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The problem with getting promoted at Google

There are people at Google in Mountain View who want to work for Goldman Sachs in New York. Seriously. We have spoken to them. - People who think that working for banks like Goldman Sachs, which claim to be "tech companies", might be better than working for an actual bona fide tech company with the motto, "Don't be evil." The problem, or part of it, is Google's arcane system of promotions and internal hierarchy known as ,"the ladders".

While investment banks have analysts, associates, vice presidents, directors, executive directors and managing directors in their hierarchies, Google has multiple ladders with up to 11 rungs to climb. There are different ladders for different career paths and swapping between them can be hard - especially if you want to get onto the most desirable ladders in areas like software engineering.

"I'm on the wrong ladder," complains one Google insider. "I'm on the business ladder instead of the engineering ladder and now that I want to swap onto the engineering ladder, I can't. Engineering pays more at the same level, but because I didn't come in a software engineer, I'm kind of stuck here."

We didn't speak to Google for this article, but we did speak to several current and former Google employees. It turns out that for a company that's supposed to have a flat management system, Google has an awful lot of levels in its hierarchy.

The levels on Google's ladders 

Quora does a very good job of describing Google's popular engineering or technical ladder here. Level five is where things start to get serious: this is when you become a "senior software engineer". By level eight, you're a "principal" (kind of like an ED in a bank). By level nine, you're a, "distinguished software engineer" (kind of like an MD). By level 10 you're a Google fellow (there are only around 12 of these, so like a GS partner except more rarefied - although known as a "VP" in Google-world).  And if you're at level 11 ("senior fellow" or "senior VP"), you're in the stratosphere with Google stars like Sanjay Ghemawat and Jeff Dean.

Most Google ladders only have 10 rungs: Google myth has it that level 11 was created just to accommodate Dean and Ghemawat.

But what happens if you're just an average Googler trying to make levels five and six?

This is where it seems things can get tough. - Especially if you want to make level five on the engineering ladder and you've been climbing a different pole. Insiders say ladder switches do happen, but that they come with downsides. "It usually means a demotion," says one machine learning specialist who formerly worked for Google.

"Yes, we do ladder transfers," agrees one Google employee. "But sometimes they come with a 'down-level,' so that if you're level five in business (O ladder), you'll have to go L4 in engineering (T ladder)." The ladders themselves, and the opportunities for switching between them are super-complicated, he adds: "You could write a book on this stuff. There are job families with ladders and roles within those job families."

What makes the engineering ladder so popular? Firstly, it pays more. Secondly, it's super-prestigious within Google. And thirdly insiders say it's seen as housing some of the biggest brains in the company. "You couldn't move from business development level five to engineering level five, because you'd be a laughing stock to all the engineers below you," says the machine learning ex-Googler.

Confusingly though, engineering has two parallel streams: an engineering track and an engineering management track. Insiders say the two are parallel until around levels eight or nine. After this, the super-engineers carve a path of their own. Unfortunately, this means people on the 'business' ladder who might've been able to tout their management skills are even less able to swap across.

It's not all bad news, though. While a bank like Goldman Sachs has decided it's top heavy and now only promotes to its top levels (managing director and partner) once a year, Google pushes people up its ladders twice annually. To climb a rung, you need a "promo packet" which is reportedly filled with all the nice things other people have said about you and all the great things you've achieved at work. If you're in a technical ladder, you can put this together for yourself when you think you're ready. If you're in the other ladders, it's up to your boss to put you forward.

Even so, some Googlers say climbing the hierarchy at Goldman Sachs seems a whole lot simpler - particularly as Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein keeps reiterating the potential for engineers at the firm.

Meanwhile, Google employees caution against going into Google without some understanding of how the system works: "I had no idea how the game was played regarding levels and ladders when I joined here," says one Googler. "That's turned out to be a problem for me."

Have a confidential story, tip, or comment you’d like to share? Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Ir
    Ironman92
    21 September 2020

    Principal Engineer is generally leading a team of about 40 engineers. Depending on the area, it might have revenue of several billions of dollars (although not all technology has a direct revenue associated with it). So it is definitely more like Managing Director already. Distinguished Engineer is leading a team of about 150-500. Something else to keep in mind is that in a bad year, revenue at Google rises less than 10%. In a bad year in banking, the firm actually loses money. I haven't seen layoffs at Google in the 10 years I've been there.

  • Bh
    Bhasker Kumar
    19 June 2018

    Well i partially agree with this. But the question is, does Goldman Sachs offers same salary and perks as Google does. And i think answer would be NO . The more technically and functionally sound you are , more easier its for you to grow up at Google. Things related to promotion are pretty transparent and the decision just don't solely with your managers , your work speaks for you . And lastly , there is a huge difference in ecosystem , work culture between Google and GS. But yes , though the hierarchy may be long but certainly moving up is not a pain (until you just choose to enjoy at Google).

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