How to get promoted
Almost everyone who does great work toils in relative obscurity. Performance reviews are social fiction. How do people really advance through the corporate hierarchy?
What career advice do you get as an employee of a growing company? Do great work, keep yourself challenged, focus on learning at every step, find mentors, mentor others, crush your OKRs. Every few quarters you go through a performance review that identifies your strengths and weaknesses, and sets you up for learning and growth. Every week you have one on ones with your boss where you get continuous course corrections on your performance.
But it's easy to see it's mostly social fiction. Following the overt mechanisms of advancement is neither sufficient nor necessary. It may even be actively harmful— almost everyone who does great work and takes performance reviews seriously toils in relative obscurity. Look at the people who occupy positions of considerable authority in your organization. Did any of them get there by following some middle manager's feedback?
In college I had friends who studied biology, so I hung out in the life sciences building a lot. They had a beautiful little forest nearby. We'd often go on walks there and enjoy the serenity. One time I went with a trained botanist. Over the next hour, as she talked about what she was seeing, the forest transformed from an idyllic little haven to a savage battlefield. Trees would fight their enemies with ruthless efficiency for every square inch of precious access to the sun. Bushes would be relegated to the leftovers, and moss and grass on the forest floor were forced to subsist on even less sunlight than that. Young, light-green plants would tirelessly invade the territory of their older, dark-green rivals, never ceasing the effort to starve them of energy. Seeds and spores would invent ingenious mechanisms to cover a wider and wider area than their opponents.
At first, when you start working at a rapidly growing company, what you see is smart, idealistic, driven people working together to accomplish a goal greater than themselves. When you leave, unless you are willfully blind or exceptionally naive, what you see is a ruthless political arena— a modern day Game of Thrones, where machinations take place over email, and battles are won and lost over cups of light roast coffee.
What are the dynamics of this arena invisible to an untrained eye? The first thing to realize is that the coveted advantages of a rapidly growing company— money, growth, publicity, status— come with a trade off. Precisely because the company has all these things, it will attract people who seek them, and the more successful the company, the stronger the attraction.
Don't all of us seek wealth and status? Yes, but it doesn't always manifest in quite the same way. A hacker who works at a unicorn and contributes patches to xmonad in his spare time may want wealth and status, but he also has firmly entrenched and far-reaching principles. He may care about his text editor, or his programming language, or the API naming scheme. His principles may be advantageous, or silly, or counterproductive. But he has them.
The kinds of opportunists who are attracted solely to wealth and status have no principles at all beyond accumulation of these two objects. It isn't that they don't have taste or good judgement. They do— that's why they got hired in the first place. But if they ever had a compulsion to express their sense of taste, it's long ago been subordinated to their primary and only concern: climbing the corporate ladder.
When you first encounter this mode of being, it may be so far outside of your normal range of experience you'll have trouble processing it. Marx thought that to be fulfilled, humans must feel a connection to the end result of their work. For example, a carpenter feels satisfaction when he finishes a chair or a table. But in an industrialized society people no longer feel this connection, which robs them of the fulfillment. He called this phenomenon "estranged labor". One way to think about people who are attracted purely to wealth and status is that under these same conditions they don't feel estranged. They've either eradicated this feeling in themselves long ago, or never felt it in the first place.
Can you build a successful organization that keeps the unprincipled out? No. As the company grows more successful, so does the allure. The organization starts getting constantly bombarded by world class actors who specialize in slipping past the founders's defenses. And since at higher rungs much of the job is recruiting, the new hire becomes a Trojan horse. As soon as they're in, they open the door to dozens of cronies who diffuse into the company. It's like putting a drop of ink in a glass of water-- there is no undo.
How would you advance through the hierarchy if advancement were your only principle? You'd find vulnerabilities in the system and attack them, just like a black hat hacker would. Ideally the attack vectors would be inherent to a growing company— something that can't be patched. One such vulnerability is attracting opportunists. You could try to patch it, but ultimately it's inseparable from success. What are the others?
Here is one of my favorite quotes by Jeff Bezos because of how it inadvertently captures an inherent vulnerability of growing companies:
When somebody congratulates Amazon on a good quarter, I say thank you. But what I'm thinking to myself is— those quarterly results were actually pretty much fully baked about 3 years ago. Today I'm working on a quarter that is going to happen in 2020. Not next quarter. Next quarter for all practical purposes is done already and it has probably been done for a couple of years."
— Jeff Bezos, 2017
The key to corporate opportunism is all there, in this quote. When a normal person reads it, he thinks "wow! Amazon is really thinking long term!" which is perhaps how Jeff intended it. But when an opportunist reads it, he thinks "wow! I can do anything I want for three years and it won't show up in the metrics!"
Company metrics have momentum and lag. Nearly all political behavior exploits these two properties. A metric in motion tends to remain in motion. Changing that requires good decisions, a lot of luck, and application of enormous force. And observing a metric is like observing light from a distant star— you're observing the work done in the past. So opportunists don't worry about any of that. 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. There is a hurricane of activity. New projects and teams are constantly spun up, products launched, reorgs, valuations, office moves, new hires, funding rounds, customers lost and gained, offsites, PR victories and scandals— nobody can keep track of all of this. You can't remember what things looked like two weeks ago, let alone last quarter. Two years ago? Forget it! So long as you looked good at the time, nobody will remember what you did in your last role. And even if they do, people tend to attribute everything to the present. If you screwed up a project, switched roles, and it's only now apparent that the project is in trouble, the blame will naturally fall on its current leader, not on you.
So your job isn't to make good decisions to improve company metrics. It's to look good. That means you must understand basic tenets of human nature and learn to manipulate them.
First, the fact that metrics have momentum means the company is always in one of two modes. When the metrics are up and to the right, the company is in peace mode. When they start to stall, the company is in war mode. A rapidly growing company is by definition in peace mode, and you must act the appropriate part. When the money is flowing, everything is expanding and everyone is happy, nobody wants to hear doomsayers, even if the prophecies will eventually come true. It doesn't matter if the company "doesn't have a culture of blame"— bad news always implies there is someone to blame. So in the upper echelons the flow of negative information is controlled extremely carefully.
Of course you can't seem like you never deliver bad news either. It's a matter of packaging. Bad news is never individualized. If you ever carelessly imply that some team may be doing something poorly, you will make yourself a target for every opportunist in the company. Instead, bad news is always delivered in general terms and always as a matter of slight adjustments to a continuous variable, never as a binary switch.
For example, "the codebase is such a mess this team can't ship anything until we spend three months refactoring" is really bad delivery. An opportunist would say "we need to work toward paying off the technical debt". See? Codebase quality is just another analog knob to tweak. No big deal— it's something we should be doing in the future. And it's the collective "we". Nobody in particular is experiencing this problem.
Second, you must understand that KPIs, OKRs, meetings, and company values are just performative rituals. Don't naively assume they contain actionable information. Look carefully— no successful opportunist takes them at face value. If you do take these rituals at face value, you will interfere with other people's reputation, career plans, and flow of money. That's unwise, because the powers that be will start getting negative feedback about you from multiple seemingly unrelated sources. That's not conducive to a successful career. It also explains why following traditional career advice rarely gets you promoted beyond middle management. Most good work doesn't look good. Sometimes it interferes with other people and tanks your career. But mostly it doesn't look bad either. It just doesn't look like much of anything.
Third, while you shouldn't take performative rituals at face value, you must still perform them— enthusiastically and with gusto. In countries like Japan, Russia, and parts of Eastern Europe, to successfully work with someone you must drink with them. Drinking is a trust building ritual and a mechanism to signal that you are part of the in-group. No drinking, no promotion. In corporate America the lion's share of this signaling is done through proselytizing management technologies. Going to meetings, talking about KPIs, OKRs, collaboration, Agile— all are shibboleth to signal you're part of the in-group, in the same way drinking is an in-group signal in other parts of the world. No shibboleth, no promotion.
So far we've talked about how you should act, but what should you actually do? Since the overt objectives are merely performative, you need to determine your actual objectives. Fortunately they're the same in every growing company, so you don't need to do any detective work to discover what they are. Your primary objective is simple— headcount growth ("do a lot with a little" is another shibboleth, don't take it literally). Figure out the baseline headcount growth rate for the company, and grow your team at least as much. Any less, and you'll be left in the dust. More is better— superstars always grow their headcount considerably faster than baseline.
Don't worry about what all these people will work on. The devil will conveniently find work for idle hands. Expanding companies never have a shortage of business opportunities, projects, and tasks. The work will invent itself. Your job isn't the work— it's to grow headcount and make it appear well-managed. That latter part is nearly entirely performative. Look at other teams that are considered well-managed and emulate the trappings. Usually that means lots of meetings, cross-functional collaboration, document writing, one on ones, performance reviews, and agile. You will need to ship things, but not that much. By the time any of this gets objectively evaluated, you'll be happily working in a different role, and someone else will deal with the objective metrics.
While nearly all your objectives are performative (feigning excitement, generating meetings and documents) or covert (headcount growth), there is one objective you must take at face value. You cannot allow acute failures in your area of responsibility. Low product quality is fine because you can always use the analog knob trick for that. "Latency spikes are an important issue, we need to budget engineering time to lower spike incidence." Then have a team work on latency for two quarters. But if you get a couple of major security breaches, you're done. This is why there are fewer opportunists in sensitive areas like security and infrastructure.
Before I puzzled all this out, I spent years directly asking folks for their reasoning. "Why did you decide to double the team, don't you see it will only make us slower? Why schedule all these meetings, don't you see they have negative utility? And why simultaneously talk about needing fewer meetings?" Every time I asked, the questions were met with bewilderment. "Of course we need to schedule meetings. And of course we need fewer of them. What's unclear about that?"
At first I thought the bewilderment was feigned. But over time, as I asked more and more people and always got the same answer, I decided it isn't feigned at all. Corporate apparatchiks are completely genuine when they want to reduce meeting load as they schedule more meetings. It's easy to hold contradictory beliefs as long as your paycheck depends on them, so most people learn to compartmentalize. Feigning sincerity in a convincing way is extremely difficult. So if you take any of this career advice, it's best to learn to candidly believe it.
In summary, an opportunist's career advice is: ignore OKRs, switch projects well before the consequences of your decisions can be measured, act happy and easy-going, package bad news as appeals for slow systemic adjustments, don't make anyone look bad, perform rituals with enthusiasm, grow headcount faster than baseline, let work invent itself, follow management fashions, avoid acute failures, believe this sincerely.