Software Developer Promotions: 3 ways to get to that next level

From the Career Conversations Series with Soyoung Lee, Co-Founder of Exaltitude
October 18, 2022
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Engineering promotion is a sign that you're on your way to advancing your career as an engineer. Whether it's through hard work or charm, there is always one path leading towards promotion and potential advancement - but how do we know which method will get us promoted? In this week’s EXA Career Conversation Exaltitude Co-Founder Soyoung breaks down three popular routes for climbing higher in rank with advice about what steps to take next!

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What are the three paths?

There are three career path that you can choose to focus your efforts and daily goals to get promoted in engineering. The paths are
1) The Artist’s Way
2) The Charmer’s Way
3) The Carnegie Mellon’s Way. 

The Artist's Way

Around the time of the first .com boom, I met a software engineer who said he considered himself an artist – a title I never thought to apply to software engineers. Later on, through my connection with this person, I met more and more software engineers and found that many do consider themselves artists in the sense that they care deeply about the quality and detail of their work, to the point where they consider it an art and a life-calling. 

My first husband is a great example of someone who took the Artist’s way; while he was working as an engineer, he was also doing his master's in CS at Stanford. He would read lots of academic journals, textbooks, etc. and his lifelong learning continued past college where he wouldn’t just learn when work required it, but because he wanted to. Naturally, his dedication and continuous studying/practicing got him noticed by his engineering manager. He has a very successful career where he gained the trust of the engineering team, other departments, and management through his ability to deliver work at a higher level.

Put in the work

Whether you're going for a senior engineer or an engineering management track, solving complex problems and constantly performing at the next level will surely get you noticed by the promotion committee and your engineering manager. Senior engineers who can perform like this get regular feedback that they are exceeding expectations.

The Charmer’s Way

What if you are not interested in dedicating your life to learning the art of code but still want to be successful at your job? The Charmer’s Way might appeal to you more than, where you can compensate for the time studying and learning by building a solid network. 

Many engineering managers and leadership in tech companies choose this route. They often have great communication skills and networking, staying in touch, and tapping into their personal resources – people. Their network may include everyone from a junior engineer, to an engineering manager, and other engineers involved in the promotion committee.

Do your preparation

Charmer’s way must be executed systematically, meaning you want to dedicate time to your calendar and add "networking" to your daily tasks. You can't build a network in only a few weeks; it requires networking routinely to build a robust network of engineers and managers who can support you.

The Carnegie Mellon’s Way

Carnegie Mellon’s way is best described by the common college admission’s question “should my child get an A in a regular class or a B in AP class?”, to which an admission officer would answer “get an A in an AP class”. This path is essentially a combination of the Artist’s Way and the Charmer’s Way. Candidates of Carnegie Mellon’s way must be able to balance their time spent learning and practicing their work to ensure it exceeds expectations while actively seeking opportunities to network. This path requires significantly more motivation and effort, but when leveraged it is the most effective path for engineers committed to advancing their careers.

At the end of the day, there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong path to take. If you know you don’t have the bandwidth for Carnegie Mellon’s way, don’t force yourself into it and potentially cause burnout. The key is understanding who you are and your abilities/boundaries, committing, and executing. 

How do you prevent burnout from following these paths?

While you will be dedicating a lot of time to the practices of your chosen path, you should create a routine with days scheduled for learning new skills, reading, etc., and other days just for activities you enjoy. That’s the beauty of the routine – there’s natural pacing where you aren’t as anxious about getting to the next task because you've already prepared a time for it. 

Should I optimize for one path or try another before settling?

If you already identify with a path, for instance, the artist’s way, you can try progressing into Carnegie Mellon’s way and incorporate some networking. The Carnegie Mellon Way does not have to be a 50/50 between the two paths; it can be a ratio scaled by your personal level of comfort. If you resonate with one path, it’ll be difficult to fully transition to another, and you’re better off leveraging your strengths than working overtime compensating for your weaknesses. Finding enjoyment in your work is a critical element for success.

Which track will get me promoted faster as an engineer?

There are many dependencies to the engineering promotion process. Peer reviews, manager support, business needs, and the team outcome are all considerations for your promo case. However when it comes to choosing between the artist way at the charmer way, be aware of your strengths and passion. Are you the type of engineer who likes to build technical skills or would you rather invest your time in developing relationships with other engineers? What is expected at your current level and which track will help help you continue to progress at the next level?

Does this apply to both senior engineers (IC) and engineering managers?

The answer is yes! The three paths to promotion can be applied to an engineer, tech lead, and an engineering manager. No matter what your current role is, you can always think about which career path you want to pursue. If you’re uncertain of which way to go, take some time to evaluate your strengths and what you enjoy most about your work. The answer will become clear eventually.

Does this only apply to people who work in large companies?

No, the three paths to promotion can be applied to people working in small companies as well. The main difference is that networking and relationship building may be may be different in a smaller company because there are fewer people. Instead of building a wider network, you'd build deeper relationships with your engineering team. The key is understanding the culture of your company and how it affects your career goals.

Do I need to switch companies to get promoted?

No, you don’t need to switch companies to get promoted. The key is finding the right company that will invest in your career growth. Look for a company with a culture that supports career growth and an engineering manager who will support your strength. First, evaluate your current situation--understand the promotion process at your company and see if your manager supports your goals. If you don't feel like you have a good shot at getting promoted, then it might make sense to switch companies. But if you have a good relationship with your manager and you're confident in your abilities, then stay and fight for that promotion!

The road to promotion

We love getting promoted. The path to get there is not always clear, but with these three tracks, you’ll get there over time. Don't wait until your next cycle or a new job to hit to make a decision. Be methodical in your journey and always refer back to your end goal.

What are the benefits of each path?

The Artist Way:

-You get to spend more time focusing on your work and perfecting your craft.

-There is a greater chance of you becoming an expert in your field.

-Your work will be of higher quality since you have put in the extra time and effort.

The Charmer Way:

-You get to know more people and build relationships.

-You become more visible and better known within the company.

-You are more likely to be considered for projects and assignments.

If you’re interested in more lessons on productivity, follow Exaltitude on LinkedIn for upcoming Career Conversation workshops.

Exaltitude newsletter is packed with advice for navigating your engineering career journey successfully. Sign up to stay tuned!

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