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The goal of professional development is to help your people accomplish their growth goals and, in doing so, improve your team's performance. Each member of your team should become clear around their own values, talents, skills, knowledge, and goals. Once they have that level of self-awareness, they should understand in detail what the next steps are for developing those traits and achieving their goals.

Your job is to guide them to the answer themselves. Then, once you understand where employees are trying to go, you can make adjustments in their current role to move them in the right direction. This knowledge will also shape the feedback you're giving them.

You should have a distinct understanding of the future plans of everyone on your team. Do they want to become a senior engineer, transition from SDR or AE, or start their own business? To grow is human. If we don't provide an environment where people feel like they can grow, they will simply leave.

A great place to discuss this is in your team's one-on-ones. We recommend having a professional development conversation at least once every quarter.


It's important to remember that Clearbit is just a phase in people's lives. At some point everyone currently working at Clearbit will leave. Indeed, at some point, Clearbit won't exist! Our goal is to try and make it one of the best phases of people's lives, and set them up for whatever they want to do next.

Talking about Clearbit as a phase is an important idea to convey to your report before they share their career goals because most folks are used to keeping their true goals hidden lest they are looked upon as disloyal or having conflicting goals with the company. The manager-employee relationship is really a symbiotic one: the employee creates value for the company in exchange for growth opportunities that may or may not continue at the company.

Growth doesn't have to be at work

You may find that your report is quite happy in their current role and career. Perhaps they are focused on areas outside of work. That's totally fine. Don't force your definition of growth down their throats. If someone is doing great work for the company, and they're happy doing just that, let them do their thing.

Growth doesn’t have to be an up-level progression

Growth is really learning new skills. You can grow by learning peripheral skills that interest you; e.g., as a back-end engineer, you can grow by learning distributed systems design (go deeper) or by learning front-end development or marketing (go broader).

These skills don't necessarily advance you to the next compensation level if the skills are not highly valued in your role. But you may still highly value the skills yourself because you want to found your own startup later. (This is also why being explicit about supporting the employee’s career goal up front is critical.)

The up-level progression is simply a recognition of your achievement of mastery in a set of skills highly valued in your current role and the impact that the new role will have.

Growth is not management

For whatever reason, our society drills into us that to have career growth, we need to go into management. This is absolutely not the case. If your report wants to go into management, greatβ€”but that’s not a promotion, that's a career change.

Management requires a totally different skill set. If you have a report adamant on going into management, start discussing how to grow that skill set with them first. For a start, they should know this handbook back to front.

Leveling system

Career discussions are not promotion discussions. The trouble with bringing conversations back to compensation is that it promotes short-term thinking. A career is a decades-long endeavor that surpasses any one company's corporate ladder.

That said, for better or for worse, we do have a leveling system. If someone wants to get paid more at Clearbit, they will need to move up in the leveling system (not necessarily directly up, but possibly also up via a lateral move).

Why do we have a leveling system? It's the best answer we've come up with to make compensation objective and fair. It is far from perfect, though. Don't confuse the levels that we've made up with steps in your career. It's a rigid system that doesn't pretend to encompass the richness of someone's life.

Every department maintains their leveling system (which you can find in our wiki). Here's an example of the various levels in Engineering that we are currently hiring for:

  • Software Engineer (IC2)
    • Write readable, tested, idiomatic code (e.g., good structure, following code style)
    • Apply relevant knowledge, tools, and techniques (e.g., using background queues to buffer writes)
    • and so on...
  • Sr. Software Engineer (IC3)
    • Lead substantial technical projects (e.g., scope, track, deliver on requirements)
    • Identify and resolve ambiguous technical issues (e.g., use tracing to debug request lifecycle)
    • and so on...
  • Principal Software Engineer (IC4)
    • Strong individual contributor and technical leader (including everything for Sr. Software Engineer)
    • Support other team members on technical issues
    • Establish team technical policies (in harmony with the rest of Clearbit Engineering)
    • and so on...
  • Engineering Manager (M3)
    • Run standups, retrospectives, and other team meetings where needed
    • Provide continuous feedback and regular performance assessment
    • and so on...

Notice that we have an IC4 level that's higher than the manager level. It's important that we have IC levels that are equal to or higher than manager levels, otherwise you're signaling that the only way to get promoted is to go into management.

Having a discussion

Your professional development discussion should revolve around an 18-month plan and a longer vision. Ask your report to come to your one-on-one prepared with answers to the following questions:

  • How would you describe your success in your current role?
  • What do you actually do that makes you as good as you are?
  • Which part of your current role do you enjoy most?
  • How does professional success intersect with personal happiness in the context of your current role? Do you think it's achievable? Why/why not?
  • What would be the perfect role for you?
  • What goals (inside and outside of work) do you have over the next 18 months?
  • What would you like to be doing five years from now?
  • Write down five to ten skills or competencies you think are required to get to this place, and then rate yourself on each of these on a scale of 1–10.

Since this is all prepared, you can do some thinking of your own prior to the meeting. The first thing to consider is self-awareness. Has your report listed all the skills and competencies required to get to where they want to be, and how does their competency rating compare to your impression of them?

If there's a lack of self-awareness, ask your report if they'd be interested in seeing your scores for them for each skill and competency. While this can be a tricky conversation, the alternative is doing them a disservice by not opening their eyes to any blind spots.

Lastly, ask your report for ideas on how to work on developing these areas. It's much better if the ideas come from them! Try to morph their role and incorporate growth in the areas they're interested in.


Mentors can be a powerful way of catalyzing personal growth. You should be a mentor to your team, but it's also helpful to look for additional mentors outside of the company.

In Coaching , we talked about setting up an advisory board of three to five people who have experience in your domain and have committed to helping you. The difference between an advisor and a mentor is that an advisor directs and a mentor guides. Advisors have such deep domain knowledge that you can ask specific technical questions. Mentors should have a deeper understanding of what in particular motivates you, and they should serve more as a sounding board. Both roles have their place.

We suggest working with your reports to set up similar support structures for them. Prompt your team to look in their network for people who can serve as mentors, and if you have anyone relevant in your network, offer an introduction.

Personal coaching

An alternative to being mentored is using a personal coach. The leadership team at Clearbit all have coaches via a service called Torch. We also extend life coaching services to the entire team through Modern Health.

Taking responsibility for your own growth

Ultimately the ownership for career growth lies with the employee (not the manager). While this idea can be counterintuitive for a lot of people, acknowledging it is the only path to true growth.

Managers and the company are there to provide opportunities and shortcuts to growth. They have opportunities to apply in the real world some skill, or experts that have done it before to ask questions of. But they don't own growth; the employee owns it.

This means that an employee, not their manager, should be in the driver’s seat about their own career. An employee should seek clarity around what they want to learn next and jointly work with their manager to seek out those things.

Unfortunately, it’s all too common for folks to expect their manager to tell them what they should go grow next. While it’s important to explain our ladder and what the company needs, it’s just as important to bounce the question back to your report: What do they want out of their life?