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Software Engineer Competency Matrix: Benefits, Challenges, Process, and Templates
Learn what the software engineering competency matrix is, and what are the steps of software engineer competencies matrix building. Review examples and templates.
With an effective software engineer competency matrix (i.e. a special matrix for software developer competencies), you can better manage your efforts to hire, onboard, and level your software development engineers. Sometimes, such a document is identified as a career ladder description, skills, engineering team competency matrix, or development ladder. The document is used in order to assess the required and available skill set that your team has. So that you can effectively pinpoint the skill gaps.
What Is a Software Engineering Competency Matrix
A software engineering competency matrix helps your staff lead quickly see whether the code-writing workgroup is on par to tackle the project at hand. In other words, this is the tool that helps businesses to:
- and access the skills and expertise of their software development engineers.
Thus, better insights allow more effective decision-making and sharing of talents across teams and departments.
Equipped with a sufficiently elaborated software engineering competency matrix, your HRs will find it easy to attract and hire the personnel with the required skills.
As a result, a document like this helps:
- better align the interests that your whole company and a potential hire have,
- motivating both sides to engage in negotiations,
- and accelerate the onboarding process and some other business processes.
There is also a particular case called the team skills matrix which should be described separately. This kind of asset is a spreadsheet that helps compare different staff members occupying the same or similar roles.
What Is a Software Engineering Competency Matrix Used For
Enterprises and other more or less massive and mature businesses actively use skill matrices. At the time, startups, along with small and medium-sized companies, typically tend to avoid developing and maintaining a skill matrix.
The most basic allegation for the startups is “we pay more than the market average, so we’ll definitely be able to hire those who’ll solve all the challenges and write the best code”. For SMBs, it’s just a way to avoid one more massive spending on something that won’t bring a positive effect immediately.
However, the earlier your team implements this tool, the faster you can start building a truly effective strategy in your recruitment and software development efforts.
So, what is the purpose of implementing these matrices? The skill matrix is used in order to:
- obtain a highly granular view of all of the available skills,
- identify any changes to the skills enablement, and
- adjust to the requirements that a new initiative (a project or a part of it, where the new staff member will work) poses.
Now that we’ve laid out the basics, we can talk about the best ways to create a software developer competencies chart for different programming languages and the benefits it brings to the table. Let’s start with the benefits and then move to the typical challenges you can face on your way to building the competency matrix.
Software Skills Matrix Benefits
The way your matrix comes together will be strongly impacted by the use cases and needs you set out to meet. Below we talk about the main ways you can leverage the matrix and enjoy company-wide benefits.
Career Pathing for Your Employees
At the core, the skills matrix can act as a powerful driver for pushing the staff members of your organization to critically assess their career development trajectories and identify the most appealing paths.
Openly, the staff members and the company overall can align on what the business needs and how the individual contributors can enjoy growth and higher rewards by fulfilling these needs.
Recruitment Is Driven by Real Needs and Pain Points
Your HR professionals will be able to leverage the developer competencies matrix to better recruit for specific projects. Equipped with highly granular insights into the required, available, and missing expertise, they’ll be able to forthwith fill up any skill gaps.
Effective talent enablement is a key precursor for a successfully delivered project. Projects, where HRs are trying to hire the needed talents after the project has launched, are in the risk zone and might fail either in full or partially.
Streamlined Performance Assessments
With in-depth insights, HRs and other assessors can quickly pinpoint the major traits and competencies they want to analyze.
At the company-wide scale, the senior leadership can quickly allocate the needed budgets and other resources in order to eliminate the strategic scopes with fully or partially missing skills.
Challenges Tied With Engineering Team Competency Matrix
Within our software engineers’ hiring experience, we widely used these matrices within our processes. Some challenges are quite common in different cases.
- Both the depth and completeness of the skill matrix highly depend on the skill level of the person it created. In other words, the level of experience of the efficient skill matrix creator must always be higher than the one of the examining person.
That’s why it is often highly difficult to build comprehensive and correct matrices aimed at engineering leaders: you must find even a higher skilled guru of code to fulfill their coding competencies. On the other hand, the approach works rather efficiently with junior- or middle-skilled staff, whose career growth is on full steam ahead, and expectations are lower.
- Code-related competencies are changing rapidly, which makes the maintenance process of your matrices highly challenging. Using any of the existing document management software tools helps streamline both the creation and improvement processes, take excess responsibility, and avoid multiple errors.
- Once soft and other non-technical skills are more or less intersecting for different software development roles and technologies, the number of differences is also huge.
- Soft skills are harder to be structured. But, recalling the above said, this is a highly intersecting part of skill matrices for different roles. In addition, the role of soft skills is growing along with the growth of expertise from junior to senior level. As a result, once investing your effort in the preparation of this part, you’ll be granted many times in the future.
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How to Create a Software Developer Competency Matrix
Below we share a foundational sequence that fits both smaller startups and larger companies. Make it your own by iterating, gathering feedback from all of the stakeholders, and kickstarting the continuous improvement process to your competency matrices.
Step 1: Appoint a Responsible Staff Member, Convey the Importance, and Define the Top Priority
Smaller tasks are known to easily fall through the cracks. Many teams underestimate how hard it can be to develop an effective asset. Turning this task into the top priority for a team member is a highly important step in order to bring the necessary focus, dedication, and responsibility.
Importantly, such a person will have the time and capacity to align all of the details in collaboration with various staff members at your organization.
As we said before, staff members with a lower skill level can hardly create an asset of acceptable quality for professionals with deeper knowledge. Moreover, the assigned employee must have sufficiently deep and versatile knowledge of all of the processes tied to the role and running within the organization.
Without such deep immersion in your operations, they won’t be able to pinpoint the underlying relations and correlations. The reality, however, is often different: your staff members can be immersed in the business or not, depending on their personal responsibility levels.
But you definitely can and should influence that. Keep in mind that simply giving an order won’t work in most cases. You should convey to the staff person the importance of what they have to do. This will help them feel the required responsibility, meet the deadlines better, as well as focus their attention on the quality of the result rather than switch to any other task that seems more familiar to the developer.
Step 2: Set Your Goals and Outcome Values
Once you’re starting any hiring process, you have certain reasons for that. They could be, for example:
- to increase the development performance for meeting the deadlines,
- to implement any challenging tasks that current members cannot,
- as well as to get a fresh look and independent opinion in a case of stagnation or crisis of ideas.
Before starting any producing activities, you must clearly understand, what are you planning to achieve, and for what. These goals and potential outcomes are crucial to form the document with a proper structure and contents.
Form a list, including the primary goal, as well as all the other goals and values, and be ready to validate them later. Define the value each achieved goal will bring to the table. In the absolute majority of business cases, these goals and values ultimately come down to an increase in revenues or a cut in spending.
Finally, you can assess numerically the value for each possible outcome of every single goal that could be achieved or knowledge could be gained.
Step 3: Get Agreements From the Main Stakeholders
When you’re hiring someone for your business, there are various team members whose work will get influenced by this decision. For example, creating a new senior PHP developer opened position impacts:
- back-end team lead,
- front-end team lead,
- QA team lead,
- project manager,
- software architect,
- HR team lead,
- delivery manager,
- DevOps engineer,
- ordinary PHP developers, front-end developers, QA engineers, and many other people.
All these people, when chosen properly, will help you a lot. They will regularly review your documents, providing you with not just good test coverage but also high-level guidance on what you’re doing.
So, before you start digging through tons of job descriptions and writing the text for your chart, you should, first of all, determine the participating persons occupying the leading and managing positions. Then, set up efficient communication with them to review the goals you’ve formed in step 2. Focus their attention on the fact they must thoroughly adjust the numerical values you’ve added to the outcomes.
Once the review is finished, beware of any initiatives within this scope that don’t enjoy the support from the key persons taking a part in the actual development and supporting activities.
Step 4: Design the Leveling Architecture
Based on the data from several previous steps, your responsible staff member can now design the leveling architecture of a table.
The easiest but often flawed way is to set the maximum possible values as the desired ones for the maximum-skilled developer, and then normalize the others from zero to one. But the correlation among the values for different seniority levels the most often isn’t linear.
So, you must act a bit smarter here. Below is a short plan that will help you accomplish these tasks bunch and achieve the highest possible quality.
- Determine the maximum possible performance for every single activity you’ve valued before. For example, a PHP developer with a huge 20-year experience potentially has the highest possible performance among the other PHP developers with a value equal to X. So, the performances of all the lower-skilled PHP developers will be X*M, where M=0…1.
- Find a correlation between the seniority levels and their values. You know for sure that the performance evaluation for the above-mentioned PHP developer with 20 years of experience is surely higher than the one for the developers with 5 years of experience but not four-fold. Try to find how the values correlate for different skill levels for each activity, i.e. to determine the M values. Now, you can fill in the empty fields of your document.
- Show the results to the stakeholders. Once the correlations found in the previous stage were highly subjective, you should validate them. For example, different programming languages offer rather different career ladders and curves, so your colleagues will find errors fast and accurately.
- Form a table. Put all the findings into the table. Use the x-axis to lay out the levels within your document and define the employees’ skills on the y-axis. In any case, you’ll face situations with misalignments between how different parameters map out on this axis. Picking a route where you streamline and simplify your mapping is a good way to reduce the workload and stress.
- Draft the descriptions. Write down all the textual descriptions for your table. Don’t worry about the final wording: you’ll get a chance to do it later.
Step 5: Add Cultural Aspects if Needed
Once you’ve identified the levels and drafted their descriptions, you might feel that your work is mostly finished. However, your employees will surely benefit from you taking your time to consider the cultural aspects of the business, including unwritten rules, conventions, and organizational practices.
Invite your HR leads, team leads, and all other involved persons for open communication in order to discuss how the new project can sync with the cultural component in the best manner.
Don’t worry if the number of skills you’re now creating looks excessive. You can always cut them out or merge them. A skill that seems excessive to you might be a key trait for another department, role, project, or people involved.
At this point, reaching out to external peer teams and asking them to share their developer skills matrices makes perfect sense. With the help of external expertise, you can find some flaws that previously were overlooked.
Step 6: Polish the Descriptions
Now would be the best time to polish the descriptions and eliminate any quirks and inconsistencies.
Consider engaging a professional editor who would bring a fresh look to your writing and advise on every improvement that you might have missed.
You might go the extra mile and develop the terms glossary to better equip readers and reviewers when they interact with the final product. This will also help you stay on the same page with the applicants.
Step 7: Testing
Next, arrange the testing process by collaborating with focus groups within your company. It will help you gather valuable insights and feedback from the very people who’ll need to interact with your materials.
Another good option is performing mock evaluations both by individual contributors as well as leaders and their direct reports collectively. This will help you identify any hidden problems and bottlenecks that might prevent the effective implementation of your elaborate matrix.
Step 8: Collect and Process the Feedback
The time has come for you to ship the matrix into the wild. The stepped implementation process will simplify how you scale the new culture and approaches to managing operations.
Don’t expect your job to finish at this point, as you’ll need to set up continuous improvement for your document. This includes gathering feedback from end-users and other related people.
Set up an effective framework so that your team can collect and accumulate feedback tickets. Be ready to deal with versatile comments, requests, expectations, and narratives about anything and everything that relates to the matrix and influences it.
At the same time, you can’t allow your matrix to stay in a state of constant improvement. Better, set up and run regular reviews, say, every 3 or 6 months, so that you can convert recommendations into actual adjustments to the framework, consistently improving the result of your creative work and its performance.
Software Developer Competencies Matrix Templates
A variety of templates for software engineers’ skill matrices have been developed, and each and every company inevitably elicits its own blend.
As we said before, our software engineers’ hiring experience included wide usage of competencies matrices. As a result, we’ve designed our homebrew template, please take a look below:
|Level of experience:||Trainee||Junior||Middle||Senior|
|Area of knowledge:|
|Data structures||Doesn’t know the difference between Array and LinkedList||Can explain and use Arrays, LinkedList, and Dictionaries in practical programming tasks||Knows the space and time tradeoffs of the basic data structures, Array vs LinkedList. Can explain how hashtables can be implemented; can handle collisions, priority queues, and ways to implement them||Knowledge of advanced data structures like B-trees, binomial, and Fibonacci heaps, AVL/Red Black trees, Splay Trees, and Skip Lists|
|Algorithms||Unable to find the average of numbers in the array||Basic sorting, searching, and data structure traversal and retrieval algorithms||Understands tree, graph, simple greedy, and divide and conquer algorithms; is able to understand the relevance of the levels of this matrix||Able to recognize and code dynamic programming solutions, good knowledge of graph algorithms, has sufficient knowledge of numerical computation algorithms, able to identify NP problems|
|Systems programming||Doesn’t know what a compiler, linker, or interpreter is||Basic understanding of compilers, linkers, and interpreters. Understands, what assembly code is, and how things work at the hardware level. Has some knowledge of virtual memory and paging concepts||Understands kernel mode vs. user mode, multi-threading, synchronization primitives, and their implementation; can read an assembly code. Understands how the networks work, knows different network protocols and socket-level programming||Understands the entire programming stack, hardware (CPU + Memory + Cache + Interrupts + microcode), binary code, assembly, static and dynamic linking, compilation, interpretation, JIT compilation, garbage collection, heap, stack, and memory addressing|
|Source code version control||Backups folders by dates||A beginner user of VSS and CVS/SVN||Has proficiency in using CVS and SVN features. Knows how to branch and merge, use patches to set up repository properties||Knowledge of distributed VCS systems. Has tried out Bzr/Mercurial/Darcs/Git|
|Build automation||Knows only how to build from IDE||Knows how to build the system from the command line||Is able to set up a script to build the basic system||Can setup a script to build the system and also documentation, installers, generate release notes and tag the code in source control|
|Automated testing||Thinks that all the testing activities are the job of testers||Is able to develop automated unit tests and come up with good unit test cases for the ready-made code||Writes code in a test-driven development (TDD) manner||Understands and is able to set up automated functional, load/performance, and UI tests|
|Systems decomposition||Unable to think above the level of a single file/class||Is able to decompose the issue space and design a solution for fixing it, as long as it is within the same platform/technology||Can design systems that span multiple technologies/platforms||Able to visualize and design complex systems with multiple product lines and integrations with external systems. Also should be able to design operations support systems like monitoring, reporting, failover, etc.|
|Source tree organization||Everything is placed into a single folder||Understands the basic separation of code into logical folders||No circular dependencies, binaries, libs, docs, builds, or third-party code all organized into appropriate folders||The physical layout of the source tree matches logical hierarchy and organization. The directory names and organization provide insights into the design of the system|
|Code readability||Uses one-syllable names||Understands how to name files, variables classes, or methods for being well-readable||No long functions, comments explaining unusual code, bug fixes, or code assumptions||Code assumptions are verified using asserts, code flows naturally – no deep nesting of conditionals or methods|
|Defensive coding||Doesn’t understand the concept||Is able to check all arguments and assert critical assumptions in the code||Makes sure to check both return values and exceptions across the code that can fail||Has his own library to help with defensive coding, writes unit tests that simulate faults|
|Error handling||Has no idea about how to approach errors in the code||Basic error handling around the code that can throw exceptions or generate errors itself||Ensures that errors/exceptions leave the program in a working condition, with enough resources, and connections operating; as well as with a properly cleaned memory||Codes to detect possible exceptions before, maintain consistent exception handling strategy in all layers of code, and come up with guidelines on exception handling for the entire system|
|IDE||Mostly uses IDE as a text processor||Knows their way around the interface, is able to effectively use the IDE via the menus||Knows keyboard shortcuts for the most frequently used operations||Has written custom macros|
|API||Is able to use basic API features in case the detailed documentation is at hand||Has memorized the basic API functions and uses them frequently||Vast and In-depth knowledge of the API||Has written libraries that sit on top of the API to simplify frequently used tasks and to fill in gaps in the API|
|Frameworks||Operates the platform’s basic functionality only, without any significant add-ons||Has limited knowledge about the frameworks for the platform they’re working with; the experience of using is insufficient or lacks||Has used more than one framework in a professional capacity and is well-versed in the idioms of the frameworks||Author of framework|
|Requirements||Understands the basic requirements of projects of low complexity||Come up with questions regarding missed cases in the specification||Understands the complete picture and comes up with entire areas that need to be analyzed and included||Able to suggest better alternatives and flows to given requirements based on experience|
|Scripting||A lack of knowledge||Batch files/shell scripts||Perl/Python/Ruby/VBScript/Powershell||Has written and published reusable code|
|Databases||Often thinks that Excel is a database; has difficulties with the basic definitions||Knows basic database concepts (normalization, ACID, transactions); is able to write simple SELECT statements||Can design both good and normalized database schemas keeping in mind the queries that’ll run; knows a lot about how to use views, stored procedures, triggers, and user-defined types; knows the difference between clustered and non-clustered indexes; has proficiency in the use of ORM tools||Can do basic database administration, performance optimization, index optimization, write advanced select queries, able to replace cursor usage with relational SQL, understands how data is stored internally, understands how indexes are stored internally, understands how databases can be mirrored, replicated, etc. Understands how the two-phase commit works|
|Programming languages with professional experience||Imperative or object-oriented languages||Knows imperative, object-oriented, and declarative (SQL) languages concepts; ideally, understands also static vs dynamic typing, weak vs strong typing, as well as static inferred types||Functional, added bonus if they understand lazy evaluation, currying, continuations||Concurrent (Erlang, Oz) and Logic (Prolog)|
|Business domain experience||A lack of the domain experience||Has worked on at least one product in the domain||Has worked on multiple products within the same domain||Domain expert. Has designed and implemented several products/solutions in the domain. Well-versed with standard terms, and protocols used in the domain|
|Tool knowledge||Limited to basic IDE features (VS.Net, Eclipse, etc.)||Knows about some alternatives to popular and standard tools||Deep knowledge of editors, debuggers, IDEs, open-source alternatives, and other software development tools; has used ORM tools||Has actually written tools and scripts, added bonus if they’ve been published|
|Codebase knowledge||Has never seen the codebase||Has a basic knowledge of the code layout and how to build the system||Has sufficient knowledge of the codebase, has implemented several bug fixes and maybe some small features||Has implemented multiple big features in the codebase and can easily visualize the changes required for most features or bug fixes|
|Knowledge of upcoming technologies||Has not heard of the upcoming technologies||Has heard of upcoming technologies in the field||Usually, downloads and reviews early alpha previews/CTPs/betas, reads some articles/manuals||Has played with the previews and has actually built something with it and as a bonus shared that with everyone else|
|Platform internals||Zero knowledge of platform internals||Has basic knowledge of how the platform works internally||Has a distinct knowledge of the platform internals, can visualize how the platform takes the program and converts it into executable code||Has written tools to enhance or provide information on platform internals. For e.g. disassemblers, decompilers, debuggers, etc.|
|Professional books||“Unleashed” , “21 days”, “24 hours”, “For Dummies” series||“Code Complete”, “Don’t Make me Think”, “Mastering Regular Expressions”||“Design Patterns”, “Peopleware”, “Programming Pearls, Algorithm Design Manual”, “Pragmatic Programmer”, “Mythical Man Month”||Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs, Concepts Techniques, Models of Computer Programming, Art of Computer Programming, Database systems, by C. J Date, Thinking Forth, Little Schemer|
|Professional blogs||Has heard of them but never got the time to delve deeper||Reads professional blogs and listens to podcasts regularly||Maintains a link blog with the collection of useful articles and tools that they have collected||Maintains a blog in which personal insights and thoughts on programming are shared|
|English proficiency||Unable to express their thoughts and ideas to peers due to poor English spelling and grammar||Peers are able to understand what is being said; both spelling and grammar are acceptable||Is able to effectively communicate with peers||Able to understand and communicate thoughts/design/ideas/specs in an unambiguous manner and adjusts communication as per the context|
There is also the framework developed by CircleCi that deserves your attention. The team has managed to develop an elaborate structure with six levels for software engineers’ up-skilling. There’re 10 competency groups and dozens of child competency lines to guide your assessment and training initiatives.
Summing up, the competencies matrix helps align the goals of your company and individual contributors, allowing stakeholders to speak with more clarity and engagement.
Startups. however, usually underestimate the value that a well-developed software engineer competencies matrix can bring to the table. It’s never too early to start working on your skill matrix that will empower more effective recruitment, assessment, and training operations.
Software engineering is constantly changing, and your team will need to keep tabs on the changes and adjust the matrix as time passes. Receive the tangible benefits by formalizing a constant feedback accumulation process and running regular reviews, say, every three or six months.
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