The stoplight model for assessing promotion readiness

3 minute read

This is good advice, and I want to expand on it a little more for senior (like Principal plus) tech IC promotions, because one failure mode I often see is that engineers are looking for the bullets to be checklist items, but they won’t be, here’s how I think about them:

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Amazon has extensive and detailed job level guidelines, and each of them contain a “moving to” section. This section is literally bullet points on what you need to demonstrate to be promoted to the next level.

However, these items are not “checklist” items - they are general areas to demonstrate proficiency at a particular level. For example, one of the items reads something like “you are seen as an expert in your area and your opinion is regularly sought out by other teams.”

The items listed on this site are not exactly as I remember, but they are representative, e.g. “Your delivery of code and architecture sets the standard for the organization with a high focus on engineering excellence and innovation.”

So you have a bullet list of items such as these; what do you do with that?

A friend of mine used a “stoplight” system to help engineers understand how to fulfill these criteria. For each item in the “moving to” list, he and the engineer would independently rate the engineer on a red/yellow/green scale.

Green would mean “sufficiently demonstrating at the next level,” yellow would mean “inconsistently demonstrating at the next level,” and red would mean “not demonstrating at the next level.”

It’s really important to do the exercise independently, because some of the most valuable information is where the ratings differ.

Often, the difference is that the employee would have a higher self-rating than the manager (or mentor). It’s critical to suss these differences out, because they are going to be the source of frustration in the promotion process.

When there is a difference, it could be because the manager is unaware of examples where the employee is demonstrating that skill. However, it’s often because the employee is mis-calibrated in the expectations for the job level.

For example, in the “opinion is regularly sought out” item, if the employee’s opinion was being sought out by SDE3s on peer teams, that would be green for promotion to SDE3. For promotion to Senior Principal, however, that level of visibility would be red.

The more senior you get, the more abstract the list items are going to be, and the more subjective the assessment. You need to make sure that you are at first agreeing on the facts of what you are demonstrating, and then are agreeing on their impact relative to expectations.

I noted that you could could do this exercise with a mentor. If you are struggling to understand promotion expectations, a mentor’s judgment can be invaluable. They should have a very good understanding of the criteria, and their assessment might feel more collaborative.

If you try this process out, asking somebody to assess you, the most important part is to really listen to what you are being told about your yellow and red areas. If you really don’t agree, ask a second person to do it and compare notes.

And if you are already in one of these roles and mentoring people, I encourage you to do the exercise with them. It’ll help you know where to help them, but also if you find that you would rate your mentee mostly green, go challenge their manager to put them up for promotion.

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