A Detailed Account of a Failed Principal Promotion
Not everything we do will be successful. We learn a ton from failure. Unfortunately for managers, our failures sometimes impact our teams as well.
I enjoy writing stories about how I saved the day, or perhaps used my wisdom and experience to create a fantastic result. I mean, it certainly pads the ego.
But as I've said before, you tend to learn more from failure. Therefore, I'm going to share a time I failed to get a promotion approved. While I can't share every nuance, I'm sharing the spirit of what happened, how the conversations go sometimes, and how a "sure thing" promotion can turn on a dime.
As usual, I'm changing details to protect the privacy of those involved.
Principal Promotion Process
For context! Because otherwise you might be lost in the story.
For better or for worse, principal promotions have always worked differently at Amazon than manager promotions.
People manager promotions.
A document is written. In that document is a narrative of the things you've accomplished, and higher level people writing feedback supporting your promotion. At least they usually support your promotion. Occasionally, feedback will make it into a document which isn't supportive. That's fairly rare though, and not worth talking about now.
Then there's a meeting. Several high-level managers (who are usually in your management chain) read your document, and discuss your performance. Then they decide (using whatever process their team uses) if your promotion goes through.
Principal engineer promotions.
The process has changed repeatedly (often every 6-months), but it's much more complex than managers.
There's still a narrative, and feedback providers. But there are typically a couple of principal assessments. This is where other higher level engineers assess your technical contributions (both coding, and teamwork). They look for scope (how much did you influence) and competence (did you do your stuff right). In general, "Did you do high quality principal work?"
Each of those assessors give their promote or don't promote opinion as a part of their assessment. It isn't uncommon to have not-support votes from the assessors, in which case, typically, those promotions are delayed until the issues observed are corrected.
Then you have a meeting to discuss the promotion with all of that information incorporated. Thankfully, there are no politics involved in principal promotions. No one has a personal stake in the promotion. There are effectively an unlimited number of potential promotions, so no one is "taking the spot" of another engineer. So we can usually assume that everyone in the room is assessing things to the best of their abilities.
On one hand, I appreciate that principal engineer promotions have a high bar. You don't mistakenly promote people to principal with great communication skills, but lousy technical skills. No "great at managing up" engineers promoted around here.
I also like that other engineers have a forceful voice in the promotion process. I like the idea of respecting the skills of engineers to identify those who belong in their ranks.
On the other hand, I'm concerned that it's absolutely easier to be promoted as a manager. I don't have the statistics in front of me, but I'm pretty confident that "time to promotion" is less for managers. If you're in a growing organization and semi-competent, most managers can get to Level 7 (the equivalent to a principal engineer). On the other hand, many engineers are stuck at Level 6, despite their best efforts.
While the process is not generally political, the principal promotion process is inconsistent, and complex. My biggest concern is that it relies on the whims of other employees. As with many other processes, if it relies on the judgement of others, it means that either favors you, or it doesn't.
In my story today, I'm going to walk through the experience of reviewing one of these completed promotion documents. And as I explained earlier, how it went poorly.
The meeting begins.
Sitting around the room is a collection of the organization's senior leaders, ready to review Kourtney's document to promote her from Senior Engineer (Level 6) to Principal Engineer (Level 7).
Ricky - An engineering Director.
Gabriel - A very senior engineer.
Norma - An engineering Director. Technical.
Christine - A product Director. Fairly non-technical.
Alice - Another very senior engineer.
Me - An engineering manager.
(Where's my manager? For various reasons, they were unable to influence the room. I left their contributions out.)
I'm nervous. These leaders are all more senior than I am. There are many potential consequences of doing poorly in this room. Obviously, my engineer friend might not be promoted. Additionally, if I look like a bad manager, it could negatively impact my career.
I had put a pile of printed promotion documents on the conference room table. As each senior leader had walked in, they'd all grabbed a doc, and started quietly reading. No words had been said yet in the meeting.
I open up my copy of the doc, and skim through. I want to have what I had written (and what her feedback providers had written) fresh in mind.
Minutes tick by. I half read my document, and half keep an eye on everyone in the room.
I see Ricky nod, and underline something. That's probably good.
I see Norma frown, circle something, and write something on her paper. Shoot. What page is she on? Looks like page 3. Towards the top.
I look at page 3, towards the top. I see that's where I explained that Kourtney had helped Norma's team debug an operational event. Was she not sure Kourtney had helped? Did she disagree with my assessment? Hmm. I knew Alice had participated in the event, and would hopefully back me up.
Gabriel sits there reading the document, with no expression on his face. He probably plays poker. He was also one of the two principal assessors, so hopefully nothing in the document would surprise him.
Ricky nodded again, and underlined something else. Ok, that's gotta be good. Right?
I could see that Alice is in the feedback section, and is writing a significant amount in the margins of her document. It looked like it was on the principal engineer assessment page. It was on the assessment done by Tamika, an engineer not in the room. That assessment was a bit poorly written in my opinion. Hopefully, that won't be an issue.
One by one, everyone finishes, and starts using their laptops to do things while waiting. Christine is the last to finish, and nods to me quietly. I briefly wonder what it felt like for Christine to read the fairly technical document, as she was the only non-technical employee in the room.
We are 18 minutes into the meeting, and it is time to say the first words.
18 minutes in - Discussion begins.
"Hey all." I say. "It looks like we're ready to start."
Laptops around the table close, and they all look up politely.
"The assessors were both supportive, as you saw in the document." I said. "I'd-"
"Yes yes, but the assessors are just providing feedback. We make the decision here." Norma says.
Shoot. That's not a great way to start. Why's she grumpy?
"Absolutely Norma." I quickly agree. "I was just getting us started by summarizing the situation."
"I'll just start with the questions." Norma says, ignoring what I said. "I didn't see much about operations here. I see you mention that Kimberly helped my team with an event. I didn't hear from my team about her contributions."
My mind started whirring, trying to think of a way to disagree with Norma, without offending her further. I suspected she was annoyed that her team was identified as needing the help of my engineer. Probably got her grumpy about the whole thing.
"It's Kourtney, not Kimberly" Alice said with an annoyed voice, mildly glaring at Norma. "And I participated in your team's outage. Kourtney was quite helpful in getting it resolved."
Well, that was a relief. I immediately remember that it's a team effort to evaluate candidates. I hopefully don't need to solo-defend Kourtney.
"But did she help in a deep, complex way?" Christine asked, "Or was she just another pair of hands?"
Alice nodded, "She is one of the best engineers at debugging and identifying issues. She was able to identify things other engineers couldn't."
"I agree" Gabriel said, "I observed Kourtney's work in my assessment. She understands our systems at a deep level. She's excellent operationally."
I mentally take a deep breath. This is great. Gabriel has a respected voice. He did an assessment approving the promotion, and if he will vocally defend Kourtney, I think we're in great shape. Both engineers in the room support Kourtney. Good stuff.