The career ladder is a game

You have to decide to play it, or you'll be played with anguish.

I was recently spending time with a friend who used to be colleague. We talked about the company we used to work for, about how it had a systemic problem of giving opportunities to lead projects directly to senior engineers.

At this company, she was a mid-level engineer, and I was a senior engineer. So I was being given the opportunity to lead projects more often than she was.

“You said you were being overlooked?” I asked.

“Yes. All the juniors are. And it’s not like I don’t have options at other places. I have offers from X and Y big companies,” she replied.

I remember just as much about her work. She is a good engineer, someone who is as good as I am, if not better, at the job of software engineering.

She chokes up as she tells me how small she feels whenever she thinks about her time at the company. I empathised with her and felt her smallness as my own. Damned leaders at the company for being so blind to this! Heartless capitalists!

There I am, examining the situation, feeling like I’m part of the problem because of survival guilt. I stayed in the company longer than she did, partly because I was given opportunities to lead and grow.

But then something occurred to me. There’s another angle to this.

Why would a company hand projects to senior engineers to lead? Is it not precisely because they are senior and have, by credible or incredible means, proven themselves as capable of delivering results? A track record is worth something, right? I would ask senior engineers over junior engineers to lead projects at my own startup if I were running one, wouldn’t I? I’m paying them more for a reason!

Seeing things from this angle now, I turn to my friend and say —

“I hear you about being overlooked. And as your friend, I feel really bad that you were systematically being overlooked.

“But the career ladder is a game. All of us have to, at some point, decide to play it. Only when we do can we advance in the game.

As those words left my mouth, I gained clarity. It’s true. I got my first “senior deveoper” title by deciding that I would market myself as one when I did my last rounds of interviewing for a job. By some miracle, I landed a job as a senior developer at a big tech company. That was my first senior developer role. I was the same guy from one day to the next, but I was suddenly “senior.”

I also know it’s true because at that company, I conscientiously made it a point to be visible to peers, management, and leadership. It definitely made a difference.

For example, for leadership and management, I was consciously ensuring that for every feature that I helped to implement, I would record myself doing an explainer and walkthrough video with my webcam on. My face would be seen more often this way.

Another example for management: I would ensure that whenever managers started referring to me as “the documentations guy” or “the XYZ guy,” I would call them out on the spot and say half-jokingly, “no, stop! I’m not that guy! This is something we’re all responsible for as a team!” That usually works, and my image becomes only loosely tied to specific projects, which kept me free to take on other, higher or lower-level projects over time.

As for peers, I made sure to regularly do things that build a trusting relationship. I would check in on colleagues in a Slack DM whenever I noticed they were feeling down. I would offer an additional explanation to a comment in a pull request review if I feel it might warrant one, off the record. I would offer more context 1-1, in the safety of a DM.

I tell her all this and I feel like an asshole. It feels like I’m saying her problems are not real, like she needs to smarten up and come over to the dark side.

But I believe what I’m saying is at least a part of the truth.

“There will be companies where you will continue to be overlooked.

“But the next time you feel that way, try to conscientiously play the career ladder game. Gain visibility for yourself. And if it doesn’t work after you’ve really tried, then interview elsewhere.

Her tears are dry at this point, and she appears to have a way forward. At least one.

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