Promoting an Employee in Two Days, a Management Story
Don't let process or policy or schedule stop you from doing the right thing. Ignore expectations and think of what you're capable of accomplishing.
I received quite a few compliments and comments on my last narrative about a Day in the Life of a Senior Manager at Amazon. The most amusing ones were from the Amazonians and ex-Amazonians. They said it looked familiar, in both good and bad ways.
Considering how much fun I had writing it, and the positive feedback it received, I thought I'd write up another article in a similar format. Because that's perhaps the best thing about not working for a company. You don't need to ask for permission before doing things.
In this case, I wanted to cover the Amazon promotion process. In particular, a time when I had to hurry along what is normally a fairly slow process. As usual, I make a point of changing everyone to random names, and make other changes as necessary to keep things private. If I can avoid it, I don't want anyone recognizing themselves in these stories.
For context for anyone new, I worked at Amazon for 12+ years, and I worked on a variety of teams. This takes place after I'd been at Amazon for a while, and was switching teams.
Monday 7:30 am - First day in a new position.
This was my first day on a new team, and I was excited to start off strong. I had a mile long list of things in my head I was eager to learn more about. This was a new business space, new team members, and new technology. I like new.
I'd worked at Amazon for quite a few years at this point. Changing teams isn't nearly as hard as changing a job. You still know some people, and the company process and culture.
I found my office, and enjoyed setting up my computer equipment and possessions before anyone found me. I find it pleasant to set up my office just the way I like it.
My calendar was pretty empty, so I sent a bunch of invites out to team members and peers, so I could start getting to know people.
8:05 am - A knock on my office door.
Vicky knocks on my open door and smiles. She's my new boss. We'd worked together in a previous organization, but this was my first time working for her.
"Hey Dave! Welcome! You're here early. I think your team won't be here for another couple of hours."
Certainly true. Many engineers tend to keep later hours. It's a source of low-level conflict with product management in almost every organization I've joined. The product managers want to start their meetings at 8am, and engineers refuse to join until 10am (or later). If there isn't a real problem, people always find a way to invent conflict.
We exchange pleasantries, and I ask if she can please forward me any meetings I should be attending. She agrees. That's one of my first orders of business, ensuring that I'm attending the important meetings. I would rather not wander down the hallways, wondering where all my co-workers went.
9:55 am - Hallway feedback.
I'm leaving our 9am project review meeting when Jordan stops me. He's a product manager, working on a few of our cross team projects.
He says some random nice things. Then he casually mentions something.
Jordan: "I was hoping that Nellie could take a look at that feature update I mentioned during the meeting. Perhaps she can let me know if it'll be difficult?"
I know that Nellie is an SDE-1 with 11 months on the team and in the company, and this is her first work experience. At least on paper, she's literally the most junior member of the team. Someone specifically requesting help from the most junior member of my team sounds strange.
For context, an SDE-1 is a Level 4, the most junior level engineers are hired at. They're usually hired straight out of college, and we expect them to be promoted to SDE-2 (Level 5) between 1.5 to 3+ years after they join Amazon.
Me: "I can probably get someone to look at the update. Why Nellie in particular?"
Jordan: "Oh, Nellie is just awesome. You're lucky to have her on the team. Every time I go to your team, everyone tells me to talk to her. So, I figured she'd end up being the one who would look at that feature update."
That's interesting. I wonder if the team has Nellie deal with Jordan because they want to avoid talking to a product manager. It wouldn't be the first time that engineers tried to dodge working with their product team. It didn't seem likely that the team of significantly senior engineers would actually defer to an SDE-1.
11:05 am - Pre-meeting chit-chat
I'm sitting in a conference room, pretending to be enthusiastic about reviewing our recruiting projections for the next year. That means looking at page after page of printed spreadsheets, discussing hiring ramps, sources of candidates, the percentage of candidates getting through phone screens, and so on. A pretty important topic, but I often feel it could be done over email, rather than an in-person meeting. But you can't upset the recruiting team, so you attend, smile, and ask some questions to make it clear you're engaged and care.
However, before the meeting starts, the new guy gets some attention. That's me.
Recruiting leader: "This is Dave everyone! He's a bar raiser I've worked with often. He'll be joining all of our interview loops from now on. Hah Hah Hah!"
It's somewhat funny, but also not funny. The recruiters sincerely would like me to spend 10+ hours a week in interviews if they had their way. It's always hard to find bar raisers for interview loops. However, since I'm trying to meet everyone and get ramped up in this new space, I'll need to find a polite way to dodge as many interviews as possible for a while.
Dave: "Thanks so much! Yes, I'd love to help however I can."
I look down at the raw data sheet of interview stats, and I notice that Nellie is listed next to quite a few interviews.
Dave: "Hey folks, I see Nellie listed here on quite a few recent interviews, but she's only an SDE-1. What's up?"
In general, since you want interviewers to be more experienced than the people they interview, you don't put recent college hires on interview loops. You often wait until they have a couple of years of experience before letting them interview.
Peer engineering leader Mattie: "Oh yeah, Nellie is outstanding. She volunteered to help with a couple of interview events recently. Everyone trusts her judgement, so we were happy to get her help."
What the heck. This sounds strange. This is the second time in my first day I heard my junior SDE mentioned as if she walks on water.
By now, I'd managed to fill up my calendar for the next few days. I'd successfully scheduled meet and greet meetings with dozens of people. However, I now open my Outlook and rearrange a few things to move Nellie to my 1 pm time slot. I want to meet this person.
1:00 pm - Meeting with Nellie
Nellie walks in on time. I'm impressed. Why? Because I'm a manager, and that means that my life is run by my calendar. I look at my calendar many times every hour, and minimally every 30 minutes to make certain I'm not missing a meeting. Engineers, on the other hand, have meetings more rarely. They're often late to meetings because they don't notice them on their calendars. Just something I'm used to.
I say hello, nice to meet you, and other friendly words. I briefly explain my work history at Amazon. Then I mention that I'm entirely new to this technology space, and I'm going to need some help coming up to speed. I ask if she'd be able to explain some basics to me.
She comfortably agrees, and walks over to my wall, which is also a whiteboard with markers. She says she'll cover some basics, and then explain how it all makes sense in relation to our current systems.
She did a fantastic job. I'd read some books on our technology, but it was nothing compared to her experience. She was able to draw our systems in intricate detail, and answer all of my questions.
I was convinced that she was a step above our other junior engineer hires. In fact, she gave me a better summary of our system than I'd expect from most senior engineers.
Dave: "Hey Nellie, pause for a moment. I'm curious. What are your career goals? Are you interested in a promotion sometime?"
Nellie: "Sure, I'd like to be promoted. I like the SDE track, I don't want to be a manager. It's just been difficult to talk to anyone about it because you're my 4th manager in the 11 months I've been here. I haven't exactly had a chance to make progress with anyone."
I suspect she's due for a promotion, and I need to do some investigating. When you find someone a step above their peers, I think you really want to lean in on them. Give them room to grow as fast as they can. I think everyone deserves to get to the level where they're challenged.