A clear path for scaling a high-growth engineering team from scratch

April 13, 2022

About Nelnet Community Engagement

Headquarters: Kansas City, USA
Industry: Software
Number of employees: 100+

Nelnet Community Engagement (NCE) is a technology company offering services and tools that empower learning and drive multi-channel engagement and insights for communities like churches and schools. 

Problem: What does it take to scale an engineering team from four to 70 people?

Since 2013, the engineering team at NCE has been doubling every year. The initial group consisted of self-sufficient senior engineers who could support one another when needed. The seniority of this group shaped the team’s culture, which was defined by the motto “fail fast and try again, but never give up.” This direction meant when the team started growing more quickly, the new engineers — some of them junior — were put right into the development workflow. 

As the team quadrupled in size, cracks appeared. While senior engineers were blazing through their work, the junior engineers didn’t have a clear idea of what performance meant at their level. Leadership was faced with several questions, including, “How do we tell these people who have never had a software engineering job that they are doing okay? How do you talk to them?” There weren’t definitions or unified answers.

Leadership felt they owed their team more definition than they could provide because they didn’t have a map to tell their team how to go from A to B to C in their role or grow their skills. 

Plus, lack of career progression drove attrition, and when a role was open, the team was imbalanced, leading to burnout. It cost tens of thousands of dollars in lost managerial time, new employee search processes, and lost intellectual capital to backfill an employee. 

The lack of clarity on career progression lit a fire under NCE to find a scalable solution to retain employees and help create a path forward.

Solution: A career progression platform to engage employees and support growth

Armed with spreadsheets and slides, NCE focused on laying down fundamental pillars: 

  • Job levels and job descriptions 
  • Buckets of “things that matter,” including skills and experience 
  • Compensation leveling 

It was a simple approach that served as triage, extinguished some initial fires, and helped the team see what they needed and where they wanted to go. 

“We want to attract good people and develop them further,” says Sebastian Kline, VP of engineering at NCE, who is responsible for hiring, training, and managing the engineering team that serves four brands within the Nelnet Community Engagement. “It was important for us to find a strong platform to help us solidify our vision of helping our employees grow and, in turn, help our business thrive.”

The solution needed to be a credible, third-party platform. After some comparison, Sebastian realized some tools were focused on dashboards, numbers, and checking boxes and looked complicated, unfriendly, and “HR-y,” leading to the depersonalization of the whole experience.

After much research, Sebastian felt a philosophical alignment in Pando: People first, the platform second.

“I don’t need an employee engagement score — I know how engaged they are. I need something simple and approachable for managers and employees that builds equity within teams and helps them get where they want to go. Employees need to be inspired", says Sebastian.

Results: Incredible conversations, clear growth paths, easier recruiting 

Pando has positively impacted the team in just a short time, especially in its ability to generate great conversations the calibration feature is generating. Employees and managers visually compare rankings, and they can refer to comments encompassing viewpoints and actual examples for clarity.

This change creates an open and honest dialogue in “calibration meetings” for people to discuss matches and mismatches on competency rankings. It leads to great discussions about expectations, nuances, steps, and career planning. “It is fun and an opportunity to develop a stronger relationship and build more alignment,” says Sebastian.

Pando enables the leading behaviors to generate high performance instead of measuring past performance. High performance is a natural result of Pando’s just-in-time progression. 

Equally important, NCE’s use of Pando leads to significantly improved recruiting effectiveness. The Pando platform is a value proposition for potential candidates and has already encouraged candidates to accept offers because NCE has a robust career progression platform ready to go on day one.

In conclusion, Sebastian says, “Employees feel they have tools and know what they need to do to achieve and meet expectations. People like it. Everyone is on the same page. Employee growth and retention is something we deeply care about, and Pando is helping us bring that to life.”