Here’s How Google’s Promotion System Works (and Works Against You)

This article originally appeared in eFinancialCareers.

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.”

With regard to its corporate structure, 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 itself 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 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.” By level nine, you’re a “distinguished software engineer.” By level 10, you’re a Google fellow (there are only around 12 of these, 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 corporate ladders only have 10 rungs; one internal myth suggests 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? First, it pays more. Second, it’s super-prestigious within Google. And third, 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 that, 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. 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.

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.”