João Alves

July 11, 2023

Making the bug fixes count. Or how to fix promotions in tech companies

Yesterday, I came across yet another article explaining how promotions work at big tech. At this point, it's no surprise to anyone that individual contributors and the management team prefer to work on "impactful" projects rather than polish a specific product, even if that's what their users are asking for. We know that promotions in big tech are a broken process. It's a game. Here's a quote from the article, coming from a Google Docs team lead:

We had a lot of small bugs and usability issues, often in areas where we weren't at parity with Excel. Users wanted us to implement … pretty standard spreadsheet fare, and very reasonable requests. … However it was a constant struggle to prioritize these types of issues vs. "bigger impact" projects. Our engineers cared about the product and wanted to polish it. But they also wanted to be promoted. And so we would deprioritize product polish for projects that looked better to a promotion committee.

While I've never worked in FAANG, I've seen promotion processes based on what these companies do. I encountered disengaged engineers who felt the process was obscure and why we promoted people was unclear.

Fixing the system

There's a way to fix the system, one promotion period at a time. It consists of a few steps:

  1. Vouch for promoting people for different reasons. A sports team needs defenders, midfielders, and attackers. It requires players who are more virtuous with the ball and others who work hard to clean up and ensure the team can progress. A software team is the same. You need people with strong domain knowledge, getting things done, and other glue team members who care about the onboarding process, improving team dynamics, and so on.
  2. Engage early on with your peers to get their support. Do you know the old adagio that there's a pre-meeting where the real afterward meeting gets settled? It's similar when talking about promotions. Gergely Orosz explains it well in his article: "Preparing promotions ahead of time." If you start vouching for certain behaviors with your peers ahead of time, it will adjust their perspective and increase your odds for support. As a side-effect, it may direct your peers' attention to alternative promotion paths.
  3. Prepare for the calibration committees. Most companies have a calibration committee to ensure consistent promotions across teams and departments. You can support folks with a promo packet outside of the usual "big impact" (a.k.a. new features, a lot of money) projects. The meeting can be tricky if your company skews towards these projects. Bear in mind that promotion cycles are a zero-sum game. There's a budget. Hence, a maximum of promoted people per cycle. Senior leaders may not be willing to crave space for things other than big releases. Doing your homework correctly and engaging with your peers will make your life easier.
  4. Make the reasons for promotion public. I strongly advocate for acknowledging and explaining why individuals are promoted. Culture isn't just about what's displayed on the walls. It's about what is encouraged, appreciated, and rewarded within the workplace. It's essential to recognize that there are multiple paths to promotion, encouraging diverse approaches to work and behaviors. That approach creates a positive cycle where employees understand that the management team values different skills and are less likely to imitate others to achieve success, such as prioritizing releasing high-profile features.

When making the promotion reasons public, I tend to send a summary to the team over Slack so they understand them:


Does it work?

I gathered feedback from the most disengaged engineers that showed cynicism towards the promotion process. They were pleased to see the leadership team putting the "money" where the mouth was. It also incentivized the whole department to get an email with all the promotions and their reasons.


How about your company? Do you make the reasons behind promotions public? Do you pay attention to profiles other than people that ship "big impact" projects?

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— João

About João Alves

Dad. Husband. Engineering Manager @Adevinta. My main interest is to build and grow SaaS Products and Infrastructure teams. Twitter | LinkedIn | Mastodon