Hey all! I usually send the newsletter on Thursdays, but my wife and I were traveling to Maui (so fancy, right?!), and I figured everyone could wait until I had a bit of evening downtime to get this sent.

I sometimes feel like the same topics come in waves. I'll hear from a number of people on the same subject. This article came because I repeatedly heard from coaching and training clients recently that their promotion prospects were limited. I personally concluded that a lot of this limitation was self-imposed, rather than a factual limitation. Once I explained and wrote the below in an email to a couple of people, I figured that it might make sense to write it as an article. So if I recently wrote you something similar, thanks for the inspiration! :)

My newsletter often talks about personal and career growth.

A common response I receive to my career growth topics is, “Sure, you have fancy impressive work at Amazon, but my company/group/team doesn't do complex work. So I can't get promoted.” I've heard the same message from coaching clients, classes I've given at various companies, and even co-workers at Amazon.

The central message is usually some variation of the following.

  1. I can't get promoted as an engineer, because the work isn't complex enough to justify it.
  2. I can't get promoted as a manager, because my area of ownership isn't hard enough, or isn't growing.
  3. I can't promote people on my team, because my team doesn't do impactful work.

Yes, at most companies, the complexity, challenge, growth, and impact of our work does correlate to our ability (or inability) to be promoted.

Some people view this as a corporate flaw. Their argument is that the corporation has failed supporting them, by not giving them or their teams ample opportunity for advancement.

I believe the system is working as intended. The difference is how people think of their company's motivations, and where those opportunities are hiding.

Why do companies promote people?

I've repeatedly heard people refer to promotions as rewards. I don't think of a promotion as a reward.

A company pays you for your work. They sometimes give more compensation (or a bonus) if you perform your tasks quickly, and with high quality. This is your reward for hard work.

Promotions are different from a reward for excellent performance.

A promotion to a higher job level puts you in a more influential position. You are being given more responsibility. It's not a reward. Instead, it's the company granting you more influence.

Of course, increased pay often accompanies a promotion. However, the added responsibility is the reason the company did the promotion, not the compensation.

Those who run the company are always looking for people to take on more responsibility. They're looking for people who can come up with the next business idea, lead larger spaces, identify opportunities, and fix recurring problems. It is relatively easy to find people who are good at their jobs, and hard to find people capable of doing the next level job.

Circling back, companies promote people into larger responsibilities when that person looks like a leader. Leaders identify their own opportunities.

But there aren't big opportunities here!

It's always easier to blame others for not giving you an opportunity, rather than recognize that you had the opportunity all along.

Once upon a time, I was talking to an engineer at Amazon, who wanted to move to my team. I asked her why, because I like to know what motivates people.

Eloise said, “I'm an SDE-2, and there aren't any SDE-3 promotion opportunities on my team. We don't have any SDE-3's in my organization, because our work is not complex enough.

For context, SDE-2 is the first promotion step above college hire, and SDE-3 is a senior software engineering position. In general, a SDE-2 works on a team, and an SDE-3 leads a team from an engineering point of view.

I asked, “What type of work does your team do, that it's not complex enough to warrant an SDE-3?

Our system is in maintenance mode. We have millions of customers, but we just support the platform. We don't build any big new features.

I nodded, “I'm curious. I know your system, it's pretty important. Do you have dashboards to observe your customer's behavior? And your system latency, errors, and so on?

Eloise shook her head, “No, our reporting is pretty terrible. But we weren't asked to fix it. It was never prioritized.

I asked, “And your operations load, is it relatively low?

Eloise shook her head again, “No, we have quite a few issues. So we're stuck fixing customer problems all day. That's why I need to move. We don't have time to do impactful work.

This Eloise story is a real story (as best I can remember it), but I've had similar conversations with dozens of people.

I explained to Eloise, “If an SDE-3 joined the team, do you know what they'd probably do? They would insert better metrics in your system, and build a pretty awesome dashboard. This would allow you to have a better view into your customer's behavior, and experience with your system. They would also make a Pareto chart of your operational issues, and address them systematically.

Eloise shrugged, “But why would we need a senior engineer on the team? That work would be boring for them. We don't have big problems for them to solve.

It was my time to shake my head, “But you haven't built a reporting system, and you haven't addressed your operational issues. I bet there are a dozen things no one has proactively solved. The company allocated an expensive engineering team to this valuable system. Making the system work better and be easier to support IS the type of thing a senior engineer would do. It might not be as flashy as building big new features, but it's hard ambiguous work all the same.”

“If you, as an SDE-2, started proactively solving all these pain points on your team, I think it would be easy for your manager to get you promoted. The problem isn't that your team doesn't have opportunities, it's that no one on the team is stepping up.”

I've repeatedly heard the same story. There are problems. There are opportunities. But those aren't the opportunities anyone wants to deal with. Why? Because they're ambiguous. The value isn't clear. The outcome isn't clear. It's not a classic hard challenge, like “Make movie recommendations better than Netflix's recommendations,” but it's a challenge for a senior leader all the same.