The following insight was written by Andres Holzer-Torres and adapted by the hatchpad team. Andres is currently the Technical Team Lead at Picnic.
Career advancement discussions with friends and colleagues tend to be about how one achieves advancement; often comparing notes of what worked and what didn’t.
Similar discussions happen with bosses who can provide tidbits of information that might help you make the leap to the next stage.
What I have come to realize over the years is that career advancement is actually multiple conversations wrapped in one phrase.
We are simultaneously asking:
- How do we improve ourselves?
- How do we get recognition for our abilities?
- How do we achieve a higher compensation for the value we bring to the firm?
Let’s talk about each of these separately, discuss strategies that have worked for me over the years, and take note of some differences I’ve noted between larger and smaller companies.
How do we improve ourselves?
Skills and Mastery
Being a software engineer means being a skilled craftsperson. We spend time understanding how to get computers to do complex tasks and learn more tools so we can most efficiently provide solutions to new situations at work. Most of the work we do is a combination of following patterns and making bespoke changes to match the specific needs of our current role.
Skilled craftspeople want to be challenged. There is something to be said for having a few typo tickets to tackle or adding a simple column to a data store up and down the stack. But without challenges we’ll get bored.
The first thing to note is that you are responsible for your growth.
In the context of items you can pursue at work, there are a number of ways to grow.
Here are a few ideas:
- Doing some reading on your own (code or articles)
- Seeking out the team expert on a given subject (most people are happy to geek out with someone interested)
- Asking to take on that big task that came in for the team
- Asking if you can attend a design or planning meeting just to hear what gets discussed
Sometimes the more senior team members, or the managers, will have useful suggestions on ways to deepen your skills. But don’t count on it.
Many organizations have an expectation of 20%, where you’re expected to spend some of your work time to expand your skill sets.
At larger organizations you might also want to see if there are established patterns for skill improvement. This can be in the form of budget for conferences, licenses to offerings/courses, tickets to conferences, etc. Take initiative by requesting access to these opportunities. As long as your company values the skills that you’re looking to improve, you shouldn’t have any trouble getting permission.
At smaller organizations there is less likely to be formal avenues to expand skills, but there is also more work than people to do it. If you are someone who learns through doing, this could be an excellent opportunity for you. Raise your hand and say you want to tackle that next project, even if you’re not the obvious choice or already have the skill level to do it the most efficiently.
The bottom line: don’t neglect improving skills that help organizations deliver value.
Presenting, ticket/effort estimating, and leading meetings effectively are all valuable skills that will advance your career.
- Reach out to the local subject matter expert on your team / at your company.
- Ask your line-manager what particular skills will be useful for you to grow.
- Check with your line-manager/HR to see if there is any budget for skills improvement.
- If you work in a smaller organization, volunteer to take on projects in the skills you want to explore.
How do we get recognition for our abilities?
Titles and Recognition
Titles are about recognition. They signal to colleagues and counterparts, inside and outside the organization, of someone’s skill level. In some organizations they are also key to specific types of work and responsibilities.
The key to getting a new title is to “demonstrate value.”
At a small firm, you might overhear a salesperson say “X feature will let us close this deal”. If you deliver the feature, then they can close the deal, and you can point to the value of that deal. You can usually point to outsized improvements in delivering performance improvements or fixing bugs, etc. You can also step into voids where there are clear needs, thus immediately creating the value necessary for changing titles.
However, in smaller organizations these title systems will be more nebulous. There may not be a definition of what the next rung up is and how to achieve it. Be prepared to operate in the gray, and possibly participate in the creation of these systems to exit that gray zone.
“Demonstrating value” is harder at larger organizations since your impact may be harder to directly link to actual contributions. In this case understanding the title ladder, and the stated expectations for each level, becomes crucial for achieving promotion. These expectations should be obtainable through your line-manager or through HR, so you can start figuring out how to achieve that increase. Having a mentor or, even better, a sponsor makes this process much easier to navigate.
- Continuously ask “what is the most important thing I should be focused on?”
- Understand what the title ladder is and what the expectations are for each level.
- If you are at a smaller organization that doesn’t have titles defined, offer to help define them.
How do we achieve a higher compensation for the value we bring to the firm?
Compensation is the way an organization rewards its employees for value created. These rewards include our monetary compensation, stock options, shares, and 401k matching. They can also include a number of non-monetary rewards such as paid time off, remote work capabilities, public speaking opportunities, chances to work on choice projects, etc.
There are a couple of keys to improving your comp within an organization.
First, you have to demonstrate value. If the company is getting more valuable, and it can be tied back to the work you completed, it becomes much easier to negotiate additional compensation. To be clear, this does not mean you have to be doing the shiny new feature. If your work is enabling others to deliver the shiny feature, that is valuable as well.
Secondly, you’ll need to know how compensation works at your organization.
In a smaller organization it is critical to understand the funding cycle. Right after a funding round, you are most likely to be able to get significant increases in compensation. Outside of those windows, the company is probably watching its run-rate very tightly, and thus it becomes harder to see those large monetary compensation increases.
At larger organizations understanding how the compensation tiers are structured becomes key. Is it tied to the title? Are there compensation tiers? Are you near the bottom or top of your tier? This information will inform you regarding how to approach that conversation.
The final element is truly understanding what you need and what you want. Do not compromise on your needs, because it will create unnecessary stress, resentment, and worries.
- If you need to be making $X, make sure you state it up front.
- If you need to work from home Y days/week, the organization needs to know.
- If your circumstances change from when you originally negotiated these things, then make your needs known.
- Understand your needs vs. wants. Having massages in the office might be nice, but do you need it to meet the lifestyle you want to have?
- Like last topic, continuously ask “what is the most important thing I should be focused on?”
- Understand your organization’s approach to compensation. Are they tied closely to funding rounds or are they more mature with established comp tiers? What is negotiable if they have pre-defined tiers?
- Try to get it in writing, ideally from a skip level. Having a verbal agreement from your supervisor means that if they leave, the next one may not honor it.
If the career advancement you are seeking is not available in your org, you may have to leave (ideally on good terms).
According to a survey that hatch I.T. conducted over the summer of 2022 (sample size 18):
- 94% of respondents received a salary increase
- The average salary increase was 32% of their original salary
- 28% received a title increase
When leaving, know that you will likely have to negotiate.
If a new title is important, make sure they know. If more money is key, say so. If a specific PTO allotment is the difference, state it.
Also, be prepared for a hiring manager/recruiter to say they cannot meet those expectations.
The best time to negotiate is after interviews when everyone has already determined they want to move forward. However, that is a significant time investment, so it can pay to state your needs even further upstream in the process.