Career levels across Seattle-area tech employers

Disclaimer: These thoughts and opinions are my own and not my employer’s, although if you didn’t know that already you’re clearly not paying attention.

EMC Isilon recently refreshed their career level definitions and it got me thinking of how difficult it is to map levels from one company to another. EMC uses a P1-P7 numbering system, IBM uses a band 6-band 9 numbering system, Microsoft uses levels numbered 59-68, Amazon calls theirs levels L1-L10, etc. How is anyone suppose to make sense of this mess across companies? So I set out to do what any engineer would do: determine if there was a mapping between them.

From my experience at IBM, pre-acquisition Isilon, and now EMC I was able to do some of the mappings myself. I then reached out to friends who have worked for at least one of the three and asked how their current companies mapped to it. The following table includes the results thus-far:

IBM pre-EMC Isilon EMC Microsoft Amazon
P1 – Entry 59/60
band 6 SDE 1 P2 – Intermediate 61 L4 – college hires
band 7 SDE 2 P3 – Senior 62 L5 – mid-career
band 8 SDE 3 P4 – Principal 63 L6 – Senior
band 9 P5 – Consultant 64 L7 – Principal
STSM Staff P6 – Senior Consultant 65/66/67 – Principal L8 – Senior Principal
Distinguished Engineer Distinguished Engineer L7 – Lead /
Distinguished Engineer
68 – Partner L10 – Distinguished Engineer
Fellow Fellow Fellow

Discussion frameworks, not absolutes

The chart above is useful primarily as a framework for discussion. Even within a large company the skills for someone at given level may not map closely to others at that same level. Add cross-company evaluations into the mix and the above is, at best, a guideline.

Why is this important?

People change jobs frequently in the tech industry (no surprise given employees who stay in companies longer than 2 years get paid 50% less). My 10-year career at IBM and 4+ years (so far) at EMC makes me an outlier in a field where most of the resumes I see have people staying just 1-2 years between jobs.

The chart above can be useful when changing jobs across companies. When I left IBM to come work at Isilon this would have come in very handy. Instead of moving from my band 9 position at IBM to at least an SDE3 or Staff position at Isilon, I moved over as an SDE2 — two steps down. Next time I’ll have more data to make a solid lateral (or upward!?) transition.1

Levels !== Pay

Everyone I’ve talked to has confirmed that pay does not directly map to levels. It is common for the upper end of the pay range of level X to overlap greatly with level X+1 and maybe even border the lower end of level X+2.

What about Company X?

I’d love to get other large tech companies like Google and Facebook on here, I just haven’t found anyone willing to share their insight. If you have overlap with one of the above drop me an email and lets fill in the blanks.

1 FWIW, I currently have no intention of leaving EMC Isilon for another job.

Why I left IBM

Three months ago I left IBM for greener pastures. My departure from IBM surprised most all of my coworkers (except for one person who said both “I’m surprised it took this long” and “take me with you”). One person in IBM requested that I let them know why it was leaving so “we can learn from [it]” and this is what I wrote up and sent to them.

I guess it came as a shock to most people because I was not disgruntled — I didn’t sat around bitching to coworkers about some imaginary wrong done to me by IBM. They were probably also a bit surprised because I was on a rather fast-paced track upwards and getting good visibility. I don’t expect anyone to be surprised at why I left however.

First, lets remove any doubt as to the non-reasons why I left. That is, these things played no part in my choosing to leave

  • The workload. I love to stay busy. Sometimes between juggling customer issues, testing products, doing exploratory testing, and documenting findings I’d end up working long days or weeks. During one customer critsit I recall never leaving my desk for 4 days over a weekend until we got the issue resolved. For that same customer I worked on-site 4th of July weekend. But my direct manager and management team were always on top of me to take compensation time or be flexible about my normal schedule.
  • The team. Far from being a reason to leave, this was a big reason to stay. Everyone on both my immediate and extended team were complete professionals and have been nothing but a pleasure to work with. That doesn’t mean that there were no disagreements or heated discussions, but those rare instances were examples of how passionate folks cared about their work – not disrespect for their peers. (And trust me when I say that I’m sure I came across as an ass when advocating for my defects in bug scrubs!)
  • My direct management team. My direct management team was the best. Every first-line manager I had at IBM was phenomenal and raised the bar for their successor. Woody, my last first-line, is no exception and left some very big shoes to fill. He and the rest of my team gave me the flexibility to define my own job and the right level of running interference when I needed a buffer.

So lets cut to the chase and talk about the reasons I left:

  • The global development model. IBM is a global company and has development teams all over the world. That makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is to have a single team spread all over the world. What makes even less sense is to have a single agile team spread across the world. Scrum meetings over conference calls aren’t scrum meetings. In order to make cohesive teams it’s important for folks to get some face time yet IBM has no provisions for ever making this possible.
  • The lack of team support. Money to do anything team-related is nonexistent. For several years managers have been taking their teams out to lunch and other small team-building exercises with their own money. This is true of at least Tivoli and Information Management as I have manager friends in both areas.
  • The compensation. Let me preface this section by saying that I didn’t leave IBM because I thought I didn’t got paid enough. In fact, I took a pay cut moving to Isilon — and that’s not even accounting for the higher cost of living in Seattle. Instead this is about recognizing those who IBM purports to be “top contributors”. In 2010 I got a 1 — in a long string of 1s really except for years after I got a promotion. After 10 years, that’s not bad. My total raise in 2010: 4%. I got the feeling that this was a pretty high percentage compared to the rest of the organization. Except I didn’t get one at all in 2009 after being a new band 9. So that 4% over two years is more like 2% a year. And that’s for top contributors!? Compare this to the report that this year Google is giving a 10% pay increase across the board to their employees — not just their top contributors. At this rate I don’t see how IBM can stay competitive.
  • The spending constraints. I almost titled this section “The stupid”. It’s no surprise that IBM has been encouraging people to do more with less. Part of that mantra resulted in the order that there was to be no travel of any kind that wasn’t customer related without an exception. Getting an exception requires an Act of God yet sometimes people must still travel (see aforementioned item about the importance of team building) so management wastes time hunting around for any customer that they can place the traveling employee with for 30 minutes so they can check a box to get the expense approved. During my last 2-week trip to RTP, whose entire purpose was to engage with the team developing a new product, I paid for the entire trip. I saved money by staying with a good friend and paid for my own airfare. The only thing I asked IBM to do was to pony up money for a rental car for the two weeks. Total estimated cost: $500. Management wasted 3 or more weeks trying to find some customer for me to see while I was there to get reimbursed for it. How much employee time was wasted just to find some customer so I could get reimbursed $500. That’s just stupid. (They didn’t find me a customer by the time I left Denver so I canceled the rental car and borrowed my friend’s car for the 2 weeks. After I was there they found a customer for me to, literally, meet in a hotel lobby for 30 minutes talking about what tools we use in our lab to claim that I “met with a customer”. When the bean counters have forced managers to come up with such farce, and outright lies, to get travel compensation, it’s time to go elsewhere. I never did file that expense report. While I appreciate the effort my management team went through to get there, it was a little too late. More importantly, I couldn’t in good conscious be a part of such an outright lie.)
  • The recognition. Early in 2010 IBM got rid of their Thanks! awards in an attempt to further reduce expenses. This piddly little program was replaced with crappy eCards and a promise that a different compensation program was forthcoming. The new program was suppose to be more team-based and yet months after having been introduced I never heard of any team getting it. The Thanks! award program isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom of how IBM is no longer recognizing the effort of their employees.
  • The remote allowances. Initially IBM provided internet access and phone service via VOIP to their work-from-home employees. Then they nuked the internet access. Then they changed the VOIP to a $40/month max compensation for some other phone service. Now they’ve reduced the phone cap to $25/month. Given how much money IBM must save when an employee works from home compared to in an IBM facility (electricity? furniture? lease on office space?) this is, again, crazy. Soon I expect IBM employees to pay for the privilege of working from home.

In short: IBM is reducing the quality of their employees’ working environment and compensation to increase the stock price. As a shareholder I like it. As an employee it was intolerable any longer.

Last day at IBM

Today was my last day at IBM. It’s been a wonderful 10.5 years and I’m looking forward to a new adventure.

After I sent my “So long, and thanks for all the fish” email to my coworkers (yes, it was actually titled that) I received many warm responses, some of which I wanted to jot down here:

Ahhhhh … my main go-to guy on performance .. gone .. ahhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!!

[B]efore you get out the door please send me your thoughts regarding the reasons for your departure and what we might do better. Losing you is an expensive lesson but I want to be sure we learn from it.

I can’t tell you how sorry I was to see this note. You’ve been such a key part of getting TIM “operational” in so many environments, and contributed so much to the Performance Guide, redbooks, wikis, etc. [The] PoC would have been an absolute disaster without your involvement – I learned so much from that experience. [snip] Don’t know what development is going to do without you. I wish you all the best in your new job – I hope they know how lucky they are to have landed you!

Wow, its a big loss for the IBM and ITIM team… I’m sure your going to kick ass where ever you go, it was always great working with you.

[I] just want to say, it was great working with you the past years. I wish you the best in your new job. You are very talented and dedicated to doing great work, so I know you will do well where ever you go.

Wish me luck as I report in to the new job at 9:30a tomorrow!

Last day at IBM: November 15

Yesterday I gave notice to my manager that my last day at IBM would be November 15th. I’ve accepted a job with Isilon in Seattle and start on November 16th.

It was a hard choice leaving IBM. My manager, Woody, is wonderful, professional and personable. The entire ITIM team, from management, architects, development, test, support, services, and sales are all a real class act and I’ve enjoyed working with every one of them. But after ~7 years working on ITIM and ~10.5 years at IBM, it’s time to move on to something else.

I’ve seen ITIM grow from a blue-washed acquisition that didn’t scale all that well to a robust enterprise-level product that easily supports millions of users. IBM and the ITIM team allowed me to craft my own job description (my title has always been “Performance Peon” to anyone who asked) and in essence do whatever it is that I thought needed to be done. I’ve been empowered to work with customers both directly and indirectly through L2/L3 support. I’ve influenced ITIM product architecture and design goals. I’ve published, with virtually no supervision, a performance tuning document that is the first line of defense for our customers when performance issues arise. (According to the stats, the tuning guide in its various editions and versions was downloaded 1043 times last month and 26,216 times total since the first release in June 2006!) Heck, I’ve even sweet-talked developers into fixing bad grammar in configuration file comments!

It’s been a fun ride but it’s time to play in a different amusement park.

More details and ramblings about this to follow.

A change from IBM & Denver: Isilon & Seattle

Today I accepted a job with Isilon in Seattle. The change is a lateral move working on a performance team. My official start date is November 16th. I haven’t yet told IBM of my departure — I’m waiting until late October before doing so. My last day at IBM will be November 15th but I’ll be off on vacation the week prior. Or at least that’s the plan. We’ll fly up for a weekend in mid October to scout out a place to live (likely an apartment in the Belltown or Lower Queen Anne neighborhoods).

We’re sad to leave Denver but excited about new opportunities in Seattle. B has already applied for jobs at the Starwood properties up there (W, Westin, Sheraton) and will likely be broaching the topic with his manager sometime this week as it is likely that any interested Seattle properties will be contacting his manager and we don’t want it to be a surprise. We’re crossing our fingers they don’t just let him go like Compass Bank effectively did.

B and I have decided to bring back our move-to-Denver slogan for the move to Seattle: It’s all part of the adventure!

IBM raises (or this year’s joke) arrive

IBM gave out raises again this year and I received one in contrast to last year. Given the economy and job situations that are out there, I’m happy to have a job. I’m happy to have gotten an increase when so many people in IBM didn’t. I’m happy that I live below my means so I don’t need an increase. I’m not oblivious to how lucky and blessed I am.

That said, I’m personally unhappy with the results. IBM had a strong year last year. IBM, Tivoli, and Tivoli Security all three had a great first quarter. And with all of that, the raises across the board sucked.

I’m now at 85% of the MRP meaning that people in my position in my area make on average 15% more than I do. Despite my management team telling me that I’m a top performer I’m just not feeling the love from IBM right now.

Yes, I know: cue the world’s smallest violin…

10 Years at IBM

Saturday marked my 10 year anniversary with IBM. It’s very hard to believe that I’ve been here for a full decade.

When I started with IBM it was just before the dot-com bubble burst and companies were still hiring like crazy. I was courted by several different companies: FedEx in Colorado Springs, Ericsson in Dallas, Dell in Round Rock, among others. IBM offered me the most money and the job was in Austin, a fun-looking town after you got away from I-35. I accepted the position around November 1999 before I graduated the following May. The general mood of new-hires at the time, regardless of which company you went to work for, was that you’d be there for a few years and move elsewhere. Then the bubble burst <poof!> and everyone was quite happy to be gainfully employed.

Interestingly, shortly after I started working for IBM I discovered that I wasn’t a very strong candidate for hire. It was only because one of the interviewing managers thought I had some potential and wanted me in his department that they decided to make me an offer. Oddly, I never did work for him. They were wary enough of me to give me the lowest starting salary offered at that time — something I only found out the next year after my next manager said that while she was giving me a raise because of my great performance, she was also required to do so since the new hires would be starting higher than I was making!

I like to think since then they’ve changed their minds a bit. In 10 years I’ve gotten good performance reviews1, 3 promotions, and 9 notable awards2. I’ve been empowered to define my own position, which might as well be summed up by the word transponster ’cause there’s no good title for what I do3.

I’ve had a total of about 6 managers during my career and each one raises the bar for the next one. Each and every one of them have been amazing people who care about their employees and their employee’s career. To a one they have always watched out for me and ensured that I have retained a good work-life balance.

What’s the plan from here? Keep on keepin’ on. I’m continuing to grow into my new band and expand my sphere of influence. I’m working on increasing our project’s overall bus number for performance which should free me up to focus on other things. I’ll continue to work from home until it becomes impractical to advance without being in an office.

I always said I’d never go to a job I hated day in and day out regardless of the pay. I’ve been lucky that I am well compensated for a job I enjoy and part of a team that’s top notch.

1 I started to list the aggregate ratings but the definitions have changed enough over 10 years that it wouldn’t be meaningful.
2 This isn’t counting the 24 Thanks! awards over the years — 24 out of a potential 27 isn’t bad!
3 My title listed in the corporate directory is “LDAP & DB2 Performance Peon” — that’s what corporate gets for making it a free-form text field.

TakeTime take 2

Today IBM announced that, like last year, they’ll be offering the TakeTime program. Once again — I’m very tempted by the possibility.

This year our life circumstances are a little different which will certainly impact the decision to take advantage of the program. This year is my 10th year at IBM meaning I get an extra week of vacation so I’m not as tight for vacation as I was last year. Also unlike last year, we’re in a different part of the development cycle for my product, so it might be more challenging to get management approval. If all goes well, Benjamin will have a full-time job this summer which should make things cash flow a great deal better, but sadly also means that it would be unlikely we could use it for vacation as he would have just started working. And I have high hopes that I might, just might, get some sort of a raise this year which certainly wouldn’t hurt cash-flow wise either.

The first step is to touch base with my manager to see if my management team would even consider the possibility before I get my hopes up too high!

2009 PBC Rating: 1

I’m excited to announce that this year I pulled off a PBC rating of 1. This is particularly good news because my performance was being compared to all the other band 9 employees, a band that I’m relatively new in. I think I made a strong showing for 2009, obviously others did too, and I’m expecting 2010 to be even better.

[From my post two years ago:] For the uninitiated: At the beginning of each year, IBM employees write down their goals for the year and put them in the PBC tool. At the end of the year employees write up how close they came to achieving those goals and submit them to management who reviews them. Also at the end of the year management gets together and rates employees according to how well they did compared to their peers. Ratings can be one of the following

  • 1 – Extraordinary
  • 2+ – Exceeded Expectations
  • 2 – Solid Performer/Met Expectations
  • 3 – Needs Improvement
  • 4 – Your Ass Is Getting Fired

Because PBC ratings are tied to bonus payouts, the number of 1s and 2+s are limited – generally at a 3rd-line manager level.

To make things more challenging the evaluation of employees for band 9 aren’t done at a 2nd-line manager’s level but at a level higher. This means that my manager isn’t directly involved with the discussions but instead fills in my 2nd-line manager who advocates for me with her management team. Getting a 1 this year shows that not only am I performing well but I’m making good progress at getting exposure to my 2nd-line manager and her peers.

Like last year, I thought I’d include an excerpt from my manager’s writeup:

This is only Casey’s second PBC assessment as a Senior Software Engineer (Band 9) employee. For 2009, I can say with complete confidence, Casey has stepped it up a notch to clear the “raised bar” of expectations for the higher band and has achieved an extraordinary contribution rating, relatively, in such a short time. I feel this is remarkable, well deserved and continues to be tip of the iceberg regarding Casey’s up-side potential, in regard to his career in Tivoli and IBM, as a technical professional. Given the economy, recent resource reductions and world events, Casey is accomplishing this at a time, perhaps, where relative contribution relatively, may be more competitive than ever.

IBM Thanks! awards

IBM has an internal employee appreciation program called Thanks! Awards. This program allows employees to show appreciation to a fellow coworker for going above-and-beyond the call of duty. The award is actually a placeholder. After being given the recipient goes to a specific website to redeem the placeholder for an IBM-branded item of their choice.

Each employee is allowed to give up to 12 Thanks! awards a year and can receive up to 3 of them (the limit on receiving only 3 is presumably linked to the IRS regulations that says employees can gift up to $75 to an employee tax-free and the items to choose from are all easily under $25 each). I’ve maxed out the number of Thanks! awards that I can receive every year that I can remember, and each year I race with myself to see how close to January 1st I can max out. Not that I solicit them or do anything different than I usually do in my day-to-day job ’cause that would be cheating. In 2008 I received my 3rd award on Feb 25. This year it was on Feb 16. We’ll see what happens in 2010. I’m not the only one who keeps track of this as a quick google says some people even mention the number they get on their resume.

After your limit is reached coworkers are suggested to send internal eCards instead – which are admittedly corny but in my mind have the same personal recognition impact. Because lets be honest, it isn’t the IBM-branded stuff that’s the big win from the Thanks! award program, but the recognition of a fellow coworker of a job well done.

And in that vein my work resolution for the new year is to be better about giving out Thanks! awards (and corny eCards if necessary) where appropriate.