There is a myth most tech professionals believe, and it’s this: “Everyone knows what I’m working on, and how important it is.” We often assume that the work we do is so important, it automatically communicates its value. Of course “they” know that you’re the one who designed the whole architecture of a complex software system, or single-handedly manage those important cloud instances—right?! That was vital work, after all!
Sadly, this is wrong! You might know what you work on, and that it’s very important, but nobody else does. In fact, if you asked them, you might be surprised to find out that other people have a vastly different perspective on the work that you do (so much that you might wonder if they know what you do for a job at all).
This is called the Spotlight effect, the psychological phenomenon by which “people tend to believe they are being noticed more than they really are.” Research has empirically shown drastically overestimating your effect on others is very common.
An uncomfortable truth: if they don’t know, it didn’t happen
If nobody knows you did that cool thing that helped the business, for all intents and purposes, it was a non-event. It’s like the old adage, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it still make a noise?”
This has some pretty serious implications, not just for your promotability, but also for your job stability and long-term career potential. If people don’t know you’re doing work because it’s not automatically communicated, then in their eyes, you’re actually not doing work!
This is pretty scary when you think about it, because nobody wants to be thought of as a slacker—especially when they’re actually doing a lot of valuable things!
So what’s the solution? You’ve got to make the noise for the tree, so to speak.
Your value needs to actually be communicated (Spoiler: by you!)
Let’s write that header out, again, because it’s really important: Your value needs to actually be communicated by you! Now, when I say “communicated”, I don’t mean just telling people you do things. Chances are, you’re already telling people what you do all the time — in your stand-up meetings, in your one-on-ones, and so on.
Communication isn’t the same as telling; communication is about being understood. And to be able to do that effectively, you need to understand your audience and what they need to hear.
When it comes to the question of getting a promotion, your audience is your boss. And you can’t just tell them what you’ve done, either. For your boss to actually “get it”, you need to give them more than just some facts about events. Those are good, but not enough.
Why your boss needs to understand your value, not just hear it
“Managing up” has a negative connotation, but it’s actually a very useful skill to have. Your boss, firstly, is not you! (Spoiler alert! … Well, unless you’re self-employed, I guess, but then feel free to promote yourself anytime!) By virtue of their position, your boss has a different way of thinking about business priorities and justifying what they do against them. One thing, in particular, is that they need to communicate their team's value to their bosses—and they can’t communicate value they don’t understand.
In some rare instances, you might get them to speak the words you’ve spoken upwards—but unless they’ve really understood your words in their brain, what they parrot is almost certainly not going to get through. And let’s be honest, it’s unlikely a manager is going to read out word-for-word your declaration of your value to their boss, anyway. To fix this problem, you need to understand what your boss is looking at to determine value, and how they can communicate value to their boss.
Again, a lot of technologists really hate that selling themselves is even part of the job function—like it's wrong having to justify the job they do and demonstrate value. They think that people around them should just know and be able to tell… just “because.” But again, people don’t know, and they can’t read your mind (which is probably a good thing, though, right?) to find out.
How to sell your value for your promotion interview
Ok! This is the moment you’ve been waiting for since the article began: the “how” of actually selling yourself to management, so you can snag that juicy promotion.
1. Tell them how your actions have had a concrete impact
Share with your manager how all your accomplishments have impacted the things the business cares about. It’s all about alignment–alignment between the business and yourself. Concrete impact might be something like “Because of x feature I added, customer satisfaction went up by % amount.” Quantitative data like that is great, but you can also use qualitative data, such as a customer testimonial that says “Hey, I really love this new feature that your product has.”
If you can communicate something like that to your boss, the business gain is clear: happy customers buy your product, and more sales makes the business more successful. So this pretty clearly demonstrates your value!
2. Find out what accomplishments would amaze them by asking the right questions
To get that promotion, you want to overdeliver, but you don’t want to spend all your energy in the wrong place. The simplest way to avoid that? Ask. Ask what they’re expecting and how you can deliver on those expectations–and then bring it!
Now, asking about what you should do is forward-looking, but you also need to be backward-looking. And to do that, get feedback from your boss like crazy. You shouldn’t just wait for it, you should ask for and welcome negative feedback! A lot of bosses won’t offer it for a lot of reasons: it’s uncomfortable, they’re not sure it’ll be received well, there’s not time, or they haven’t thought about it. You need to take the initiative to invite this feedback.
If you don’t address your negative feedback, you’ll forever be limited in your potential, because you’ll be ignoring the things that are holding them back from saying yes to that promotion you want.
3. Let them know how your upskilling has played a part in this
Bosses love people who are always upskilling, because it means they’ve hired someone who is proactive, who stays up-to-date with the latest trends in technology, and who can help inform business decisions. But again, this value is something you’ve got to communicate.
Let your boss know how much you’ve learned lately, and as mentioned above, how this has had an impact. To be clear, though, this impact does not need to be customer-facing. It might be something internal, such as “Learning about Amazon Athena has helped us understand what query service options are out there–and while we didn’t adopt it, now, it let us know we’re already on the right track so we didn’t waste time trying to implement it.” Or maybe you did adopt something you learned about, and this led to a business improvement! Whatever the case may be, tie your learning back to business value.
4. Your 1-on-1 meetings are a huge promotion opportunity
If you were going to watch a tv show and you learned that a particular option is boring and unenjoyable for the first nineteen episodes and then gets good for the last one of the season, would you choose to watch it? No, and neither would I. So don't let the story of your value to the business follow that pattern, either! Your story needs to stay interesting all the way through your job and career.
If you’re going into your 1-on-1 meetings and just giving your boss a boring status update every week or month or whatever, then you’re missing out on a HUGE opportunity to guide your situation to a promotion.
Of course you do need to tell your boss what you’ve been up to, but how you do that can make all the difference.
"Once upon a time, a hero fought a villain and won. Then lived happily ever after. The end." Ugh!! Why would we communicate our business value as awfully as that? If we don’t give some character and backstory to the villain of our latest tech job battle, then it will be just as lifeless and forgettable as the above story. It wouldn’t matter if this week's adversary were a dragon, a SEV 1 zero-day, or a reddit hug of death that you overcame–your status update needs to include enough detail to show 1) why this was a concern to the business and 2) how your response materially helped the business out of this predicament.
(And, by the way, preventing issues is just as important as fixing them, so don’t forget to do things like highlight how your serverless architecture was able to absorb that reddit hug of death without breaking a sweat.)
Every 1:1 meeting is another episode in the story of you–the hero on your way to achieve that promotion! Sure, some episodes will be less exciting, or maybe end on a cliffhanger, or maybe even feature a defeat that you then turn into a learning experience. But if you’re building this narrative about yourself in real time, not just during your promotion interview, then by the time that promotion discussion rolls around, it’s just icing on the cake, since your boss is already aware of how you’re knocking it out of the park. And the eventual promotion is just the season finale where you earn that major reward that every episode has been pointing toward.
Of course the 1:1s are also critical opportunities to get feedback on how you’re doing, to give you situational awareness. And the same "show" analogy works for this, too, because we know that character progression over time is critical to making a story work. Shows with flat characters that never learn or grow or change will get canceled before next season.
Conclusion: Communicate your value consciously and constantly
Don’t leave your value as something up to other people to decide. Be the author of your own story and seize the narrative before the promotion interview even comes up. Whether you like it or not, you need to sell yourself. Otherwise, you’re really leaving yourself in the hands of lady luck with how things are going to go.
If you liked this article, check out my other articles in this upskilling series, which has lots of tips on how to advance yourself and your career as a technologist.
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