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Thoughts On Getting Promoted in Tech

I’m now at the point where I have over 15 years of full-time employment since I graduated college. Yikes! There are so many measures that can be used to judge the career growth I’ve had over that time, and I’m confident that by all of them, I am doing a pretty awesome job.

But one piece of career growth that I’ve never gotten from any employer is a promotion.

Allow me to define “promotion”. In my mind, a promotion is where an employee earns a change in job title with commensurate increase in responsibility. I won’t even say it has to include an increase in pay, though I imagine it often would. Similarly, a promotion need not involve moving into a management position. Simply put, to me a promotion is doing a great job as a junior widget maker and then one day being told your hard work and contributions have been noticed and you are no longer junior.

Moving to get ahead

Of course I’ve had plenty of career growth and increases in responsibility (and pay), but I’ve always had to change employers to get them. And I know I’m not alone. It seems that tech is an industry where promotions generally don’t happen. I have no idea how it got to be that way, but that certainly is the perception. It’s also definitely the reality I’ve experienced.

Right after graduating from college, I was hired as a software developer. I stayed at that job for 4 years, during which time I of course learned a ton about “real” (non-academic) software development, earned multiple database-related certifications, joined the database administration team, and earned a MS in Computer Science. I had an incredible amount of professional growth during that time – going from being the new kid who required constant assistance, to being a competent resource who could tackle problems alone or as part of a group. Yet during that time, I never got even a single raise. Once I realized that after 4 years I was not worth any more to that company than the day I graduated college, and that staying longer would likely result in more of the same, it was clear that it was time to leave. It didn’t take me very long to find a new job that recognized the skills I had accumulated were worth more both in terms of pay and job duties. This was my first lesson of how in the tech industry, if you’re looking to move up, you are best to move on because that change is unlikely to come from your current employer.

A few years later while working for another organization, I found myself in a similar but different situation. This employer did, in fact, give pay increases, but after a few years there I reached the top of the scale for “Database Administrator”, and hence the raises would stop. My manager and director fought hard for the creation of a “Senior Database Administrator” position with a higher pay scale and more responsibility (for things I had already taken charge of anyway), but the powers that be would not allow it. I was given a title change because this new title had a higher maximum pay, but the writing was on the wall. While I was grateful for how my management fought for me, it was also clear that after five years it was time to move on if I wanted to continue on a path of professional growth.

Moving around: bad or good?

It’s not hard to find many opinions on whether switching jobs to grow your career is good or bad. I’ve been in job interviews where the interviewer has made comments about how many* jobs I have had and how it looks like I “hop around”. I’m quick to explain that when I’m not learning anything or feel like I should leave to keep my career moving forward, I search for new opportunities. But shouldn’t these interviewers know how things work in tech? I mean, they’re interviewing me for a job in the tech field, so whether they’re an engineer or someone from human resources, one would think they’d know the lay of the land in their industry. Unfortunately that doesn’t always seem to be the case.

On the flipside, I’ve been told by other recruiters that I should never stay at an employer longer than 4 or 5 years. Exceeding that will likely indicate stagnation and that I’m not learning anything new or wishing to grow my skills and therefore am just wanting to “coast” until retirement. I can’t ever see myself coasting, I think I’d get bored really quickly.

So what’s good or bad? I really don’t know. I don’t like to change jobs frequently, but I’m also not opposed to making a move when the timing and opportunities are right. And based on the results I’ve seen so far I can’t really say things have turned out badly.

I’m not sure I’ll ever understand companies that don’t want to trust their existing employees with positions of increased responsibility, but have no problem giving them to new hires. I’ve always believed that every day is a job interview with your current employer. And if you’re showing growth in your skills, taking on new responsibilities, getting excellent performance reviews, mentoring others, and moving the team forward, then when positions above you open up you should at least warrant some consideration.

*In my 15 years of employment I am now at my sixth employer. My rule of thumb is to give every job two years before looking elsewhere, unless an incredible opportunity presents itself. The longest I’ve worked somewhere is 5.5 years, and the shortest is 3 months (because, in that case, such an opportunity presented itself).

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By Bob Pusateri

Bob Pusateri is a Microsoft Data Platform MVP, Microsoft Certified Master of SQL Server, speaker, blogger, volunteer, and author who loves finding new and exciting ways to break and fix things. He works as a consultant and architect, specializing in data, virtualization, and cloud technologies.

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