Are You Sabotaging Your Career – The Performance Review Mailbag

Are You Sabotaging Your Career – The Performance Review Mailbag

The response from the initial mailbag was fantastic. Among the emails I received:

“Apparently, you only read tweets and questions to your blog, so I’m sending this as a mailbag question. Could you please approve my expense report?” Anonymous Team Member.

“I read all your blogs and I haven’t gotten promoted. Your [sic] not good at advice.” KL, Ohio.

“Did you know Walt Whitman wrote and published reviews of ‘Leaves of Grass’ under fake names to boost sales? I’m just part of a grand literary tradition.” SPAM from a book author I’ve never heard of who apparently wrote his own Amazon reviews.

In other words, it’s an ideal time to do another one!

Q: I just had my performance review and things got very intense. There has to be a better way to handle this. If I’m just silent, then there is not much value, but my way didn’t work either. Engineer, Beijing, China.

A: You could fill a library with books about performance reviews – how to conduct them, how to receive them, why they’re terrible, why they’re important, etc. Many of these books are written by experts in psychology, sociology, and organizational behavior. I, on the other hand, spent most of my life writing code, before suddenly becoming a manager. In other words, I have no idea what I’m doing… which means I’m probably a lot like your manager.

First, you’ll almost never get an honest critique of your abilities.

  • Performance reviews reflect your boss’s priorities and perceptions more than your actual abilities and execution.
  • Performance reviews skew positive. Most managers don’t give negative feedback because it creates conflict, and they are conflict averse. In fact, many engineers never have a performance review meeting. They just get vaguely-worded written feedback. If there is a meeting, then it’s filled with fuzzy platitudes. (Note: If you don’t get a face-to-face performance review and your peers do, be worried; your boss can’t even fake some positive comments. Yes, I’ve done this.)
  • Financial compensation is the most accurate measure of your manager’s perspective on your performance. Words are cheaper than salary and bonus. NOTE: Even financial compensation doesn’t give you an accurate picture of your boss’s perspective on your performance. Due to conflict-aversion, managers will give a small raise just to avoid a more difficult conversation. Thus, even if you get a raise, find out if it’s below or above average. (Yep, I did this one, too.)

mailbag pic 1

Second, if you want to influence your performance review (which, I assume is code for “your raise”):

  1. Set and manage expectations early – First, find out what your manager values. Ask him/her what’s important and observe who the manager rewards (sometimes a manager doesn’t notice the difference between what they say and how they behave). Next, share your goal with your manager early (e.g. 9 months before a yearly performance review). Finally, jointly create a plan, so your manager feels ownership for your progress, as well.
  2. Keep in touch frequently – By staying close to your manager you can more easily course correct. You’ll also stay top of mind. Since pay raises are usually a yearly event, you want to constantly reinforce that you’re making progress.
  3. Don’t react during the performance review – Whatever happens, you’re going to be emotional. If you’re not – your boss will be (again, managers generally stress about reviews). Moreover, your boss will assume you’re being emotional. Wait a couple of weeks, and then follow Step 1.

In each of these cases, I’m expecting you to take the lead. “Isn’t that the manager’s job?” You’re uncomfortable trying to connect with your manager because engineers are generally introverted. Unfortunately, most engineering managers started as engineers, so they’re introverts, too! Therefore, they’re no more comfortable connecting than you are. Since you have the greater incentive, it’s up to you to drive the process.

(Two examples about how your manager is as introverted as you:

  • mailbag pic 2When I joined EMC, it was the first time I ever had an admin. I quickly realized that she addressed my biggest weaknesses. She was social, had free candy, and sat right outside my office. As a result, when engineers came by to chat with her and eat candy, it was an easy opportunity for me to connect and chat with them, too.
  • When the office setup changed, I lost that connection. As a result, I added– “Walk around and just chat with people” to the daily goals I write for myself. I’ve written that goal over 1000 times. I’ve failed on that goal over 1000 times. Engineering managers are just introverts that took a wrong turn in their careers.)


Third, if you want to actually want to improve your performance, that’s the easiest question to address. As you make progress on a project, ask your manager, your mentor, and your peers – “What could I have done to make this better?” That question makes it safe for them to respond, since it’s about accelerating improvement rather than critiquing. You’ll also get practical feedback because the project will be fresh in their minds.

As with everything else in a big company – first understand what performance reviews really mean. Second, decide what your goals are. Finally, take ownership because your manager is just as scared of you as you are of him/her.

Q: Are we ever going to schedule my performance review? Member of your teammailbag pic 3

A: Ummm… I’ll see if I can set something up… for some time. But, in the interim, just know that I’m really impressed with how hard you’re working on … whatever you’re working on. As for your raise, well, it was a really tight year, but I want you to know how much I value you, even if I can’t express it financially. High five!

Q: I keep getting great performance reviews, but I never get promoted. What am I doing wrong? Engineer, Hopkinton, MA

A: First, let’s assume that you’re not getting the performance review run-around, where you get the “high five” but the manager doesn’t mean it. In other words, you’re getting good raises and bonus. If not, read the answer to the first question.

Thus, you’re confusing doing well at your existing job with positioning yourself for your next job. Most organizations expect you to operate at the next job level before promoting you. Thus, I’d follow the advice from the first question – set that goal for promotion with your manager, create a plan to achieve it, and keep in touch with your manager.

Don’t confuse performance reviews with career path advancement. You need to show you can operate at the next level, not just excel at the existing one.

Q: I hate doing performance reviews with my team. It feels like a huge waste of time, trying to offer feedback based on things that happened as much as 11 months ago. I want to help my team grow and advance. How should I do it? S. Manley, Santa Clara, CA

A: Try to ask this question at least once a week – “How can I help?” Your team will open up to you with their challenges and you can provide guidance to them. It will open a conversation that can go into other areas, which is even better. Regardless, you’ll be involved, connected, and helpful rather than distant, disconnected, and judgmental.

You could make a daily goal that you should “Walk around and just chat with people.” Who knows, maybe the 1345th time will be the charm. And stop sending mailbag questions to yourself. It makes you look desperate.



Performance reviews are stressful for everybody – employee and manager alike. By default, they’re generally unproductive and potentially harmful. However, if we focus on staying constantly connected to help our teams grow, we can dramatically reduce the pain and agony. Until next time, I’ll leave you with one last question:

I met Joe Tucci once at an event. We took a picture together in front of a canoe. I attached the picture. [Ed. Note: It was not attached] I had fun that night because Joe and everybody from EMC was so nice to me and I really liked the food and there were free drinks. Joe said I could call him if I ever needed anything but I forgot to ask him for his phone number. I want to invite him to come to my wedding because I think we’d have fun. Could you send his cell phone number to me?” Stalker, NJ.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

Are You Sabotaging Your Career – The Meeting Mailbag

Are You Sabotaging Your Career – The Meeting Mailbag

Career questions. Everybody has them.

Hopefully you can discuss them with a mentor, a trusted manager, or a trustworthy group of friends. If you have no better options, however, you can always ask a long-winded, self-absorbed blogger. To establish my blowhard blogger credentials, I’ve shared my opinions about the importance of perception, committing the three most common mistakes,  successfully getting noticed, escaping the pigeonhole, talking to management, working with executives, and handling career honors.

The result? We have questions from our readers. This time we’ll cover the meeting questions.

Q: I’m terrible at meetings. Nobody listens to me even though I’m right most of the time. How can I get better at meetings? Product Manager, Hopkinton, MA

A: First, let’s be sure you really are terrible at meetings (though that “I’m right most of the time” gives me confidence that you are.).

  • When you begin speak, do people use that as a trigger to go on an unofficial bathroom break?
  • Do people never respond to what you say and act as if everybody had simultaneously gone comatose while you talked?
  • Do you hear groans or sighs when you begin to talk?
  • Do you see everybody suddenly pick up their phones while you’re speaking? Do you have a paranoid sensation that they’re mocking you via text? (Note: It’s probably not paranoia.)
  • Do you find a lot of decisions are made in “hallway conversations” and the number of meetings is reduced?

Sabotage Meeting pic 1If you answer yes to most of these questions: congratulations, you are really, really bad at meetings! (None of these are exaggerations. They happen in most big meetings I attend – to people at all levels and in all job roles.)

Now that we know you’re the “Batman vs. Superman” of meetings (lots of noise, no impact), how do you improve your performance at meetings?

First, understand what type of meeting it is, so you can act appropriately.

  • Decision Communication – Everything has been decided. Focus your feedback on improving the implementation of the decision. Everything else is disruptive. Disagree and commit.
  • Decision Discussion – There has been a preliminary proposal, and the presenters are seeking new information or perspectives. Your goal: convince the decision makers to meet with you after the meeting. Focus on concise and positive input that brings something new to the discussion (Shockingly, people tend to avoid those who are relentlessly negative and antagonistic.). If you try to go too deep in the meeting, you will be creating a “rat hole”. If you stray off-point, you’ll be pegged as passive-aggressive.
  • Topic Introduction – The presenter is trying to establish a basic, shared level of understanding. Your goal: ensure that you’re involved in the preliminary proposal. Focus your input on either establishing your credentials in the area (briefly and without ego) or making it clear that your team/group is integral to the decision (either implementing or being affected by it). Pushing for a decision will make you look rash and bossy.

Second, regardless of the type of meeting:

  • Brevity – Do you find it annoying when somebody drones on during a meeting? It’s just as annoying when you do it.
  • Relevance – Do you hate when people talk without adding anything new or applicable to the discussion? People hate you when you do it, too.
  • Be Positive – Do you resent people who ridicule your ideas (and, thus, you) in public? When you do it, other people fantasize about you getting stuck in never-ending bug reviews. [NOTE: You can be positive, even when critiquing an idea, by genuinely wanting to help the presenter succeed, rather than trying to prove your superiority. Intent shows through.]

Finally, there are a few habits to break immediately:

  • Body Language – Do you bang your head on the table, slump in your chair, or roll your eyes at the presenter?
  • Tone of Voice – Do you sound critical or condescending? Do you sigh deeply before you talk, as if everybody else’s stupidity wearies you?
  • Talking over others – We all know that you’ve just had the most brilliant thought since Vin Diesel thought of adding The Rock to The Fast and Furious. It’s clearly more important than whatever others are saying. So why bother listening, or even letting them finish?

Sabotage Meeting pic 2If so, you’re in good company – I’ve done all of those things. Now stop being disrespectful, annoying, unprofessional, and immature. Nobody will take you seriously when you act like a spoiled child.

One of my worst meetings – we were prioritizing management features for a product I’d led. The management team was just trying to understand the product (Topic Introduction). Unfortunately, I expected them to be experts and that the meeting was to ratify decisions (because I didn’t ask). After spending the meeting interrupting them, rolling my eyes, and insulting their lack of knowledge of the product, I concluded by spectacularly banging my head on the table 3 times. Word of the meeting spread quickly. One of my mentors asked if I’d taken up day drinking. The management team asked for a different liaison. For months people behaved differently around me – less open – because they feared I’d melt down again. And I gave myself a really bad headache.

You can learn to be good at meetings. It all starts with common sense, respect for others, and taking an extra moment to think about how others will perceive your actions and words. In other words – it starts with trying.

Q: I’m in Quality Engineering (e.g. Test, Automation). My manager got me invited to design reviews, but I don’t know what to say. The developers say that I’m not adding value, and they don’t want to invite me anymore. How can I make an impact? Engineer, RTP, NC

A: This is the flip side to the meeting question above. Instead of being overbearing and obnoxious, you’re unsure and becoming a meeting wallflower.

Most of the previous advice still applies. A few of other things to add:

  • Prepare: Design review meetings are new to you. You’ll need to work harder to make your mark. Prepare a couple of points of feedback prior to the meeting (even if you have to talk with some developers separately before the meeting). That way, you’re confident that you’ll have an impact. It will relax you, so you can add even more value in the flow of the meeting.
  • Focus on your unique value: As the QE representative, the developers are expecting you to bring a different perspective – e.g. customer advocacy, automation requirements, testability, diagnosability, or cross-group impact. Therefore, focus on that; don’t try to be a developer.
  • Advocate for your group: You’re not just in the meeting for yourself; you’re representing your team. Therefore, find out what your group needs from the developers. That will help you prepare and add unique value.

Sabotage Meeting pic 3When I first started attending business planning meetings, I struggled to add value as well. Initially, I sat quietly. Unfortunately, I worried that I wasn’t adding value. Then I tried to contribute by offering brilliant advice about budgets, margins, and sales models. The “are you kidding me?” looks on everybody’s faces convinced me that I definitely wasn’t adding value. Finally, I found my sweet spot – helping balance present and future investment in product development and marketing. And in making sure that I tell more bad jokes than anybody else.



Meetings matter. Not just for getting work done, but in setting your public image. Good luck and keep the questions coming!

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

The Career Sabotage Cortex.

The Career Sabotage Cortex.

Are you sabotaging your career? Stephen and Mark find out.

This time, Inside The Data Cortex:

-Where is the mysterious handbook of career progression?
-Why are you evaluated by people who can’t ever know how good you are?
-Is being a martyr to your career a choice?
-Why is turnover at the Executive levels so high?
-Do you have to love the work to move your career along?
-What does it take to set the tone?
-Tales of early career villainy. Never explain. Never apologise. Always regret.

All this and more. Not much more. But maybe some more.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Subscribe to this on iTunes

Follow us on Pocket Casts
Stephen Manley @makitadremel Mark Twomey @Storagezilla

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? – Part 6

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? – Part 6

Sometimes you see a colleague working with an executive, and you wonder how they got that opportunity. Then you see that same colleague isolated from teammates and managers, and you wonder if executive interaction is a good idea.

Collaborating with an executive can be a huge asset to your career, but it can also be a huge liability. Executives can expose you to unique roles and views of the business. Just as importantly, it gives the executive exposure to you. Unfortunately, through the years, I’ve seen many promising careers derailed by mishandling executive interaction – either by losing the support of the executive or alienating your team.

Since we’ve talked about escaping a pigeonhole and strategies to get noticed by executives, it’s important to also know how to properly engage and work with them.

Lesson 6: Effective Communication with Management

Caveat: I’ve found these tips to be useful in my career when connecting with executives. It also reflects how I like people to work with me. But, as with any person in the work environment, some executives are not worth your time. Some think they’re better than you and will treat you badly. Some will steal your work and take all the credit. Some will use you to advance their career and then leave you behind. So, be careful and pick somebody you trust.

Tip 1: Connecting with Executives – Personal

The best way to approach an executive is to simply reach out. One of my litmus tests for “high-potential employees” is whether they connect with me. Talk to me in the break room, use email or social media, meet through a mutual connection, or just set up a meeting. (Conversely, Joe Tucci seemed anxious when I introduced myself at the urinals. Similarly, NetApp President Tom Mendoza looked trapped when, as a new college hire, I burst into his office with my dad; fortunately, like Tom, my dad was a Notre Dame grad, so that smoothed things over).

During the initial encounter, be positive and concrete. First and most important, discuss what you’re passionate about, not what you think the executive cares about. You’ll put your best foot forward and you’ll teach the executive something new. I’m always thrilled to meet people who educate me – from User Experience to data analytics to sales processes to new coding methodologies. You can’t fake enthusiasm and knowledge, so bring your passion. Second, remember Tip 1 from working with your manager – bring answers, not just problems. More important, don’t complain about your management or peers; it makes a bad first impression and you don’t know if they’re already friendly with the people you’re critiquing (Note: For any serious issue with your manager or co-worker, go directly to HR.) Third, before you go in, have an idea what you’d like to see happen after the meeting. Getting to know one another is good; engaging on a meaningful project is better. Finally, if there is no natural connection, don’t force it. Executive turnover means there will always be other opportunities. As an engineer, I always reminded myself “I was here before you, I’ll be here after you.” (OK, I did actually say it to one VP – but I was confident that he was incapable of filling out the online forms needed to fire me).

A few years ago, an automation engineer asked me to support her plan for a new test harness. She was nervous because she assumed I was an expert on everything. After I asked remedial questions for 15 minutes, she realized that she was the expert in the room. After an hour, she had convinced me to support her test automation initiative. Within a month, her passion convinced me to change my job to lead QA and automation. Not surprisingly, she was one of my go-to people. It all began with her setting up a meeting and bringing her passion.

Tip 2 – Connecting with Executives – Public Forum

Connecting with executives in public forums (e.g. all-hands, town halls, public email lists) can be tricky. Done right, you can stand out as a leader and win the respect of both peers and executives. Done wrong, you can actually hear your colleagues whisper “career limiting move” as you ask the question. More often than not, I’ve been that latter engineer. At the time, I convinced myself that I was “speaking truth to power”; in reality, I was giving in to my need to be right. There is a fine line between asking challenging, important questions and being obnoxious. Actually, the line isn’t that fine.

The root question to ask – do I respect this executive?

If you think the executive is clueless, heartless, and/or worthless, then you’ll get no meaningful progress by publicly flogging them. Why waste your energy and expose yourself to retaliation? Sure, it’s fun to humiliate a buffoon in public. Unfortunately, the executives that aren’t respected tend to be insecure, petty, and vindictive. There is no upside, and significant downside, to attacking a worthless executive. How do you control yourself? Technology has saved me. I attend most all-hands remotely, even when I’m in the office. The technological divide keeps me calmer and less likely to say something I’ll regret.

If you do respect the executive, think about what they’re trying to do and what you want to achieve. Do you believe they’re aware of the challenges, but are oversimplifying the solutions? Remember that “leaders” are taught to project optimism (though not mindlessly, hopefully), to lead the team through the storm. If they’re not optimistic, how can the team be? Taking that into account, if you still think they’re missing something, bring the issues to their attention with the respect that you have for them. If you’re still not satisfied and you’re passionate about helping drive a solution, that’s a great opportunity to personally connect with the executive.

I worked with a senior engineer who wanted to take the next step in his career. He was told that hisSabotaage pt 6 pic 1 biggest limitation was an unwillingness to challenge and influence senior people like our CTO. He’d always just “agree and subvert”– not say anything in public, then grumble incessantly afterward. Therefore, he spent our next big architecture strategy meeting disagreeing with everything the CTO said. Finally, the CTO turned to him and announced, “There’s a difference between standing up for your ideas and being a passive-aggressive pain-in-the-ass.” He never did get that promotion.

Tip 3: Sustaining the Connection

Once you’ve connected with an executive, how can you turn that into a productive relationship?

First, you need to figure out if they’re actually interested in working with you. People will often express an interest in your proposal, but not follow through. Sometimes, they just don’t know how to turn you down. Other times, they don’t understand but are too embarrassed to ask questions; they’re just waiting for you to leave. Still other times, they are interested at the time, but it’s just not important enough to them to follow through.Sabotaage pt 6 pic 2

There is one simple measure for whether somebody is truly interested in your idea – time. If they’re willing to spend their time and energy on it, they care. If it never quite gets to their priority queue, then you don’t have a connection.

Second, you need to be persistent. I’ve had engineers abandon an idea because I didn’t respond to their first email. We all get so many emails; it’s easy to miss one. Now, if I don’t respond to 3 or 4 contacts, then the idea has failed the “time” test above. Don’t give up after one attempt, and don’t always connect in the same way (i.e. maybe email is a poor way to connect with a given person on a given idea).

Third, give them something they can do for you. Research shows that people like you better when they can help you. After all, we all like feeling useful. Therefore, don’t simply tell executives what you can do for them; give them something they can do for you. Make it something challenging enough that they can’t just send an email and be done, but not so challenging that it has to become a significant job for them. They’ll get invested in both the project and you.

In short, working with an executive is just like working with anybody else – from a 4 year-old to an engineer on your team (probably closer to the 4 year-old given the attention span). Connect, evaluate, stay persistent, and collaborate.


Tip 4: Your Team Comes First

The biggest risk in executive interaction is in alienating your manager and peers. They worry that you’re sharing information that makes them look bad, either with malice or unintentionally. They fear that your connection makes you harder to manage. They wonder if ideas won’t be fairly evaluated because you have executive support. Some will just be jealous.

Your team comes first because executives leave. They may leave the role, the company, or you. If you align to an executive over your own team, you’re likely to wind up exposed and alone.

I met an engineer who was introduced herself as a member of “Special Group X”. I’d never heard of it, so she explained that it had disbanded years ago when the executive sponsor had left the team for a promotion at a competitor. The team had been disbanded, but this engineer (and others) had isolated herself from her peers because she was “special”. Her career momentum stalled because she aligned herself with an executive that used her to vault up the corporate ladder. Her career stagnated because she never accepted it and she refused to rejoin her real team.

How can you avoid these pitfalls?

  • Advocate for your team. Sell them harder than yourself when you’re with the executive. If they suddenly get kudos for their work, they’ll know where it originated.
  • Share the information that you learn. In most companies, information is the modern currency. You now have access to more of it. If you share what you’ve learned with everybody, they’ll view you as an access point to information, rather than as a threat.
  • Stand on your own. Never, never, never use, “Exec X said” as an argument. Either your ideas stand on their own, or they’re not good enough. Use the information and perspective you’ve gained to bolster your position, but never “because he or she said so.” It enrages both your team and the executive you’re quoting.
  • Execute. Even if you start working on a special project, don’t let your existing work suffer.Sabotaage pt 6 pic 3

If you want to become a leader, you need a team to follow you. Executive support is valuable, but history is littered with great leaders’ successors failing (e.g. Steve Ballmer, George H.W. Bush, Michael Ovitz, and anybody slated to succeed Mao Zedong). Executive support can’t make your team trust, respect, or follow you. Only you can do that.

Executive connections are good, but your team comes first.


Executive interaction can be like showing off your rollerblading tricks in front of your son’s friends. If you pull it off, you’re the coolest dad in the school. If you dislocate your shoulder doing a trick, you’ll find yourself alone, fighting to maintain consciousness in the middle of a skate park.

Working with executives can be an asset to your career, but you need to approach it with caution. First, you need to find an executive you trust and who shares an interest in your passion. Second, you need to execute and deliver. Finally, and most importantly, you always have to remember to put your team first.

If you think working with executives is dangerous, in the next post we’ll talk about how to better collaborate with your peers…

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? – Part 5

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? – Part 5

Your peers have been promoted and you haven’t. Your colleagues earn more money than you do. Your teammates get better, more interesting work than you do. What’s their secret?

They ask.

Talking to managers about your career can be daunting. They seem unapproachable. You’re uncomfortable talking about yourself or asking for things. You’re afraid of the answer you’ll get. Regardless of the reason, if you don’t ask, you probably won’t get the results you want.

When it comes to your career, we’ve covered the importance of perception, discussed three common career self-sabotage maneuvers, strategies to get noticed by executives, and how to escape the pigeonhole. This time, we’ll talk about the best ways to talk to your manager.

Lesson 5: Effective Communication with Management

Talking with your management is important. When I started working, I avoided my managers. If they were looking for me, I was probably in trouble. When I went looking for them, I would get myself into trouble. A mutual-avoidance strategy seemed ideal. Then the company offered my brother a position at a level below me. The hiring manager instructed, “Don’t talk to Stephen about the offer because it’s much more than he makes.” My brother simply left a copy of the offer letter (at 25% more salary than I was making) on my desk. At that moment, I realized that “hide and hope” wasn’t an effective strategy for dealing with management.

It also led to my favorite manager quote ever. When I brought up the pay inequity, my manager said, “You know Stephen, money won’t bring you happiness.” My response, “I agree, but the current lack of it is bringing me unhappiness. Let’s solve that problem.”

Tip 1: Bring Answers – Not Problems

Engineers complain that they cannot convince their managers to take action. How can they break out of their pigeonhole if all of their ideas are shot down? Many great engineers have become managers just to get the authority to drive their agenda – only to find out that they still have a boss who says “no”.

How can you turn your ideas into reality? First, come with more than a list of problems. Most times, I see people approach their managers with the template, “X is really broken. It’s going to be a disaster. We should do something.” They then look expectantly at their manager, waiting for guidance. Next time, try using this template, “X is broken. Here is the projected impact. The team thinks we should do ‘Y’ in the short term, and ‘Z’ in the long term.” Junior engineers come with problems, senior engineers come with answers, and technical leaders come with results (Note: engineers who try to hide the problems end up unemployed).

A tale of three engineers. Long ago I had built a replication product that could no longer scale to meet customer requirements because of my terrible thread-intensive design. Every week for a couple of months, the “lead” engineer spent 30 minutes rehashing the problem without suggesting an answer. Sabotage pt 5 pic 1After the second meeting, I spent those meetings trying to squeeze my wallet out of my back pocket by flexing my buttocks. About a month later, a staff engineer delivered a proposal (supported by the senior architects) in which a team of 2 people could solve the problem in 9 months. We adopted that proposal. Finally, two weeks later, over the Christmas shutdown, one frustrated new hire just re-wrote the code, including an automated test suite. The manager moaned about fitting the work onto the release train, but he was thrilled to solve our biggest problem a year early! Guess which engineer became the Lead Architect in three years, which engineer led the next project, and which engineer was sent to the bench.

Coming with code isn’t always the right answer, but coming with answers and results is more effective than coming with problems. As my boss says – “If you’re asking me to solve your problems, why do I need you?”

Come with answers to problems; even better, come with results.

Tip 2: Think about career path, not promotion

Too often, people focus on an individual promotion, rather than the arc of their career. The conversations with their manager become transactional (e.g. “I want ‘X’, or I’ll do ‘Y’”). This signals that you don’t want a long term relationship in which both sides invest in one another. Instead of collaboration, you end up with negotiation. Furthermore, it leaves the engineer with insufficient skills and opportunity to further grow their career.

First, promotion discussions are painful because they start too late. Judge these 2 opening lines:

  • Opener 1: “I enjoy my role, but I’d like to talk through the available career path options. What is the target destination, and what I do I need to do to take the next step in my career?”
  • Opener 2: “I’m really frustrated. Everybody else around me is getting promoted. I don’t see a future here, since you don’t value me.”

In the first case, you’re open and your manager will be delighted to help grow you (if not, that may be a sign that you’re way off track – which is also useful to know as soon as possible). In the second case, you’re angry and your manager will be defensive. Unfortunately, I hear far more of Opener 2 than Opener 1*. That’s why promotion discussions are so painful for people.

The main difference between the two openers is time. In the first case, you’re happy and planning for the future. Managers will want to collaborate with you. You can plan out a career path, developing skills, relationships, and credibility as you grow. You’ll be ready for the new roles and responsibilities of more senior positions, so you can continue to expand your carer.

In the second case, you’ve waited too long to take action and you’re threatening your manager, demanding instant gratification. Managers may give in to the threat, but you won’t have built up the skill set or support to succeed in the new position. Peers and junior staff will wonder why you’re at such a senior level. You’ll feel isolated and irrelevant despite your “senior” position. Because you are.

*Ironically, it’s the people most uncomfortable talking about themselves that end up with Opener 2 because they wait so long to discuss their career. To get over that concern, change Opener 1 to – “How can I help the company even more by taking on a bigger role?”

The secret to any promotion discussion is to start the conversation immediately. Sabotage pt 5 pic 2

Second, career paths and promotions get off track because you get become indispensible. Most companies promote you only after you’ve proven that you can succeed at the next level; they don’t promote you and hope you’ll grow into the role. Therefore, to make it to the next level in your career, you need to display a mastery of those new skills. You can’t do that if you’re spending all your time doing your existing job. Moreover, if there’s nobody to replace you in your existing role, you’ll still be stuck. Therefore, it’s critical that you engage in succession planning with your manager. This only happens if both sides believe that this is more than a transactional relationship.

Succession planning is an extraordinarily challenging work task. First, each of us worries that if we train our replacement, we’ll become expendable. Second, each of us (especially CEOs) secretly believes that we’re unique and indispensible; how could anybody adequately replace us? Third, it’s always more difficult to teach somebody to do your job than just to do everything yourself.

Succession planning is also an extraordinarily important work task. First, if you don’t have a replacement, you never get to do something new. Second, by working with somebody new, you can learn new approaches and methodologies that could help you in your next role. Finally, mentoring and growing others is part of becoming a leader.

Unless you want your existing job for life, work with your manager to include succession planning as part of your career growth. You must initiate the discussion because most managers are afraid of their employee’s reaction if they bring it up. You want to work yourself out of your current job, not become indispensible in it.

The secret to a successful promotion strategy is to work with your manager to find your replacement.

Sabotage pt 5 pic 3

Unfortunately, most people handle promotion discussions poorly. I had a newly transferred employee who made every mistake possible. Five minutes into my first meeting with him, he said, “Everybody that joined at the same time as I did have been promoted by their managers. I need to be promoted, too.” At that time, my kids were 3 and 5, so even his entitled tone of voice sounded familiar. When I tried to direct the conversation to how he wanted to grow his career, he said that he wasn’t motivated to work without a promotion. When I pointed out that I couldn’t promote him based on other people’s work in a completely separate group, he complained that I just didn’t understand engineering. Two weeks later, he repeated the same demand. He had not done any productive work. He also refused to let anybody else even look at his work – even encrypting all his files – so that he couldn’t free himself from his current job.  Two weeks later, he gave me the world’s funniest ultimatum – “If you don’t promote me, I’ll quit!” My response was simply, “OK. I’ll have HR walk you through the resignation process.” His ego would not let him backtrack. He ended up at another company at a lower job level.

The secret to promotions is to treat them milestones on your overall career path, not as the ultimate destination.


Individual contributors struggle to talk to their managers. Regardless of the reasons, communication with your manager is critical to turning your ideas into reality, moving your career forward, and getting the recognition you deserve. Hiding from the conversation only allows tension and trouble to build up. Approach your manager with solutions, not just problems. Collaborate with them on defining your career path and the necessary steps to make it happen. Most managers genuinely want to help their team; you need to help them help you.

If you think working with your manager is scary, in the next post, we’ll talk about how best to work with executives.

Engage your manager early, often, and collaboratively.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? – Part 4

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? – Part 4

Do you feel like your career is stuck? Do your managers and mentors say you’re doing a great job and give you sparkling performance reviews… but then assign you the same type of project, treat you the same way in meetings, and never discuss promotion? When they look at you, do they see you as you were three or more years ago, or do they see who you’ve grown into?

You’ve fallen into the pigeonhole perception trap. Everybody has confined you to a category, and they’re not letting you out (the work equivalent of the ‘friend zone’).

We’ve discussed three common career self-sabotage maneuvers and strategies to get noticed by executives. This time, we will cover the best ways to escape the pigeonhole perception trap.

Lesson 4: Escaping the Pigeonhole Perception Trap

Why is getting pigeonholed so devastating to your career growth? First, career advancement is tied to perception; being pigeonholed is entirely about the perception that you have not grown. Second, the people you’re counting on helping you advance (mentors, managers) are the ones holding you back. They think of you as somebody junior they “help” rather than as a peer. Third, not only does it prevent your growth from being recognized, but it prevents you from getting broader opportunities.

Tip 1: Change Your Appearance

Sabotage pic

I know this advice sounds ridiculous. Remember, though, we’re dealing with perception, and perception is heavily influenced by appearance. I’ve heard VCs and recruiters seriously discuss whether potential CTOs “looked” the part – on both the “too slovenly” and “too slick” ends of the spectrum. People notice. Therefore, there is value in a change in your appearance; it forces people to re-evaluate you.

After I was sidelined for immature behavior at work, my wife insisted I stop wearing t-shirts, jean shorts, and sandals to the office. I upgraded to polo shirts, jeans, and sneakers. While that doesn’t scream “executive”, it was enough to signal that I was maturing. At least that’s the Director of Engineering said when she promoted me. Appearances influence people’s opinions.

It’s possible to go too far in changing your look; it still needs to suit you. When I joined EMC, the Data Domain team joked about their first post-acquisition EMC encounter. The EMC Executive Team apparently wanted to prove that they weren’t uptight corporate suits… so they all showed up in new, pressed and creased jeans, white polo shirts, and loafers. Years later, the Data Domain team still mocked the EMC “West Coast Executive Uniform”. You want people to re-evaluate you, not ridicule you.

If this all feels staggeringly shallow when discussing technical roles, it is. But remember, the people evaluating you aren’t qualified to evaluate you based on your skills, even if they had all the information in front of them. Therefore, they go by the perception of how a senior technical leader looks and acts.

To reset someone’s perception, change your appearance… within reason.

Tip 2: Let Them See You in a New Context

You cannot debate away somebody’s perception. Whether you tout your accomplishments or somebody else endorses you, people discount statements that don’t match their preconceptions (besides, who isn’t skeptical of LinkedIn recommendations – especially when you and a colleague endorse each other at the same time?). You need to demonstrate your new skills and leadership to your management, so they can draw their own conclusions.

You can display your changed role by showing that your peers (or your manager’s peers) treat you differently. An engineer who I’d been mentoring for years invited me to a key project meeting. I assumed that he needed me to pull everybody together and get things on track. Instead, I silently watched him lead a cross-functional team with a shared vision and strategy, executing beautifully. Even more, I saw everybody in the room defer to my mentee as the unquestioned leader of the initiative. Seeing him in that new role relative to his peers made me finally realize that he’d made a “career leap”.

You can also demonstrate skills in a context that your management team might not have seen. We’ve all worked with people where we ask – “Why is this person still working here, much less in a senior role?” I saw one of those engineers at customer briefing, and immediately worried about the impact she would have on the meeting. However, when I struggled to connect with a customer, she stepped in, took control of the meeting and turned my catastrophe into a huge success. Seeing her in a new context – with customers – completely changed my perception. As a result, I was able to put her in a position to succeed; a promotion and a more visible role soon followed.

To change someone’s perception, show them your new skills in a different context.

Tip 3: Go Away (for Awhile)

It can be difficult to recognize somebody’s growth when you see them all the time. When people see children after a year, they immediately cry – “You’ve gotten so big!” Of course, parents don’t notice because they see the kids every day. The same is true for growth at work. Incremental enhancement is difficult to notice. Therefore, sometimes it’s best to go away for awhile. When you return, people will notice how much you’ve grown.

Changing groups is a great way to “go away”. First, learning new things is always beneficial – whether a different part of the product or a different role (e.g. development, QA, support, delivery, etc.). Second, your new boss does not have preconceptions about you. Third, you increase your visibility because you’re working with new people. Engineers often resist transfers because they believe their growth is tied to subject matter expertise. Remember, though: senior promotions are rarely tied to technical expertise. Managers discourage transfers because they depend on that engineer to meet their goals. (In the next post we’ll talk about how to your manager to help grow your career). If you can make the transfer happen, it can make a huge difference.

One of the great “turnaround” stories came from a group switch. During a project, I worked with a new college hire that drove me crazy. He publicly questioned every decision, constantly asked for more complex parts of the project, but never got his assignments done. I finally went to the team manager and demanded that he be fired (actually, I might have asked for him to be dragged through the parking lot tied to the bumper of a Geo Metro). The manager, who was a miracle worker, put the engineer on a 6 month stint with support. When the engineer returned, there was a 180 degree difference. He had gained empathy for customers, worked well with the team, and delivered on his commitments. The 6 months of separation had also helped me drop my baggage and see him as he currently was – a stellar engineer. For every subsequent project, I asked for him to be on my team. (Note: I never did tell him I tried to get him fired. It’s probably funnier to find out a decade later by reading it in this blog, right?)

Sometimes, a geographical transfer can be even more profound. Early in my career, I blew up at a VP of Engineering in an All-Hands Meeting* and he had HR discipline me. In the wake of this career self-sabotage, I took at an opportunity to work overseas. For a year, I stayed out of sight and my main connection to headquarters was the monthly newsletter I wrote about working abroad. By the time I returned to California, that VP of Engineering held me up as an example for cross-site engineering and pushed for my promotion (proving that my popularity is inversely proportional to how much time somebody spends with me). The time away gave me time to reset everybody’s perception of who I was.

*It was the VP’s first All-Hands meeting. He stood up and said, “Our top priority is Project A.” Somebody asked – “What about Project B?” He said – “That’s our other top priority.” Another question – “What about Project C?” His response, “Another top priority.” At this point, I asked, “Could you rank order those top priorities?” He said, “They’re all priority #1.” I stood and challenged, “OK, which one is 1A?” He started to sweat and bleated, “They’re all 1A.” At this point, I retorted, “So you either don’t know what priority means, or you don’t have any idea what our priorities are. What, exactly, does a VP of Engineering do?” This extreme example of “needing to be right” will get you banished to another country. It also demonstrates that disappearing for a while really can rehabilitate your image.

Taking time away from people can help reset their perception of you.


Nothing can stagnate you career like being pigeonholed. Unfortunately, you can’t simply tell people to notice how much you’ve changed. To change somebody’s perception, you need to jar them out of how they’ve categorized you. Then you need to demonstrate that you’re at a completely different level in your career. Changes in appearance or disappearing for a while can help reset their expectations. Then you need to get them to view you in a new context – e.g. with respect to how your peers, customers, or external organizations work with you. They need to see you in action, through others’ eyes.

In the next post, we’ll talk about how best to get your manager to help grow your career.

You can only break out of the pigeonhole trap by resetting people’s perception.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? Part 3

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.


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

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? Part 2

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? Part 2

Career growth and advancement. Even people who profess not to care about their career admit that they are curious about where they and the organization are going. Why did person X get a promotion or recognition, when person Y is consistently passed over? What does this mean for me?

As you advance in your career, it feels like people are constantly changing the rules of the game. How are you evaluated? What matters? Am I doing something wrong? You may be sabotaging your own career advancement without even knowing it.

As I spend more time evaluating senior talent and promotions, I’ve learned lessons that I wish I knew at the beginning of my career. Last time, we talked about the importance of perception. This time, we will cover the three most common mistakes that people make.

Lesson 2: The Three Most Common Types of Self-Sabotage

Many people frustrated by their career path are sabotaging themselves. Most of the issues trace to the flawed assumption that senior promotions are tied to ability vs. perception of leadership.

Issue1: Needing Credit for Everything

Sometimes, we damage our reputation in trying to get credit for our work. In my first job as a technical lead, a new college graduate on the project struggled to complete his code. I stepped in and helped meet the deadline. Then, as our manager praised him publicly in a meeting for completing such a complex task, I interjected – “Well, I did part X.” The room fell silent. The engineer’s face, which had been beaming, crumbled. My manager never said a word to me, but it was a devastating mistake.

The fallout from claiming credit? That engineer never worked with me again. It was two years before anybody else on the team would work with me. When my next promotion discussion came up, the Sr. Director specifically brought up that incident as a reason to wait while I “matured”. As my older brother observed, “You got credit for shipping a completely new product. You must be awfully insecure to need credit for a few hundred lines of college grad level code, too.”

Not everybody’s self-sabotage is as gruesome as mine, but…

Are you always “claiming credit” at the expense of others?

Issue 2: Having to “Be Right” (And Someone Else Be Wrong)

Some people see another person’s mistake as an excuse to go in for the kill, without being aware of the damage they do to themselves.

A couple of years ago, I over-oversimplified (NetApp Co-Founder Dave Hitz once said his job was to oversimplify technology without over-oversimplifying it; I’ve always loved that line) a product direction at a customer briefing. A very bright field engineer started an email chain, including me, about the danger in that too-broad statement. It was clear that I was wrong, and I didn’t try to defend the error. Over the next hour, he sent 5 increasingly hysterical emails about weeding that error out of the organization (as if anybody other than I had ever said it). He stopped only when I publicly apologized for my error and promised to reform. By that point, I believed that he wasn’t focused on solving the problem, but on being right in as public a forum as possible.

He lost a potential career sponsor that day. I’ve never talked to his management about removing him from an opportunity, never said anything negative about him, etc. But I’m human. Thus, I’ve never talked to his management about giving him a special opportunity, never said anything about him at all, etc. It helps to have people sponsor your career. It’s unlikely I’ll be that supporter.

(Yes, I’m being over-sensitive. Maybe he just wanted to be sure I got the point. Regardless of the intent, I should be a better person and get over it. And maybe someday I will. But the question for you is – are you willing to bet your career on your senior management being filled with more magnanimous people than I am?)

Was it worth it for him to be right? Especially when we know that perception matters so much.

Do you want to be right… or do you want to be happy?

Issue #3 – Not Sharing and Not Letting Go

In these days of Open Source, I’m stunned at people’s anger about their work being re-used or extended by others. This is a variant of “Issue #1 – Needing Credit for Everything”, but is far more damaging.

You want your work to be expanded by others. First, as it grows, people will remember where everything started. Second, if nobody takes over what you’re working on, you never get the chance to do anything else and get promoted. Instead your management will see you as indispensible in your current role.

More importantly, you do not want to be seen as somebody who cannot work with others. People want to work with colleagues whom they both respect and enjoy collaborating with. As you move to more senior roles, that perception becomes more important. If you are seen as somebody who refuses to share with others, nobody will want you as part of their team.

Sharing, working as a team, and helping others – they are among the most basic of skills. Unfortunately, I have countless examples of exceptionally bright people who couldn’t share.

Almost a decade ago, a QA engineer turned a huge achievement into a career limiting move. We wanted to run nightly test automation suites on any idle hardware. Unfortunately, our tests ran only if the system already had the OS we wanted to test installed and booted. Since most idle systems were either offline or installed with a different OS version, we couldn’t achieve the goal. This engineer wrote the code that installed the OS and cleanly booted systems from any conceivable state (crashed, offline, online with the wrong version, etc.). For about a month he used it to run his tests, but didn’t tell anybody. One of his colleagues found the code in the source code repository, made a copy for her tests and told everybody else about it. She took no credit for it, since she didn’t write it, but she didn’t know who wrote it, so didn’t say anything about the author. Unfortunately, when the author of the code found out, that night, he deleted everybody’s copy of the code. He then sent an email to me and the Sr. Director of Test Automation demanding that if anybody used his code, they should give him written attribution for it. The other engineers were enraged when they found out. In response, they created a separate approach to solve the problem and completely froze him out of every discussion after that. Not only did his career stall but he became a pariah and left the company within six months. His work was exemplary, but he wouldn’t share.

Was the team’s response fair? I’m not sure. But would you or your colleagues be any more understanding?

Are you willing to share with others, or would you rather be alone?


There are many ways to sabotage your career. I detailed these three because they seem to trip up extremely smart, motivated engineers more than any others. Most of the time, the cause seems to come from insecurity and the need to be recognized for the work you’re doing. Unfortunately, approaching that problem in the wrong way can be devastating to your career growth.

In the next post, we’ll talk about how best to ensure that executives do see what impact you’re making.

Because perception matters so much at more senior levels, be very careful about how your actions will be perceived by others.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? Part 1

Are You Sabotaging Your Career? Part 1

Have you ever wondered why your peers keep getting promoted to very senior levels and you don’t? Most people have concluded that it can’t be their fault. After all, they work harder than everybody else, do all the important work, and bring unparalleled expertise. Therefore, if you’re not getting promoted, it’s obvious:

  • Your manager is either biased against you or a fool. Or both.
  • You don’t “play the game”.
  • You’ve just been unlucky.

Those reasons are possible. There are incompetent, biased managers. Luck does play a significant role in finding the opportunity to get promoted.

And yet… You may also be sabotaging your own career advancement. As I spend more time evaluating senior talent and promotions, I’ve learned lessons that I wish I knew at the beginning of my career.

First, as you advance to more senior positions, how you’re perceived by your peers and management (those dreaded soft skills!) matters much more than technical excellence. Second, because perception matters so much, there are three mistakes people make to sabotage their careers. Third, you need to find the right ways to advertise yourself to senior leaders because you won’t advance without their support (perception, perception, perception).

Lesson 1: Perception Matters

As you become more senior in an organization, the individual talent and skills that led to your earlier promotions become less important. How often do you see a VP do anything concrete – code new features, troubleshoot a failed system, write marketing collateral, or close a customer deal?

As you become more senior, your job is to enable other people to get work done – remove roadblocks, point them in the right direction, teach them new skills, etc. What do those responsibilities have in common? They all involve guiding, influencing, and working with other people. You cannot code, design, debug, or spreadsheet (yes, I just used ‘spreadsheet’ as a verb) your way into making that happen. To make it to the next level, you need to become that mythical “leader”.

Leadership depends on perception. As the line goes, if nobody is following you, you’re not a leader. Some leaders are brilliant. Others connect well with people. Others are clever and devious. Regardless, you’re a leader only if people follow you. You’re a leader only if people perceive you as one.

Just as important, as job responsibilities become fuzzier, so do the criteria for promotion. After all, the executive team is asking themselves if they want you to join “their club”. Your peers are asking if they want to help you achieve your agenda. Once again, perceptions matter more than skills. To get that senior promotion, it is not sufficient to point to tangible measurements like lines of code written, system performance improvements, bugs fixed, or features added. Instead, the questions seem to boil down to two things:

  • Do people follow you?
  • Do the rest of us want to work with you?

You may think I’m being sarcastic, but if evaluators don’t ask those questions explicitly, they do so implicitly.


As you advance your career, things get more complicated – the skills you need, the expectations for the role, and how you get evaluated. While everybody can complain about how unfair the system is, there is a reason why it is this way. The requirements and metrics for senior positions are fuzzy at best. Thus, perception – of the team, of your peers, and of your executive team – matters.

Over the next two posts, we’ll talk about the most common types of self-sabotage and how best to position yourself to get noticed.

If people perceive you as a leader, you’re a leader; if they don’t…. you’re not.

Stephen Manley @makitadremel

Podcast: The Career Development Cortex

Podcast: The Career Development Cortex

Recorded in that split second before the universe was created in this episode of Inside The Data Cortex Stephen Manley & Mark Twomey are joined by EMC Director of Human Resources, Amy Cabral to discuss the career development path inside a corporation.

Join us as we discuss:

  •  How does an individual contributor get ahead?
  • What expectations should an employee have about getting from A to B to C on their career development path?
  • What traits do you need to progress inside a company and why you should expect that your end state is going to be different to your co-workers.
  • The books we’re reading this month.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Subscribe to this on iTunes

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Stephen Manley @makitadremel Mark Twomey @Storagezilla