Growth Engineering at Zalando

How we enable growth for engineers at Zalando

photo of Gary Rafferty
Gary Rafferty

Head of Engineering

Posted on Jul 26, 2022

We recently closed out our annual performance review for employees. Naturally, this period is for us to focus on how we are performing, what we aspire to achieve, and how we can progress towards those goals, with the support of our leads.

As a leader, I’ve spent a great deal of time working with Software Engineers on their development, and helping them to drive their career progression. These conversations and discussions are usually driven by the engineer, with managers playing a guiding and supporting role, and typically consist of self-reflection, ideation, motivation, and the culmination of a development plan.

I thought that it might be helpful to share some notes on a few of the ways that we enable growth for Engineers at Zalando.

Role Expectations

A standard progression for an engineer is from Junior to Mid to Senior. Unfortunately, aside from the title, we (and I include myself from my own engineering days), are not always completely clear on what the differences are between the levels. In order to progress as a Software Engineer, it is imperative that we understand the expectations at each level.

At Zalando, all of our engineers are provided with a copy of our Software Engineering Role Expectations. This document, very clearly defines the expectations per grade across a wide range of functional areas, such as Scope, Delivery & Impact, Community Contributions.

Moreover, the expectations very clearly describe the requirements for advancing to the next grade. A common activity for engineers reviewing their performance is to look at the functional areas on their current grade, and the grade above, and with the help of their lead, to perform a RAG assessment on their performance. This will usually shine a spotlight on areas for growth, and also shine a light on strengths that should be doubled down upon.

A concrete role expectations document is something that I would have greatly benefited from whilst coming up as an engineer.

Alice: "Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"

The Cheshire Cat: "That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."

Alice: "I don’t much care where."

The Cheshire Cat: "Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go."

Alice: " long as I get somewhere."

The Cheshire Cat: "Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough."

Performance Reviews

I mentioned in the introduction that we have recently concluded our most recent performance review. Performance reviews of some shape and form are relatively standard practice across the industry, but no two systems are the same.

Our reviews are held annually, with a half-yearly check-in*. The reviews provide an opportunity for employees to receive rounded feedback, which incorporates inputs from their peers, stakeholders, and lead. In addition, it requires self-assessment. The self-assessment is particularly important. We are all responsible for owning our careers.

The performance reviews serve to:

  1. Recognise and celebrate their contributions over the last period.
  2. Identify their strengths and the areas that they shine in.
  3. Highlight any development areas or blindspots.
  4. Calibrate these elements relative to the aforementioned role expectations.
  5. Develop a goal and milestones to work towards over the course of the next review period.

I personally cherish the development areas, and love to hear where I can push myself more, and course correct any bad habits or issues (we all have them).

*Growth and progression is a constant and ongoing collaboration between you and your lead, but the actual timelines for the official review periods are annually and half-yearly.

Continuous Feedback

When I started out my career in engineering, one of the exciting aspects was the tight feedback loop. Using the REPL or compiler, I could quickly validate my solution. Tight feedback loops allow us to quickly course correct when something is wrong, but also provide a nourishing hit of endorphins when things go well. This supercharged-catalyst approach is something that we use for the delivery of continuous feedback at Zalando.

One of our values is High challenge, high support, which states that

Feedback is a gift. We give and receive honest and timely feedback. At the same time, we provide each other with support, and we care about the person beyond their role.

The use of the word timely is critical here. The best time to provide feedback, especially critical, is when the action is fresh in the mind. This is when context is plentiful and crystal clear. My lead never waited until our next 1:1 to provide me with feedback, and this is something that I have continued.

Mentoring (noun)

the practice of helping and advising a less experienced person over a period of time, especially as part of a formal programme in a company, university, etc.

Mentoring is everywhere in Zalando. We have many official mentoring programmes (some are company wide, others are nurtured within departments), and we also have many unofficial mentoring relationships. During my tenure, I have benefitted from being a mentor, and a mentee.

Typically, for early stage engineers, seeking out an experienced mentor is a great way to broaden their network, to gain experience, and to accelerate their growth. Your mentor will likely be from a different team or business unit, so they can offer a more diverse approach to problem solving and development.

For our more tenured engineers, and especially those who are progressing towards Senior Engineering, mentoring a less experienced engineer* helps to prepare you for the seniority expectations such as coaching, guiding, providing feedback, and paving the way for a new generation.

*I have witnessed some success stories where engineers have mentored non-engineers and helped them to secure their first engineering role.

Personal Development Budget

We provide our engineers with a healthy personal development budget, which can be used for learning materials, educational resources, training and certifications, and the like. Every person is unique, and whilst you might prefer to upskill using sites like Coursera, I might prefer to read a book on a particular topic, or to join a local study group.

Personal development is certainly not limited to technical skills, and should also include soft-skills, and other attributes that shape a well-rounded career. A personal example. I recently sought to improve my public speaking skills and took an eight week online course on Presentation Skills. The course was aimed at individuals who often need to speak to groups, and who find it uncomfortable. To my surprise, the cohort consisted of quite a few engineering leaders.

Courses and activities like these can be cost-prohibitive to some, and having the investment of your company to support you is a huge boost to your development.

Missing it? Make it Happen!

Another one of our values is Act like an owner, which states that

“Ownership” is about being responsible to our customers, partners and colleagues, not about being entitled. We own our destiny and are not stopped by circumstances: Zalando is what you make of it.

We are all encouraged to take ownership of our careers and development. One such example of this is the large number of communities and groups that were founded and run by engineers. In my particular department, I have seen people create and run React meetups, Book Clubs, Podcasts, Show & Tells, Hackathons, etc. At one point in time, these forums did not exist - an engineer wanted to attend one, and so they took ownership and created it.

Founding and organising such initiatives is no small feat, and you can be sure that the creators developed many skills along the way.

Organisations are ever evolving, and don’t come equipped with everything that you would like. If there’s something that you want, then go and make it happen.

Support, Support, Support.

I have been incredibly fortunate to work with leaders and peers who support my growth and development. They have provided me with open and honest feedback on what I am doing well, and of course, what I am doing not so well.

Growing within an organisation with such a deeply woven culture of supporting one another is surprisingly easy. Our engineers’ growth and engagement is a top priority for our leadership cohort, and they have our full support for unlocking their potential. Support isn’t sugar-coated, and sometimes that means having difficult conversations, but we do this to set you up for success.

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