Up or out: tech company leveling and mandatory promotions
If you're thinking about taking a job at a large tech company for the first time, you should remember to ask them how their "leveling" works. This is something that seems to be poorly conveyed to a lot of people, and many folks from outside the valley (myself included, back in the day) have no idea what's going on or how it should work.
First, there is the notion of job ladders. A software engineer is not a production engineer/SRE, project manager, or a people manager. Those are all separate ladders, tracks, whatever you want to call them. If you are hired onto a certain ladder, odds are good that you will have to interview to change to another, no matter how long you've been doing the gig. I wrote about this in 2011 describing Google, but the same applies to Facebook. It's probably being practiced in plenty of other places, too.
Within a job ladder, you then have levels. They tend to map onto years of experience, whether you have a degree or not, what kind of degree it is, how well you do in your interviews, how much money you ask for or hint about, and possibly how well you did as an intern.
Lots of people are hired as "threes". That is, 3. Level 3. They might be an E3 if a Facebook SWE, IC3 if a Facebook PE, O3 if a Google SA-SRE, T3 if a Google SWE[-SRE], and so on. Microsoft has its own levels which are bigger numbers but the idea is the same. These companies have internal mappings so they can say that someone coming from X at level Y is equal to a Z here.
Someone coming in at 3 might just be a new grad. Someone coming in at 4 might be a new grad... of a Masters or Ph. D. program. Tricky, right? Or, maybe they have some industry experience instead. Whatever.
None of this should be too surprising. The fact that companies will mis-level people should also not be too surprising. The lower you start, the more rungs there are to climb, and the longer they can keep you hanging on, trying to get "just one more level" out of them. Also, it directly translates into the amount of money they pay you, so keeping that down tends to be a good deal for the company.
Instead, the surprise starts coming in when you start talking about "yellow zones", "red zones", and "terminal levels". What's all this? Whether you know it or not, your company probably has a requirement that you get to a certain level within a certain amount of time. Imagine having two years to get from 3 to 4, and then about three years to make it from 4 to 5. That's pretty close to reality at some companies.
However, once you hit 5, you're good. You can (supposedly) stay right there as long as you want. That's the meaning of "terminal level". 5 is the first one of those. 3 and 4 are not.
So what's the red zone? This applies to someone who's not yet at a terminal level and is reaching (or has reached) the end of the term. If this happens and that person does not get promoted, something interesting happens. They start being assessed as if they were already at the next level.
Scenario: IC3, past the two year mark. Instead of being assessed using the "metrics" for a 3, the ones for a 4 will be used. This can be the difference between "does what they're told" and "actively finds more things to do without supervision". You can be a 3, be operating as a 3, meeting the bar of a 3, getting paid as a 3, but you will find yourself needing to meet a higher standard once that timer elapses.
The same goes for 4 to 5. Once the time elapses, those individuals start being assessed using the guidelines for the next level.
Big deal, you say. It actually is. Here's why. Maybe you are doing solid 3 work. As a 3, you'd be a "meets all expectations" (MA). However, you're being judged as a 4, and with that rubric, you miss the mark and get "meets most expectations" (MM) or even "meets some expectations" (MS).
Once you're below MA, a bunch of fun things may happen. Some companies won't let you change teams with a less-than-meets rating. If you just read that and thought "wait, so if my first manager hates me and gives me terrible reviews, then I'm stuck with them forever", you'd be right. Sometimes, the only way up is out.
Also, you can expect to be put on a "Performance Improvement Plan" (PIP). This is where your boss and HR sit you down and tell you that you will deliver this, this and this, or you will be gone. Then you sign it and it goes into your file, and you start working your tail off, and maybe they accept it and let you proceed as before. Or, maybe they reject the output and can you.
Alternatively, you can just walk. Some companies will dangle money at you as an alternative to going on the PIP. You can take it and bail. Obviously, this is much easier if you aren't shackled to them by some kind of inhumane quasi-slavery visa situation that we do to our friends who happen to be born somewhere else. If you're a citizen or have the appropriate paperwork, this is no big deal. You take it and split. However, a great many people don't have this option and have to shut up and hope they can pull through.
Through all of this, if your manager isn't supporting you, you're probably doomed. Unless they do something that's obviously going to get the company in legal trouble, HR won't care. Remember, HR is there to keep the company out of hot water, and they are never there for you.
What's the takeaway here? Know how the company works before you take the plunge. Ask how much influence the manager has on your progress. If you're coming in at a relatively low level, find out if there are expectations for you to move up within a certain timeframe. If you actually care about staying at the company, focus on solving for that. If your manager has a non-trivial amount of control over your situation and is going to be a showstopper, play nice and change teams while you still can. Don't wait for a bad review to nail your feet to the floor.
If you are in a perilous visa situation, you also have to solve for that at the same time, unfortunately. I really feel for you and am sorry that you have to go through that crap. Nobody deserves to be treated like this.
Folks at smaller companies which have none of this who have been alternatively rolling around on the floor laughing or scratching their heads at the wackiness described above, you now know how good you have it. Enjoy it!