Applying acceptance criteria to your career

One of the things that happens as you become a senior developer is you start mentoring younger engineers. And a common topic I hear is frustration with performance reviews and promotions (or lack thereof).

The pattern I see is engineers get comments on their reviews which are unclear or confusing, and they feel that the sands of expectations are always shifting under them. How can you make effort to address areas for improvement if you aren’t even sure what they are?

I tell them, this is very much like a poorly defined story. I recently posted a short video on acceptance criteria, and you can (and should) apply this same principle to “performance and promotion criteria.” If your performance expectations and promotion criteria are not clearly communicated, written down, and agreed upon, then it’s very hard to know if you’ve met them.

Most managers mean well but are very busy, and don’t recognize that they keep changing their tune. Some managers also may not recognize that they have hidden biases, and come up with rationalizations for why they don’t want to promote you.

So, think of your manager like a product owner. Sit down with them and hash out the clear criteria required for your promotion. Write them down together. Many companies have a documented leveling guide that you can start with, but I would still fine-tune it for your specific situation.

You might also consider having a skip-level meeting with your manager’s manager to ask them what they expect of someone at the next level. This is because at most companies, promotion decisions are done by a group of your boss’s boss and their team. They have to go through a lot of candidates, and they tend to apply a very quick rubric to give them a way to help make what can sometimes be difficult yes/no decisions about promotions. It’s very good to know what this rubric is.

Your goal is to have a documented set of “acceptance criteria” for what is expected of you at this level and what is required for you to be considered qualified for promotion to the next level. Save this document, and write a journal entry for the date you all agreed to this.

Then, during your one-on-ones with your manager, at an appropriate cadence, check in with these. How is it going? Are there any opportunities that could enable you to demonstrate some of these capabilities? Are there areas where you could maybe have done better and can work on improving? If I were a manager I know I would appreciate (and notice) someone who took the time to get this clarity and had the drive to own moving the conversation forward.

If you have met all the agreed-upon criteria for promotion, and are still passed over, make sure you are given good reasons why not. [Note: promoting someone else because they were a flight risk is not a good reason.]

If your manager is consistently unwilling to create this document or discuss it during your one-on-ones, keeps passing you up for promotions even though you’ve met the criteria, or in various other ways dissembles or redirects, then it may be time to look for other opportunities. We are lucky to be in a profession where there are many, many opportunities for smart, driven, capable engineers. There is more than one way to grow your career.




Architect at eBay, but still learning who I really am

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David Van Couvering

David Van Couvering

Architect at eBay, but still learning who I really am

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