Navigating your engineering career can be difficult, and one thing that can be especially frustrating is working toward promotion. Career ladders, managers, mentors, projects, deadlines, peer feedback, annual reviews–the list goes on. How do you know what to focus on next? To make matters worse, you might receive mixed signals: peers tell you that you should be promoted, but your manager says you need more time. While there’s more than one way to work toward promotion, I thought I’d share my perspective as someone who’s helped others move forward in their careers and gone through the process a few times myself.
Some housekeeping up front:
Promotion processes vary from company to company, often involving lengthy promotion packets, interviews with people at the next level, committees, executive decision makers, or some combination of these things. Managers may have historically introduced bias by playing favorites at your company, leading to a reliance on complex processes to increase the fairness and consistency of promotions. In fact, promotion processes can vary in complexity even within a company by engineering level or based on the organizational unit you are a part of. At Twitter, the process was more complex for higher engineering promotion levels. On the other end of the spectrum, your boss might simply decide it’s time for you to be promoted. That’s exactly what happened early in my career, and the lack of process and fanfare around the situation meant I didn’t really understand I had been promoted until later. The point is you should be aware of the specific process at your company as it affects how you and your manager plan for your growth and eventual promotion.
Your promotion is yours to move forward, and part of that is gathering the courage to ask your manager for help. That might be harder to do if you’re receiving mixed signals from them and your peers. Start by telling your manager that earning a promotion is a goal of yours and ask for their help. From there, you can work with them to make a plan, set goals, and find opportunities to meet them.
To earn a promotion you’ll need to consider how to build evidence, reach maturity at your current level, and gain peer support. Oh, and there’s one more thing to know.
Building evidence for promotion
The primary factor in getting promoted is doing work at the next level that leads to results that matter to your company. It’s worth mentioning that what matters is subjective, and in turn working on whatever is most interesting to you will not necessarily drive those results. What matters can also change over time in response to market shifts, changes in executive staff, etc.
Optimizing for what matters does not mean you should be promotion driven in how you prioritize the work you do. Aside from being the wrong thing to do, people will notice if your priorities are self-serving, making this an especially good way to lose the respect and support of your peers. Instead, think about how to spend your time wisely: prioritize the most important things based on team goals mapped to company priorities. It’s a good idea to ask your manager if you’re not sure what the right prioritization is since it can vary situationally. For example, they might say it’s okay to work on refactoring some code short term or they might ask you to wait until your team completes a project with a tight timeline. Delivering what you say you will deliver, and letting people know when you’ll be late builds your credibility and helps gain your manager’s support.
At the same time, your work should be challenging enough to help you close skill and experience gaps, eventually showing you are operating consistently at the next level per your company’s career ladder. You shouldn’t think of ladder criteria as a series of checkboxes. Instead, think about which criteria reflect your strengths and lean into those. If you find you don’t have the opportunities for such work, then ask your manager or tech lead for help. And if you can’t get stretch opportunities then consider whether you need to find a role on another team or at a new company to earn a promotion. How do you know when to switch jobs? There’s more to that than I want to cover in this post, but consider switching if you’re not content with the progress you’re making over long periods of time (everyone has good days and bad). Ask yourself whether you’re learning, feel challenged, have a supportive team and manager, and are fairly compensated.
It’s easy to think you can just work harder to get promoted, but delivering an increased volume of work alone is usually not enough to earn a promotion as it doesn’t show you can operate at the next level. It can help you earn the respect of your peers, potentially leading to the mixed signals I mentioned earlier. Putting in extra effort on work demonstrating next level skills, however, can shorten the time to promotion as you’ll build evidence at a faster rate.
I recommend keeping a log of your most important work and accomplishments, AKA an impact log, so you and your manager can periodically assess your progress. Recording your progress as you complete work is best because the details of what you did and why it matters are fresh in your mind.
Reaching maturity in your current level
Another important factor in getting promoted is reaching maturity at your level. This amounts to solving enough problems to be really good at your job–sort of like earning experience points and skills in an RPG. Tenure is sometimes used as a proxy for maturity, but it’s better to assess skill growth and results since people learn and grow at different rates. To be explicit, people are generally not promoted for competently delivering at their current level for long periods of time. They are promoted for growing the positive effect they have on the results their company wants to achieve while operating at the next level.
Many tech companies don’t set a minimum time one needs to be at a given level to be promoted, but there is a sort of minimum practical time to gain the experience needed to operate at the next level1. Early in your career, reaching maturity at a given level happens more quickly since the bar to operate at early levels is lower than at more senior levels. At senior levels the bar is higher: there’s an expectation of higher productivity, broader scope, etc. All of this is to say the time it takes to be promoted depends on the level, opportunities you have to deliver, management support, and how you capitalize on all these factors.
Gaining peer support
Some promotion processes require peer review. This can come in the form of committees that may not be intimately familiar with your work, statements of support from people you work with, or both. Feedback from higher level peers is weighed more heavily in such cases, the idea being they are better able to assess your work at the next level.
At Twitter we had promotion committees for staff+ engineering levels, which reviewed lengthy promotion packets and peer feedback then voted for or against promotion with simpler processes at lower levels. An executive made a final decision based on those votes and their own perspective. Committees like this may review many promotion recommendations in a single cycle, making it especially important to be crisp in how you and your manager frame your case for promotion given the time they can realistically allocate to each person. If you have a say in this framing then I recommend focusing on the most relevant work you’ve done, sorted from most to least impactful along with an explanation of how that work contributed to company results and demonstrates you’re operating at the next level.
Additionally, it’s helpful to ensure your peers understand your work as it means they can better speak to it when providing feedback and a level of support for your promotion. This is another place your impact log can help: map it onto your company’s criteria for the level you’re aiming for and share the resulting document with your peers ahead of promotion. You can gauge their level of support by asking for feedback regularly (e.g. as you finish projects), as opposed to at the end of the year, so you can make adjustments to how you work more often.
One more thing
There’s one more thing that affects your ability to be promoted: your manager’s ability to advocate for you. They may need to convince their boss or an executive that you are ready, defend your promotion in front of a committee, or they may need to write a high quality promotion packet. This is part of the process you typically have little influence or visibility into.
To make a compelling case your manager needs to show you’ve met the company’s criteria using the evidence you worked toward above, have the support of your peers, and they need to have credibility within the organization. Their credibility has a strong effect on their advocacy and it may change over time. Things like delivering on team goals increases your manager’s credibility and repeatedly missing expectations erodes it. Other circumstances like reorgs or new leaders joining also affect their credibility. For instance, if your team moves to report to a new leader then your manager will need to establish a new relationship with their management chain. This can cause either a positive or negative change in credibility.
Earlier we talked about managers introducing bias to the promotion process, and it turns out executives sometimes do the same. This can be difficult for your manager to overcome, which is why it’s important for you to provide the highest quality evidence you can.
Wrapping things up
Whew! That’s a lot to take in, but you’ve made it to the end of this post. We talked about how promotion processes vary by company, organization, and even level, as well how you might go about asking for your manager’s help in career planning. We also talked about what it takes to get promoted: building evidence by delivering work at the next level, reaching maturity in your current level, gaining peer support, and the effect your manager’s credibility has on the process. You have a lot of influence on the first three of these, and less on the fourth. I hope you now have a better understanding of what you need to do to earn a promotion. Good luck!
1. Some companies expect candidates to operate at the next level for some time ahead of promotion to mitigate the Peter principle. Twitter’s rule was six months, and I’ve heard of another large company requiring one year.