must have relevant hands-on technical skills and experience. They should have good but not necessarily the best skills in the team they are leading. People in this track draw heavily on refined leadership skills to be successful. Classic activities for this role (in the field of software) include:

  • Establishing a Technical Vision
  • Managing technical risks
  • Clarifying/uncovering technical requirements
  • Ensuring non-technical stakeholders understand technical constraints, trade-offs or important decisions
  • Growing technical knowledge and cultivating knowledge sharing in and across teams

Example roles in this track: Lead Developer, Tech Lead, Principal Engineer, Software Architect. Also three of the Staff Engineer archetypes fit well on this track including the Tech Lead, Architect and Right Hand archetype.

The True Individual Contributor (IC) Track

In this track, people spend a majority of they time (70-80%) focused on “Executing/Doing”. Software engineers early in their career reflect this very well. This track still requires people to have excellent communication and collaboration skills. People in this track have impact through the deep/detailed knowledge or skills they offer. Most small companies do not need a deep IC track, as there is no need for specialisation. As an organisation grows, they may need more of these roles. The number of these roles will always be smaller than the other two tracks in a well-functioning organisation.

Example roles in this track: DB Specialist, Performing Tuning Specialist, Domain Specialist, Distinguished Engineer. The Solver Staff Engineer archetype fits best here.

Real-World Examples

Since I first wrote about this concept in 2019, it’s nice to see some organisations think about this.

One example is demonstrated at Engineering Levels at Carta. While this isn’t very visual with their levels, they emphasise “Senior software engineer II (L5) is the second of Carta’s two senior levels, our first terminal level.” This is made more explicit in this post about Staff Engineering at Carta, which says, “For those who wish to pursue it, our first level beyond “senior” and into focused technical leadership is staff engineer.”

Another example are the folks over at Netconomy who don’t have a public growth framework but point out this difference in this blog post.

A more recent example is over at Shopify, who don’t provide many details but do talk about a focus on craft excellence in their ~Mastery approach.

Conclusion

This model is indeed a simplification. In real life, the Management and the Technical Leadership tracks are not always so clearly separate. I know some companies where Engineering Managers also take Technical Leadership responsibilities, or where Tech Leads or Lead Developers are also expected to take on Management responsibilities. This is not necessarily wrong.

I have personally found that, at scale, it is often hard to find people who have deep skills and experiences at both of these areas, and that it can be useful to have a discussion around where someone’s focus, passion or development progression lies.

As the famous quote goes:

“All models are wrong, some are useful” – George EP Box

I have found this Trident Model a useful starting point to contrast differences in roles or expectations. Considering using this model:

  • To develop skills in an area you may want to work
  • When building out your own company’s Career Ladder
  • To explain differences/focuses on existing roles and responsibilities

I hope you found this post interesting. Please leave a comment about your thoughts of the Trident Model of Career Development.


History: This post was originally published on Feb 3, 2019 over on my old site: https://www.thekua.com/atwork/2019/02/the-trident-model-of-career-development/

Enjoy this article? Sign up for Level Up, a free curated newsletter for leaders in tech.

Leave a Comment