Why Some Careers Thrive and Others Don't—Not Necessarily Skill
Technical or functional skills only partially explain why some employees are more successful than others. There are other aspects of leadership which can impact long term success.
Sometimes career success seems obvious and inevitable. The Stanford grad with a 4.0, with an internship at the hottest tech startup, and founded two popular open-source projects while in school. Yes, it's only a question of where they'll be successful.
But even at the top tech companies, hardly any people have resumes like that. The majority of employees had fine grades at fine schools. They didn't create their own open-source projects. Maybe they had an internship, but it wasn't anything special. On paper, they are good, but not exceptional.
I worked with hundreds of employees with fine but unimpressive backgrounds. Some of them were wildly successful, and some weren't.
Years ago, I had two employees with similar fine backgrounds on the same team. On paper, and when first meeting them, you wouldn't be able to tell a difference in their growth potential. Yet fast-forward a couple of years, and one is promoted twice, and one stagnates.
Assuming they had similar competence in their basic job functions, how did one employee distinguish themselves?
I'm a relatively new manager on the team.
I'd been managing a new team at Amazon for around 3 weeks. I actually managed a few teams at the time, but this team was new to me. I knew who the members of the team were, but I didn't know them well. I could use our "phone tool" (Amazon's internal directory) to see the level and tenure of the employees. However, I knew that only tells a small portion of the story.
I'm going to talk about two employees in particular.
Blanca. She's a SDE-1 (Level 4). She'd graduated from college around 1.5 years prior, and had joined Amazon directly afterwards. On paper, I knew she could be getting close to promotion, as good SDE-1's are often promoted between 1.5 to 2 years in their role.
Willis. He's a SDE-2 (Level 5). He'd been an SDE-2 for 5+ years at this point, his entire career at Amazon, having joined Amazon with a few years of experience. On paper, he could certainly be close to promotion, as the best SDE-2's can be promoted after 2+ years in their role (although it's a harder / less likely promotion than the Level 4 to Level 5 promotion).
What my observations told me was that I should start learning about these employees to make certain I didn't hold their careers back. It was around 1.5 months from the next promotion cycle, so I had a bit of time to get to know them.
My first emergency event happens.
Lovely. We're a few weeks into my new job, and the alarms start buzzing in the middle of the day.
I walk near a desk where an engineer sits. Her Yoda bobble head wobbles on top of her monitor as she types loudly on her mechanical keyboard.
I say "Hey Lorraine, you're on-call right? What's going on?"
Lorraine nods, without looking away from her screen. "Yeah, I'm not sure yet. We have outage alarms and latency alarms. I can't tell if something is down, or just really slow, or if our alarms are broken. I just tried the site and things are working for me."
Then there's a whirring sound as a wheeled office chair zooms over from a nearby cube. I have to hop out of the way as Blanca spins over.
Blanca laughs, "Whoops, sorry! Hey Lorraine, I can help look. My work can wait. Did you notice we only got alarms for NA? I can go look at the prod servers."
Lorraine agrees to Blanca's help. I nod, having done some great management, and I wander back to my desk.
I eat a Life Saver Wintergreen mint. They're my favorite. Then I read some emails because that's the kind of thing I do when I have 30 minutes free. But I feel vaguely nervous because I need to let my peers and manager know soon if there is a real outage.
I wander back over to the cube area. I notice Willis nearby. On paper, Willis is the most senior engineer on the team. When you feel nervous, you want the senior engineer to make you feel better.
I say "Hey Willis! Are you looking at this issue?"
Willis looks up, a bit startled. "No. Should I? Do they need my help?"
I feel a bit put out, but I look over at Blanca and Lorraine. "Hey, do you need help over there?"
Blanca shakes her head, "I think we got it. It's coming back up now."
Willis nods, and goes back to his project work. I shrug.
A few moments later, Lorraine and Blanca stop by, and give me an explanation of what happened, and the impact. While Lorraine is busy fixing things, Blanca helps me write up the brief technical summary which I send to my manager and a few peers.
Was Willis wrong to keep working on his project work? Nah. We don't need (or want) the whole team jumping on every issue.
Was Blanca right to drop everything she was doing to help the on-call? Not necessarily. Lorraine might have been fine. We have dedicated on-calls for a reason.
But ignoring what's right and wrong, what was the impact?
Blanca looked like she cared. Blanca made me and the on-call feel better. Operations work is grunt work, but it's more visible to leadership than normal daily project work. And "do I need to help" vs "I'd like to help" have two different meanings, particularly when there's a potential emergency.
A couple of weeks later.
There's a knock on my open door. It's one minute before the start of Blanca's one-on-one, but she's here early. I like people being on time, but seriously, I had plans for those remaining 60 seconds. I sigh internally, smile, and wave her to come in.
"I'd like to be promoted this cycle." Blanca states bluntly. "I think I've done more than enough project work, and I have notes here on everything I've accomplished. I know you're new here, but I don't want my career impacted just because you're new, so here's a list of all the people you'd need to ask for feedback. I talked to Julian, our HR rep, do you know Julian? Anyway, he said you'd need a list of feedback providers, so here it is."
I'm somewhere between annoyed, surprised, and impressed. Annoyed because she didn't ease me into the conversation. Which is fine, my annoyance will fade. Surprised because I didn't see this coming. And impressed because I appreciate people who drive their careers.
"This looks good, Blanca." I state. "I'm glad you put some thought into it. Let me take a look, and get back to you. I don't want your career held back just because I didn't witness all of your work."
After Blanca leaves, I spend a few minutes reading through her notes and feedback. At first glance, it looks pretty good. Probably good enough to get her promoted.
I feel a tinge of worry, though. The promotion date is approaching. Blanca was an SDE-1, which is an easier promotion. I was likely to get hers through.
I hadn't had a chance yet to talk to Willis though, and he had many more years of experience. If he also had his experience and peers documented, it'd be harder to get his promotion complete. SDE-2 to SDE-3 promotions are more complex.
I decide I should talk to Willis and see what he thinks. If nothing else, I want to make certain he's aware I care.
In my one-on-one with Willis later that day, I work through our normal small talk, and then lead into the career conversation.
"Willis, since I'm new here, I'm not familiar with your career trajectory. I see you've been here at Amazon for 5+ years. I assume you've done numerous projects over those years." I look at Willis.
"I wanted to know what your career aspirations are. Are you interested in getting to SDE-3? Have you looked into it?"
Willis shrugs. "Sure, I'd like to be promoted. I assume I'll get promoted when I've earned it."
I shake my head, "Well, it's not as easy as that. You'll need to do some leg work. Particularly important as I'm new here. If you're interested in a promotion, I'd need a list of people you've worked with at Level 6 or higher. I'd need a list of your projects you've worked on, we can work through the details later. And I'd like you to read the role description for SDE-3 to make certain you understand the expectations. Does that all make sense?"
Willis nods. "Sure, sounds good."
When someone doesn't take notes, or even restate what they were asked to do, I feel suspicious that they'll never do the thing I'm asking.
I work with Blanca on her promotion document. I write up a narrative of what she accomplished in her projects. She heavily edits it. She offers that some of her feedback providers might have more context or data. I follow up with them, they provide more data.
The whole process is very interactive. She's energetic, and enthusiastic.
Every one-on-one with Willis, I have to remind him that I'm waiting on things.
"Hey Willis, did you create that list of projects yet?" I ask. Yet again.
"Well, I've been really busy, but I think I can get it done this week." he replies. I nod.
I'd like to help him, but it's his promotion. He needs to put a little energy into it. And for context, he's still writing good code, designing solutions, and making progress on our goals. He's just not following up on the bit of assistance I need for his promotion.