Leveling at ChalkTalk

Leveling at ChalkTalk

Building the ChalkTalk Team

A year and a half ago, ChalkTalk was made up of 5 people. Today ChalkTalk is made up of 50 amazing people. ChalkTalk helps educators connect deeply with their students—we power ELA and math instruction at some of the largest districts and individual schools across the nation, from New York to Hawaii. We make this possible by assembling world-class operators in every position from product and customer success. From the beginning, we’ve made it a priority to bring on the best people in the field—a mix of discovered and undiscovered talent. Attracting such exceptional talent goes beyond our commitment to supporting teachers and student achievement. It requires us to create a high-performance workplace and foster a culture of excellence. As part of this journey, we publish guidelines on performance levels, career progression, and equitable compensation.

Hiring Smart and Promoting Well

ChalkTalk leaders hire and develop smartly so we have stars in every position. We start with a very competitive hiring process: less than 1% of skilled candidates who apply to ChalkTalk are offered a job position. Harvard University’s acceptance rate is 4.5% We focus strongly on placing people in the right level that matches their skills and then promoting appropriately from there. For each core job function at ChalkTalk—such as engineering, data, customer success, customer support, product, sales, and administration—we’ve created levels in two tracks: individual contributors (IC) and managers (M). Much like the engineering levels laid out by Carta in this great blog post, our levels correspond to employee impact. Higher levels correspond to higher impact, from: tasks (L2), features/customers (L3), problems (L4), teams (L5), departments (L6), the company as a whole (L7), and the entire industry (L8). It’s key to point out that the levels and associated compensation aren’t linear. Having an impact on the industry as a whole is not just a two-step increase from impacting a department; it’s an exponential leap. As your impact progresses from tasks to teams to the company to the industry, so too does your level. By hiring smart, mission-driven and motivated people, we have seen that instead of only sharing their immediate job description, we can also share our mission and how our progressive leveling structure works. This allows them to find the space to be productive and drive the company forward. It also empowers everyone by giving them ownership of their career progression. We also split out ICs and Ms. In many companies, managerial positions are seen as the “next level” or a reflection of seniority of contributions, but we view them as two separate functions. Because management and IC are different tracks, managers can be a higher level, same level, or even lower level than the ICs they manage. If they’re a lower level than some of the ICs they manage, they likely receive a lower pay. We expect the managers to have an understanding of the work done by the ICs they manage. For example, an engineering manager has great engineering experience but can also manage engineers effectively, some with more skills and experience than the manager. If an IC decides to transition to management, it’s possible that they will drop down a level or two (though will retain their prior compensation) to reflect the difference in skills expected from ICs and Ms and the adjustment between those two skill sets. To get a better feel for our levels, below are the IC and M levels for our key functions as of the time of writing this blog post. As our company expands, some of these levels and titles will expand too.

Levels help guide promotion in a clear way. Too often, people are promoted over and over within a company until they reach a level at which they are no longer able to do their job with a minimum expected threshold of excellence (see the Peter Principle). Once they reach this “level of incompetence”, the only thing left to do is manage them out of the company, which is unpleasant for everyone involved. By promoting carefully and only when ready to move to the next level of impact, we lay a better groundwork for success all around. Adequate performance at many companies may bring a modest raise, but at ChalkTalk, adequate performance gets a great severance package. The cost of having adequate in any position is simply too large when we could have extraordinary. The conditions of promotion are:

  1. Job has to be big enough – we might have an incredible manager of something, but we don’t need a VP of it because the job isn’t big enough. If the incredible manager left, we would replace with a manager, not with a VP or a director 
  2. Person has to be a star in their current role and already performing key elements of the next role – could get the next level job here if applying from outside and we knew their talents well. Could get the next level job at peer firm that knew their talents well
  3. Person is an extraordinary role model of our culture and values

Another key point is that the levels can feel unfair in side-by-side comparison; that is, you may feel that you should be at a higher level than a given co-worker. It’s important to remember though that while you have a full understanding of your own performance, you typically only have a small slice of insight into your coworkers’ performance. Even if you are right about the relative impacts, this is not how managers decide on promotions. Instead, managers coach ICs to focus on the impact they are having on driving the company forward instead of worrying about the contributions of coworkers. As your impact grows, so will your level.

A Culture of Excellence

It’s only natural that bringing incredible people together results in developing great friendships that extend beyond the workplace, and we are a close-knit group. Although ChalkTalk can often feel like a “family,” it doesn’t run like one—it runs like a “high-performance professional sports team.” where every person has a growth mindset and is delivering on our shared mission of serving teachers and students. Netflix founder Reed Hastings explains this concept well in his famous presentation on company culture. When someone brings excellence to the table every day, they have an expectation that their colleagues will do the same—this is how we’re building a winning team. In a high-performance culture, you experience the exhilaration of working with consistently outstanding colleagues. You do your best work, you learn the most, and you achieve the highest professional satisfaction when you’re surrounded by amazing people. Having a strong mission and a great product are at the core of our success, but we can only grow by having a great workplace. Success is so much more than compensation or how many perks are offered; it is bringing together remarkable people. The best career advice I’ve received is: work with remarkable people you want to become like, because you’ll become like whoever you work with; and at ChalkTalk we’re building the most remarkable team. If you have a passion for education and the desire to work with the best of the best, send us an email at careers@chalktalk.com – we’re hiring!

Author: Mohannad Arbaji, ChalkTalk Founder & CEO

First IC 1 job: private tutor for the SAT/ACT then university Teaching Assistant!