Are You Sabotaging Your Career? Part 3

In a counterintuitive twist, many technical experts feel like they get pushed into the background as they move up the career ladder. They yearn for the early days when they could just solve the problems either by themselves or with a small team (which is why so many depart for small startups). They wonder why business leaders won’t listen to them and don’t see a way into the executive club. While they’re not sabotaging themselves, they are not optimizing their chances at success and advancement. Once again, most of the issues trace to the flawed assumption that senior promotions and success are tied to ability vs. the perception of leadership.

I’ve been sharing lessons that I wish I knew at the beginning of my career. First, we talked about the importance of perception. Second, we covered the three most common mistakes that people make. Over the next few posts, we’re going to discuss strategies to help you get promoted.

Lesson 3: How to Get People to Notice You (In a Good Way)

First, technical leaders are right to worry about getting ignored. When it comes to senior promotions, the question that can instantly kill a candidacy is: “Who’s that?” If the people evaluating you don’t recognize your name, you have no chance at promotion or honors. It’s better for some of the evaluators to have slightly (emphasis on slightly) negative opinions about you than for you to be unknown.

Unfortunately, as we discussed, claiming credit for your work often backfires and leave people with powerfully negative opinions about you. How can you get noticed in a positive way?

Tip #1: Do the Dirty Work

Are you more likely to get noticed in a crowd or standing on your own? What if most of the crowd is already famous? Despite the obvious answer, many engineers join a team of more senior engineers on a “hot” project, and then wonder why they don’t get any attention.

Early in your career, volunteer for part of the product that nobody wants to work on. First, you’ll get the freedom to own a product area. Conversely, on a team of more senior engineers, you’ll just get told what to do. Second, as my brother told me when I got assigned to work on tape backup – “Compared to nobody, even you can look competent.” Since these areas are usually very important, just not very glamorous, any positive contribution will make you a hero. Leaders will notice you.

A decade ago, I worked with an exceptionally bright engineer who wanted to be promoted. Unfortunately, he was working on SnapMirror – the crown jewel of NetApp’s data protection portfolio. As a result, he was the fifth most senior person on the project, and didn’t get noticed outside the group. Meanwhile, the NDMP team (traditional backup for NAS appliances), comprised two unmotivated contractors (my brother, taking his own advice, was one of them). He had a choice – become the superstar of “uncool” backup or stay in the background of “cool” replication. He chose to stay on SnapMirror; it was multiple years before he got the promotion he deserved.

There is value in joining an experienced team, learning how to do things “the right way” and finding a mentor. Of course, if you take on a thankless task, most engineers will offer advice and help. You can become a peer of those experienced engineers, rather than being their mentee. This will matter when we talk about breaking out of the “I remember who you were” pigeonhole perception trap.

The “do the dirty work” advice also applies to more senior engineers, but differently. You can’t stay on small areas forever, because senior promotions become increasingly tied to revenue generation. Still, different dirty work will get you noticed.

Senior engineers should volunteer to become the “glue” person. On a large project, what’s the work that nobody wants to do? Connect between different groups. Everybody likes writing the core code, building the engine, using new languages, and breaking new algorithmic ground. Nobody wants to ensure that the other teams are providing the right functionality, performance, APIs, and automated test suites at the right time. If you want to be noticed, that’s the work you need to do.

First, the glue person is visible to all the other groups. Since you want to be noticed, connecting with many other groups’ senior leaders is a good way to call attention to yourself in a natural, positive way. Second, the glue person becomes associated with the product area as a whole, which is a good way to become the team advocate, which leads up to Tip 2…

Do you want to do fun work… or do you want to be noticed?

Tip #2: Advocate for the Team

The best way to get recognition for a significant project is… to constantly advocate it. Simply by talking positively to others, they begin to associate you with that project/product/value. You never need to use the word “I” and risk the appearance that you’re stealing credit.

If you’ve been connecting the project to the other teams already, then becoming the advocate is a natural extension. You’re already perceived by engineers as the external face of the team. By endorsing the project across product management, marketing, and sales, the business teams will also associate you with the project. Again, you should talk about the achievements of the team and the value of the work; people will naturally associate you with the success. You never have to talk about yourself.

The advocacy approach is a great way for a new senior leader to connect to the team. Everybody wants their work to be appreciated. Nobody likes to be criticized. Too often, new leaders disparage everything that has been done before they joined. Not only does that alienate the internal team, but the external world now believes that the “hot new product” will be a flop. It’s almost impossible to regain external enthusiasm, and the engineering team will loathe you. Therefore, use your position and influence to tout the value of the team and their work. You’ll give them the recognition and credit they deserve. You’ll get the reflected glow of the team and the work, and people inside and outside the team will naturally think of you as a leader, right from the start.

Of course, this “advocacy” approach can be used for evil. I found this out the hard way. Early in my career, a small group of us built a cool new feature. A senior engineer elsewhere in the organization suddenly started touting this feature all around the company. Within days, everybody was congratulating him for such a brilliant idea. Never once did he share the credit. What angered me the most, though, was that this same engineer called me asking, “What does it mean when there is ‘**’ in front of a variable in C?” How could someone so technically incompetent get the credit for our work? Simple, when he advocated the project, people assumed it was pride of ownership that spurred his praise. He got a promotion out of it. We did not.

We did get our revenge, though. We convinced him to push for another new idea, commit to a date, then left him to implement it alone. Shockingly, he was unable to deliver. Moral of the story – use these tips for good, not for evil.

Shining the light on others gives you a halo of leadership.

Tip #3 – Team up with a Money Person

As you become more senior, the business expects monetary results from technical work. As you move toward an executive rank, most organizations have an implicit or explicit revenue target in mind for any promotion. Money matters.

Unlike other disciplines, engineers struggle to map their work directly to revenue. In rare cases, an engineer can track the revenue of their work (usually via license). More often, the work is part of a larger product. How can anybody accurately carve up the engineering credit for overall product revenue the way that marketing, sales, and general managers do?

In reality, the other disciplines cannot directly track their revenue either. They’ve just gotten better at pretending they do. How much revenue does a marketing campaign generate? Does a salesperson generate all their revenue alone? How much is one General Manager’s revenue truly independent of the company as a whole? The difference is that they’ve convinced people that their metrics accurately map their work to money.

Rather than trying to create engineering metrics, team up with money people (i.e. marketing, sales, product management). First, it will give you an even broader cross-section of visibility across the organization. Second, they will expose you to concepts and points-of-view that can help you design better products. Finally, you’ll have somebody that can give you revenue credit for your work.

Prometheus, one of my favorite programs at EMC, is a great example of this. Prometheus analyzes system data to help our customers avoid hardware and software failures, optimize performance, and predict when they’ll run out of capacity. It notifies the customers and sales teams when a system is within 90 days of running out of space. The customer can eliminate/migrate data, add capacity, or buy a new system. The sales operation team estimates that it generates in excess of $75M in sales every year. Many engineers complain, “Yeah, but the customer would have had to buy that capacity anyway, so you aren’t really generating any revenue.” The team responds with, “We’re just telling you what the money people say.” That ends the argument because there is no logical debate to be had. Not surprisingly, they continue to get increased funding and recognition.

Remember, you’re working on the perception that you’re a leader generating lots of revenue. Resist the impulse to create complex schemes to track revenue and work within the system.

Partner with a money person you can trust, and then trust them.

Conclusion

It is critical for career advancement that you get noticed. Unfortunately, the most direct route tends to create a bad impression. There are more subtle ways for engineers to promote themselves. First, do the dirty work so you stand out. Second, advocate for the project so you get the reflected glow of success. Third, partner with people who can help you get revenue credit for your work. On a positive note, none of these tips involve selling your soul. In fact, they help both your team and the company.

In the next post, we’ll talk about how best to break out of the pigeonhole perception trap.

You can connect with executive management by being in the places that they’re looking.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

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