Recently I read Slava’s post on How to get promoted. I have a lot of respect for Slava, but I don’t agree with this post. So I thought I would share how I think about it.

The Common Mistake

Slava is right about one important thing, that many people in Silicon Valley misunderstand what it takes to get promoted. Many people assume that promotions just come naturally to people who deserve them, and this is incorrect. The mentality here is like

  1. Do good work
  2. ???
  3. Promotion!

To get promoted, you need to figure out Step 2. But how?

“Getting Promoted” Is Passive

I mean this in a linguistic sense! If you think about it as “getting promoted”, you are using the passive voice. You’re omitting information. The laws of nature aren’t promoting you. Some specific person at your company is the most important decisionmaker for your promotion. To get promoted, you need to understand who that decisionmaker is, and what sort of performance they want from you to get a promotion. The mentality here is like

  1. Do good work
  2. Convince the key decisionmaker that your work deserves a promotion
  3. Promotion!

Who is the key decisionmaker? It depends on what your role is. If you’re a software engineer, the key decisionmaker is probably just your manager. Maybe it’s your manager’s manager. If your company is smaller, maybe it’s just the CEO. But if you’re trying to get promoted, you need to figure out who this person is, and what they want.

Dysfunctional Management

If you have a good manager, you can simply ask them. Ask your manager how promotion decisions are made, who the key decisionmakers are, and more specifically ask them what you need to achieve in order to get promoted.

If you have an inexperienced manager, maybe they aren’t able to explain this to you. Or, maybe you just won’t accept what your manager telling you, that you aren’t ready for a promotion because you need to do better work.

Sometimes, it sounds like your manager is asking the impossible of you, in order to get promoted. Sorry! That may or may not be your manager’s fault, or your fault. I don’t know. At least you’re having the conversation.

Sometimes it is impossible for you to get promoted on your current team. You’re a senior engineer, and you want to make staff engineer, but what you’re working on just isn’t important enough to merit a promotion. This isn’t necessarily your manager’s fault, although often a good manager can help you figure out how to navigate this.

If You Only Care About Promotions

So what’s the right strategy for someone who only cares about promotion? Slava’s thoughts:

The winning strategy is to ignore company metrics completely and move between projects every eighteen months so that nobody notices.

Wouldn’t people notice anyway? Rank and file employees will, but not the management. In a fast growing company things change very quickly.

To me, this just sounds like a case of bad management. It’s hard to manage a fast-growing startup, and bad management happens. But you won’t find bad management everywhere. And often, what seems like bad management from afar, is actually decent management grappling with a seemingly impossible problem, once you dig into the details.

Instead, I think the best strategy for someone who only cares about promotion is to do the unsexy work that management thinks is important, but is having a hard time recruiting people for. Everybody wants to work on the VR project. Nobody wants to fix the billing system. Everybody wants to add a new feature to the consumer app. Nobody wants to be responsible for fixing the database service that recently caused a big outage. Work on the important stuff that nobody wants to do.

People who do this are incredibly valuable to an organization, and usually end up rewarded. Part of being a good manager is to figure out who is willing to do the unsexy but critical work, and to reward these people when they succeed at it.


In summary, my career advice for opportunists is to ask your manager what it will take to get promoted, and then do it. If that isn’t working, try working on a project that nobody wants to work on, but management thinks it’s really important. The rituals and management fashions, don’t worry about it. Spend your mental energy on getting stuff done.