April 2017

Volume 32 Number 4


A Plan for Promotion

By Krishnan Rangachari | April 2017

A few months ago, I started helping a software engineer, Suman, with his career. Suman had been a developer at his company for four years without a single promotion. Last week, he gave me an update: He’d just been promoted to senior developer, and earned a $23,000 raise.

The process of getting a promotion as a developer is simple, repeatable and universal. This is the process I asked Suman to follow (and that I’ve followed myself).

First, set a goal in the present tense, with a date attached, and start reviewing the goal daily. As an example, the goal could be, “As of June 2018, I am a senior software engineer at my current company.” Constant review will sink the goal deep into your unconscious and impel you into action. Then, on a regular basis, take the tiniest uncomfortable step that would move you one step closer to this goal. This is because a promotion isn’t a one-time event; it’s a months-long series of small challenges and opportunities.

Make an Impression, Naturally

Next, when you volunteer for projects, be sure it helps or involves others on the team! This automatically publicizes your work and creates a quiet army of supporters. The projects don’t have to be “sexy,” but they should be high-impact, pressing needs for the team. The most boring, painful, “grunt work” projects are often the ones that everybody appreciates most when someone takes them on. But this is no time to “work on weaknesses”; pick projects in your comfort zone.

Another developer I know, Jaya, took this approach. As other developers gravitated to hot, new customer-facing features in the product, Jaya volunteered to work on the setup and configuration components. The goal: Demonstrate her skill as a developer, while showing that she wasn’t high-maintenance or picky.

Jaya’s success convinced her managers that she could do any job well, even the most terrible ones. Increasingly important projects followed, and Jaya received a promotion at her next performance review.

It’s a career mistake to resent being assigned “meaningless” projects. When you do these projects as if they were meaningful, the rewards are more outsized. Even mediocre engineers can give their best to “great” projects; only great engineers can give their best to mediocre projects.

When choosing projects, consider the following:

  • Pick projects based on the pressing business needs and revenue focus areas of the company. Avoid choosing based purely on technical beauty or architectural complexity. Budgets, not beauty, pay the bills.
  • Pick team-based projects, ideally involving other teams’ engineers, rather than projects that are done completely alone, behind-the-scenes.

Once you identify three to four projects, present your plan to your manager. Say something like, “I want to have a bigger impact on the team. So, getting promoted by next year is important to me. But before I do, I already want to be operating at that level. I think these projects will help me get there.” Then invite the manager to provide input on the project ideas.

Usually, managers are so blown away by this proactive approach that they agree to the project plan. And once they consent to the plan, they’ll feel more invested in helping you get promoted!

Uncover Strengths, Strategically

So far, you’ve taken steps toward raising your contributions and brought your manager into the effort. To maintain momentum, ongoing communication is key. Once a month, check in with your manager on how she thinks you’re doing in your progress toward the promotion. Ask her, “What’s one thing I’ve done well over the last month? What’s one thing I could improve?” This forces the manager to articulate clearly (to herself) what you’re doing well, instead of waiting until review time. And it helps you identify your own blind spots before it’s too late.

In addition to brief monthly conversations, keep a record of your achievements every week, regardless of whether you share them with your manager. This isn’t so much for your manager’s benefit as it is for your own advancement. Each weekly summary is a concise, back-door resume that wraps up your achievements for the week. This exercise is an effective self-accountability mechanism, and serves as an important marketing tool at review time.

Finally, seek out an advisor from outside the company who can suggest more creative and effective ways to achieve the promotion. These people can also offer a broader, outsider perspective and help you avoid a bad case of tunnel vision.

Taken together, these efforts can put your promotion efforts in fast-forward and bend your career arc toward success.

Krishnan Rangachari is an executive coach for software engineers. Visit RadicalShifts.com for his career success secrets.

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