How to Promote an Engineer

To understand how to promote we need to understand why we have titles, and what they are for.

Most modern tech companies (Amazon, etc) have the IC (Individual Contributor) level track concept, so I will use this as a basis. It works in roughly these levels

  • IC1 – Associate Engineer
  • IC2 – Engineer
  • IC3 – Senior Engineer
  • IC4 – Lead
  • Etc

Titles are important for recognition of people’s achievements, to set them targets to drive personal improvement, they also help with reconciliation of compensation to make sure people are paid what they deserve but I don’t personally believe compensation is their primary purpose.

They can also have a negative culture impact if used in the wrong way, sometimes people can use their title to boss or lord over others, but my advice on this is that it’s not a problem with the title, it’s a problem with the person, and this is toxic behavior, if they can’t fix it, show them the door.

Titles are also used implicitly to set the expectations of others. When people work on a team with someone of a higher title than them, they should hopefully be inspired to be a better engineer, and in turn help drive their own career progression.

Usually titles come with a defined list of Qualities that can be quiet subjective and high level, like “Practices the Latest in CI/CD Technology”, while useful as a guide, these aren’t very actionable or objective that you can give to an Engineer to do.

Many Managers I talk to about career progression tend to look at goal setting as a method for Engineer to prove themselves, I like goal setting and I do it a lot, but when it comes to career progression I think it’s a bit flawed and I’ll explain why.

Some examples people used with me for goals for Engineers were:

  • Do a blog post
  • Lead a project to completion
  • Do a tech talk

Goals like this are fine, but if used for career progression you can effectively create a checklist list for a promotion, and after the Engineer has done X,Y,Z on the list we promote him, this doesn’t mean after being promoted they will continue to do this. If we take the example of an Engineer who is set the above three goals, does them in a Quarter or two, gets promoted to senior engineer, then goes back to doing the same thing he did before. He’s not likely to inspire those around him who are doing the same job now, but don’t have the title. In fact, it may even have a negative impact on the team.

And when you are asked by someone “why is he senior?” is your response of “He did a design review and a tech talk 2 years ago” going to be a good answer?

So when are goals ok?

Goals I believe are good for short term, they are good to push someone out of their comfort zone to give them a taste of something, or to defeat fear. A bit like young children and swimming; children are usually worried about getting wet and will cry and complain, but once you finally get them in the water it’s hard to get them out. Goal setting is good for pushing people out of their comfort zones, and also for giving people a taste of something new that they other wise would never have tried, perhaps in the example of cross training, or opening conversation of new career paths, is my opinion.

But back to career progression

If we want people to be doing the above things, they should be self-motivated to do them not doing them because they are led by the promotion carrot stick. So what we are after more, is a change on mindset as opposed to a “To Do” list, so that it becomes are part of their day-to-day thinking.

How to change or measure people’s mindset?

You can’t measure that I’ve found, but the best proxy I’ve found is the behavior people exhibit. The advantage of using behavior is it is a day-to-day thing. The way people conduct themselves when dealing with others, specific to engineering scenarios, on a day-to-day basis is something you can set goals around, or more so, expectations.

Setting expectations of behavior is something that Ben Horowitz talks about, he wrote a blog a long time ago called “Good PM, Bad PM” applying this to Product Mangers in the 90s and 00s.

If we promote people based on their day-to-day behavior the exhibit, they are likely to continue this behavior as it part of their routine, they are unlikely to degreed their behavior over time, and if more goals are set around improving behavior then they will most likely progress.

Taking the example of the “Inspiration from the Senior Engineer on my team”, if we assume that behavior is consistent over time then the answer to the question about “why is he senior?” becomes easier to answer in that he acts in fashion A,B,C on a day-to-day basis.

I have some example of what I set, to try to explain the method:

  • A Senior Engineer identifies and helps with skill gaps in his immediate area, escalating when they are too much for him to handle. He is the guy that says in a stand up “hey Bob, you haven’t had much experience in system X how about you pick up that task today.” He encourages continuous improvement of the team in the day to day.

The above is an expectation around collaboration and system ownership, this is from my Senior Engineer expectations, you can see how its worded that it’s day-to-day behavior expectation around being a positive influence in the team.

The thing missing from this that’s present in the Horowitz article though is the “Bad PM”. Horowitz remarks on calling out explicit negatives in behavior as well. This is very useful for calling out common bad behavior people pick up within the organization (or in the industry in general) that might be common and help to correct them.

Here’s an example from my basic Engineer Expectations:

  • An Engineer Tests. They employ automation to do so and understands when to use Unit vs System vs Integration Testing. An engineer does not have a “Tester” on their team whose responsibility it is to do the testing.

This is a common pitfall from the industry, especially from older engineers who used to work on teams where they did have “testers”. Engineers like this that have any form of Quality role attached to their team think they have a “tester”, and this is very bad for not only cross functional teams but also the correct use of automation. So by calling out this negative behavior we help to correct this by setting the expectations.

Be careful though, the expectations I have here are specific to my context, not everyone should have the same expectations, there will be things unique to your company, team, etc. that they should change. From the example above, maybe you do have “Testers” on your team, and that is ok for you.

In closing though, I would recommend trying to Set “Behavior Expectations” around your career levels as a method to drive the right change, in your staff, for promotions.

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