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How to Get Promoted (defmacro.substack.com)
788 points by thatonewhere 10 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 317 comments

Here's some of my learnings about getting promoted for those that really want to play that game:

- Only the perception of your work matters

- Attend the social events and get in good with the bosses

- The countability of your major achievements is important. Make the list long, too long to hold in the mind

- At the same time the gravitas of your best achievement is also important since that will be the soundbite that is shared about you behind your back

- Get allies who can proselytize about you behind your back

- Be the best. The difference between one and two is bigger than that between two and three, as far as promotions go

- Take credit for your work (use pronouns I and Me when talking about your work, not We) and do not allow others to take credit for your work

- If it's a teamwork situation with other people on your level, don't do most of the work, because the credit will end up being split 50/50 in the eyes of the bosses even if you did most of it

- Make a very good first impression

- Shape the narrative around the role you played in the success of the mission/team/company

- Get the bosses to make a soft public commitment regarding your competence

- Even if you have a really good boss, all of the above is still important, because they are fallible humans and aren't omniscient

- Actually do good work, it'll make the above easier

The readings of this post is exactly the reason I loathe the whole drive to get promoted, instead of working to do what makes sense to improve your team, your teammates, and your company.

As a manager, my goal is to discern the difference between these two, and will do what I can to support those that focus more on improving the team vs. chasing a promotion by focusing more on showing how they’re better than everyone else.

Even if this is more effective strictly regarding getting promoted, I would much rather be — and work with — the type of people that care more about elevating the team.

I used to be a "shooting star" developer. I was always the most productive member of my team. I was the go-to person for any complex problem. At some point in my career I decided to change from being a shooting star to being a "rising tide." Instead of being the best individual contributor I focused on making everyone else the best they could be. That's when my income really skyrocketed.

My life experience is that there is sort of a karma. I helped a lot of people become better at their jobs and expected nothing in return. Some of those people went off to be extremely successful, and they wanted me to come along with them in making tons of money. Expecting nothing in return is the key. People know if you're keeping score.

I cannot agree with this enough. I'm 29 years old now, so not particularly old but not 21 anymore. When I was 16 working as a concert promoter all the hard working musicians from my middle of nowhere home town in Canada became successful, either in the music industry or in another industry. I'm still friends with people I let sleep on my floor during those times.

On the tech side I've stayed late to help push projects through. People don't forget. I have friends from 7+ years ago, some who's weddings I've stood at. We _still_ talk about the time we made a miracle happen and got the project out the door the night before. We _still_ talk about the time production went down in front of 1,000,000 users and we rage coded a solution together.

Compound interest works with relationships just like it works with money. Real trust builds over years. I've been the tag along for a few projects now that I never would have found without being friendly and helpful in the past.

Are you actually earning more and objectively better off in economic/status terms by doing this?

I ask because another common failure mode with getting stuck is to essentially 'rage code' into working free overtime and accepting bad conditions all because of the camaraderie i.e. someone is exploiting the positive characteristics of bonding. If it matches with your goals, that's fine, but often people look back and realise they were essentially exploited in this way (see: team-building exercises in a lot of minimum-wage style jobs to see a pure & distilled form of this kind of thing.)

Perhaps just something to be aware of! I don't mean to be overly negative, so apologies in advance if I've gotten a completely wrong impression here, but I do believe the general risk of this failure mode in career/life exists and is common.

I rage coded in my early 20's, you're right, it doesn't work :) Made some buddies out of it but more importantly it gave me the absolute feeling of panic and respect that a system CAN and WILL go down in production in front of customers if you don't get the operations side perfect.

That fear drove me to get great at operations. Now I've made a reputation as the person who can enter a dumpster fire project that's always behind and breaking and change it to a project that the whole team can deploy at 5:00pm on a Friday, close their laptops, go home and play with their kids and rarely get paged.

A more concrete example is I did great work at one company for 2.5 years then followed my boss when he quit to another company for a significant raise and title bump. The best part was even though it was a new job, I had 2.5 years worth of trust equity with my boss, so I could push new ideas through to the rest of the org through him without having to spend months building trust with a new boss first.

>Compound interest works with relationships just like it works with money.

This is a really great way of putting it because compound interest also works on social debt (being a dick). Build up a lot of it, and you won't go anywhere.

Hahahaha, I almost spit out my coffee reading this. I never thought about it that way but it's so true! The only thing worse than credit card debit is the compound interest of social debt. And social debt spills over to other circles!

There's been times where someone's applied to a job I've worked at and I've noticed they worked at a previous company with a mutual past colleague. I've texted the colleague and asked "Hey, so and so's applied here. What was your experience with them?". Oftentimes it's "Oh so and so's great! We made some miracles happen at HerpDerp Co." but every once in a while I'll get back "So and so is fine." or in a few situations "Honestly So and so was a good engineer but was absolutely terrible to work with on a team. Very negative to other people".

It's a small world!

Thanks for sharing this with us. This advice (change from being a shooting star to helping others to improve) seems to be in contrast to the article. Or am I missing something?

you became a manager?

I became a partner in a very small consulting firm. But yes, manager positions were widely available.

Save your loathing. This is possibly the hardest problem in management. It is an open secret that nobody really knows the formula for consistently promote the correct people.

>>I loathe the whole drive to get promoted, instead of working to do what makes sense to improve your team, your teammates, and your company.

Enough with this nonsense.

If you/organizations wanted this, they'd put their money on it and hire/pay people for doing good work. Instead of repeating elaborate back channel rituals that involves lobbying/counter lobbying and cartel like work to secure promotions for their people.

Heck not even hiring is done on these standards. People ask whiteboard leetcode questions, while what they want is skilled and productive people. They keep hiring unskilled jumping jacks, who barely contribute 6 months to any project/company and then move on. You pay top money for these people and then simultaneously screw raises/bonuses/promotion/rsus's for seasoned contributors. People who have contributed are screwed routinely and noncontributing jumping jacks are showered with rewards to drive the point home that no company or manager ever cares about skill, productivity, learning, work or value any more.

>>will do what I can to support those that focus more on improving the team vs. chasing a promotion by focusing more on showing how they’re better than everyone else.

Managers say these things because they need to keep the few contributors playing in order to fleece them so that the whole game can be paid for.

>>Even if this is more effective strictly regarding getting promoted, I would much rather be — and work with — the type of people that care more about elevating the team.

Pretty much no body does this.

  - Take credit for your work (use pronouns I and Me when talking about your work, not We) and do not allow others to take credit for your work

  - If it's a teamwork situation with other people on your level, don't do most of the work, because the credit will end up being split 50/50 in the eyes of the bosses even if you did most of it
Maybe this is true and maybe it's not, but I can't stand these kind of office politics. I enjoy working with the team and collaborating, and want to see my fellows succeed. With perhaps the exception of level 1-3 IC roles, work is almost always a team activity. Showing proper recognition to those who contributed is the right thing to do.

I think there is a second path of staying humble and empowering others. It's the path I've followed and have never had a problem with getting promotions.

I wasn't suggesting to not give credit to others when it's deserved, and I certainly believe in teamwork.

What I'm suggesting is to not shy away from taking deserved credit for yourself which many people struggle with. It will prevent you being run over by politicians and becoming resentful towards your workplace. It will also reduce information asymmetries between you and your boss and help you to get that deserved promotion. The cult of "we did X" in workplaces is a tool used by the least productive to play politics and reap credit where it isn't deserved. There is no such thing as "we" anyways. You did Z, and I did Y, and Z+Y=X, and perhaps Z is less than Y, or perhaps Z is more than Y, and without proper attribution (which can only come when you're brave enough to take deserved credit), accurate promotions aren't possible.

My suggestion to not do most of the work in a team situation is also a strategy to reduce resentment. There's nothing worse than doing all the work and getting half the credit, only to split a bonus pool 50/50 with someone half as productive as you. It's better to do half the work and have spare time for stuff that you will get credit for

What about the classic:

- dont dress for the position you have, dress for the one you want

Although as an afterthought I wouldnt know what this would be for a faang company? Black turtleneck? Hoodie? :-)

Wow - this advice is definitely spot-on, in terms of helping us reach the desired goal it describes.

And yet, in terms of the nuts and bolts of what it suggests we actually do - (not always but in many places) totally indicative of all the preening, butt-kissing, apple-polishing & back-stabbing behaviors that we all know and love -- as ways to get an inch or two ahead in the Great Rat Race:

* Get allies who can proselytize about you behind your back

* Use pronouns I and Me when talking about your work (not We) and do not allow others to take credit for your work

* Don't do most of the work, because the credit will end up being split 50/50 in the eyes of the bosses even if you did most of it

* Attend the social events and get in good with the bosses

In my experience taking credit for others' work is far more important than doing good work or taking credit for your own work.


Why would someone "deserve" to be left behind for not boasting about their performance? If people are doing good work, they should be rewarded appropriately.

I agree. But that isnt how the world works. It is impossible to be recognized these days without raising your hand, even a little

Sounds like a problem to be solved, not a problem to accept!

Maybe. How?

If you agree then why are you defending that they deserve this outcome?

I watched my dad spend his career getting promoted into misery. He worked so hard to climb the ladder and was successful at it, but it took him too long to realize it was making him miserable. It got to the point where they were forcing him to take promotions by threatening to fire him. Eventually he called their bluff. He refused a promotion and was forced into early retirement.

I tend to advise people to at least consider not caring about getting promoted. Here on HN, most of us are lucky enough to be in an industry where you can provide a comfortable life for you and your family at a relatively low rung on the ladder. Once you get there, focus on making sure you don't go backwards and otherwise just coast and do whatever makes you happiest at the end of the day. If playing corporate games makes you happy then by all means focus on that, but if it doesn't then there's nothing wrong with refusing to play.

Not caring isn't right for everyone, but a lot of people just never consider it as an option. It's easy to get caught up in the rat race.

> I watched my dad spend his career getting promoted into misery. He worked so hard to climb the ladder and was successful at it, but it took him too long to realize it was making him miserable.

With every job I've had, I look at the people senior to me and ask "Do I want their job?"

Sometimes the answer is "Yes", but more often than not, the answer is "No." When it's the latter, you have a few choices:

1. Try to carve a unique senior role for yourself. I've never succeeded at this. In a big company, roles tend to be predefined. Or at least, if you're in a department where they aren't, then you likely would have answered "Yes" to the question above.

2. If you enjoy your work, just work to stay in it, do well but not get promoted. Accept your station in life.

3. Find another job.

I've never regretted following 3 above. It hasn't led to better opportunities or pay, but it does keep me active.

And with regard to "Find another job". Consulting might be one of the best options if you like to keep doing what you enjoy most while getting good pay. I believe as a consultant (depending on your role) you might also be better able to avoid office politics. E.g. you don't have to follow some stupid "improvement strategy" with your boss to get a 2% raise at the end of the year.

I hear this "third way" approach suggested a lot, and as someone who's just starting to dip their toes into it, I think that there's some merit to it. I do worry about how to overcome the principal agency issue and a potential mutual lack of trust that comes from being set up as a consultant rather than an employee.

But on the other hand, wouldn't that be an issue anyways whether FTE or a consultant? May as well figure out earlier.

Sorry, just thinking out loud here. Honestly, consulting really does seem to be the worst of all worlds, at least for a while, even if you do eventually want FTE. You get to actually test whether you get along with a firm without committing full time. And they have to give you a compelling reason to join for you to do so. If you have the skillset that is useful enough for them to need to hire you in the first place, you also have already means-tested that you are adding value. Maybe it really is the best way to start.

This is the most "it depends on what consulting house you work for" thing I've ever heard. If you're at any mid or large sized consulting firm, office politics are 3-4x as important as anywhere else.

> This is the most "it depends on what consulting house you work for" thing I've ever heard. If you're at any mid or large sized consulting firm, office politics are 3-4x as important as anywhere else.

I don't mean to work for a consulting house. Instead one should setup it's own consulting company. In order to set your own rate. Determine your own wage growth, etc...

Maybe he failed to breach the manager effort thermocline


> Answer by Michael O Church

The author of this is a notorious troll best known for being repeatedly fired from his jobs (AFAIK he's actually never held a management position) and banned from HN, Wikipedia and Quora for sockpuppeting etc.

I was curious about your viewpoint as I've never heard of this guy, though what you described sounds like a familiar story in tech, so I googled him and found this: https://www.quora.com/Why-was-Michael-O-Church-targeted-by-S...

I found a few others too... It's interesting that in every thread there is at least one (usually only one) individual defending him in martyr-like way and questioning the motives of anyone who might criticise him.

(Now including this one, having refreshed the page!)

Well, if the shoe fits ...

That's a ridiculously harsh viewpoint on a named individual.

For my money, he's probably one of the most insightful writers on technology in the field.

I honestly thought that some of the stories he told about people hating him on the internet we're exaggerated, but seeing this comment is increasing my faith in his story.

FWIW, I have been on HN since way before this, and found him to be an insightful commenter here also.

I agree. Even though he was extremely controversial, and though I can see why HN banned him, and I disagree with his views, I don't regret reading his comments, they were thought-provoking.

Is my summary actually inaccurate? What are his qualifications to pontificate at length on the life of a middle manager, much less that of a director or VP at a large company, when he's never held any of these roles?

Personal experience, I suppose. Much like our own qualifications to talk about stuff on HN/Quora.

I think that your summary was incredibly harsh against a named individual, and I regard that kind of talking as incredibly unfair (especially for someone who's banned here).

Like, I talk a bunch about Directors and VP's even though I've never been one, and I'm sure you talk about stuff you don't have personal experience with too.

And the use of the phrase "notorious troll" is flamebait and not conducive to intellectual discussion.

Ooooof. what a read.

That part about the "business guys".. felt it. We should just quit and form a nation.

I had the opportunity to work with a VP at a Fortune 500 company who was probably one of the best leaders I've worked with. Honest, not a lot of BS, willing to fight for her team.

Now she could have been feeding me a line of crap, but I don't think so. Her attitude was people get too wrapped up on promotions. Her view was focus on getting the right mix of experience, regardless of the level you do it at. Once you hit that sweet spot of really knowing how the business works, that's when you'll make significant jumps up in the organization.

It was an interesting observation (and likely very relevant to her own experience), but it was something I continue to noodle on.

I'm facing a similar situation, and I just decided to quit as I realized how toxic it could be.

I work in a software consultancy, it was all good, but several years ago the company was sold and the management realized other professional service industries do the same thing as you mentioned, and they are really pushing forward this approach. They called it 'promote or leave'.

It's crazy and stressful. People have to juggle several roles at a time: I was just a typical developer 2 years ago. Last year I was actively involved in architecture stuff, there were so many things to resolve while I still have my own deadlines to meet. This year I was thrown at the team lead position of two teams simultaneously, while I still have developing and solutioning tasks measure by days, and often I found myself can only start to sit there after endless meeting and programming only after 5 pm, and I also often need to assemble keynotes at night because all of the sudden there's a pre-sale meeting tomorrow morning.

The best part is people would call these 'challenges' as they are good things. These challenges give people nothing but fragile works and projects. People who had enough would leave, and people who left would only strengthen the toxic atmosphere.

When I worked at IBM I heard about this RA tactic before. To get rid of an unwanted employee a company might promote them frequently/repeatedly until they quit.

What's the logic behind that? Why not fire them if their performance is poor? Is it because its cheaper for the company?

Probably the Peter Principle. The army does the same thing.


FWIW it's also done for ICs at Google where you have to get promoted to senior by some time or you're let go. I don't know what the story is for managers.

> The army does the same thing.

The military has an up-or-out philosophy, where you must achieve a certain rank after a number of years or get forced out. The major issue with this approach is that promotions in the middle ranks heavily favor seniority. So you might have completed all of your course requirements ahead of time and have glowing PMA from your CO, all in preparation for taking your exam after you meet the time in rank, score the best on the exam, but still get passed up in favor of someone else who has been trying for 4 years to get a promotion because their FMS is higher due to seniority, not capability.

I can see why someone would conflate it with the Peter Principal, but I don't really think it's the same thing. The Peter Principal is predicated upon being good at your job at rank N, but doing poorly at rank N+1.

> FWIW it's also done for ICs at Google where you have to get promoted to senior by some time or you're let go. I don't know what the story is for managers.

Google explicitly changed the policy from expecting that all eng ICs reach L5 (Senior SWE) to expecting that all reach L4 (informally a "solid individual contributor").

I know it's not entirely related, but the informal responsibility you posted is really enlightening.

Would you be ok with sharing your informal take on the other levels?

I was at Google for about 10 years. Here’s my take on the levels.

L3: How well do you do what you’re told?

L4: How independent are you? What’s your individual impact?

L5: How deeply technical are you? How well do you influence others on the team? What do you own?

L6: What’s your reputation in the greater org? How is the product area better because of what you do? Why aren’t you a manager of a 10-person team yet?

L7: How is the company notably different because of you? What technology did you create that most everyone knows about? How have you made a difference in Google’s quarterly revenues for your product area? Why aren’t you a manager of a 30-person group yet?

L8: Why do you have the final say on whether the product area moves forward on any given idea? What books have you published? Which VPs regularly consult with you? Why aren’t you a director of a 200-person org yet?

You can be doing mostly the same job as eng I vs sr and be just fine if you stay in sr forever.

Someone explained recently that you can undermine unions by promoting labor to management and then firing the new managers.

I still don't get how and in whose favor this plays.

Management can't be in the union. So cripple the union by promoting the most effective members into management?

Alternatively, if you want to fire someone and the union blocks it, promote them instead, then fire them later.

> Management can't be in the union.

That's a weird rule. I've never encountered that in European unions.

There's a different gradient of workers union influence for employees at different levels. Traditionally, workers at the bottom of the pyramid have the highest union influence and it decreases as it goes further up.

I've seen it happen when the company appeared to want someone to turn around a sinking ship (project) (or go down with the ship and assume responsibility.) This was for a big project at a big publicly traded company. They gave someone a promotion and an ultra-reach assignment (literally, an assignment so reach that it was effectively unreachable in retrospect.)

The person failed the assignment and went down with the ship. It wasn't a terrible deal because he got a huge layoff payout.

This is so depressing and cynical. And fairly accurate in a lot of cases.

The trick, if you don't want to debase yourself, is to find a manager who is good at all of these things, but is also good at passing credit down and blocking blame going up.

When things go well they will take credit for their great management and then highlight the IC who was responsible. When things go sideways, they will take the blame without naming names and then propose a 2 quarter solution to fix it.

yes! the #1 and #2 thing you should optimize after getting paid as much as you care to be paid are "does my manager have my back" (protect you internally) and "will my manager go to bat for me" (advance you externally). It doesn't matter if your manager is your friend, an asshole or not, or a good person, or even to some degree, an honest person, or anything else.

Couldn't agree more. The most important thing for me as a manager is always exposing the work of my subordinates upwards so that they are known to my managers when opportunity comes.

That's servant leadership FYI if you want to dig into that model more. Pretty textbook in military contexts

The best bosses I've ever had were fairly staunch servant leaders. It's a shame that the opportunist ruin the servant leadership model fairly easily though since a servant leader is very easy to mislead and manipulate by nature. There is a level of trust required to be a good servant leader that also lends itself to exploitation by the opportunistic middle manager described in the OP article.

One place where the original article goes off the rails was when it mentions a walk with a misguided botanist who only sees a forest in terms of competition -- and then the author builds out that idea into the theme of their approach to business. I was in a PhD program in Ecology and Evolution myself (studying with Larry Slobodkin and others), and here is something I wrote long ago drawing from that knowledge reflecting a world of both competition and cooperation (as well as both meshwork and hierarchy in Manuel De Landa's terms):


> "... I agree with the sentiment of the Einstein quote [That we should approach the universe with compassion], but that sentiment itself is only part of a larger difficult-to-easily-resolve situation. It become more the Yin/Yang or Meshwork/Hierarchy situation I see when I look out my home office window into a forest. On the surface it is a lovely scene of trees as part of a forest. Still, I try to see both the peaceful majesty of the trees and how these large trees are brutally shading out of existence saplings which are would-be competitors (even shading out their own children). Yet, even as big trees shade out some of their own children, they also put massive resources into creating a next generation, one of which will indeed likely someday replace them when they fall. I try to remember there is both an unseen silent chemical war going on out there where plants produce defense compounds they secrete in the soil to inhibit the growth of other plant species (or insects or fungi) as a vile act of territoriality and often expansionism, and yet also the result is a good spacing of biomass to near optimally convert sunlight to living matter and resist and recover from wind and ice damage. I try to recall that there is the most brutal of competition between species of plants and animals and fungi and so on over water, nutrients (including from eating other creatures), sunlight, and space, while at the same time each bacterial colony or multicellular organism (like a large Pine tree) is a marvel of cooperation towards some implicitly shared purpose. I see the awesome result of both simplicity and complexity in the organizational structure of all these organisms and their DNA, RNA, and so on, adapted so well in most cases to the current state of such a complex web of being. Yet I can only guess the tiniest fraction of what suffering that selective shaping through variation and selection must have entailed for untold numbers of creatures over billions of years. To be truthful, I can actually really see none of that right now as it is dark outside this early near Winter Solstice time (and an icy rain is falling) beyond perhaps a silhouette outline, so I must remember and imagine it, perhaps as Einstein suggests as an "optical delusion of [my] consciousness". :-)"

Yeah it's interesting how good mil officers handle this, as its true. Usually it's a blend of being a servant leader, yet asserting a form of dominance upwards/downwards that indicates you're a good person, but not to be stepped on. Tricky balance as the servant part is easy enough, dominance part is not.

Ah, the Loyalty Model. You protect me and do good work, and when sh*t goes sideways, we blame someone else together, and then I'll put you in charge of their team.

>when sh*t goes sideways, we blame someone else together

The parent comment literally said "they will take the blame without naming names". Taking the blame pretty much always implies "taking the blame upon themselves" when used in this context. So I don't see how you get "blaming someone else" from the person saying "the blame is on me".

These are a set of games which in general I think can cause tremendous frustration in the people that "don't get it" or aren't naturally socially outgoing, good corporate citizens by nature. This is a similar bucket as Win Friends and Influence People adherents - it's a methodology and an effective one, but there are parts to consider. You see this all the time in security. They're right, but because it's not packaged well, there are legions of bitter AF security engineers who don't understand why their messages aren't not getting through.

At a minimum, it's really important that people know that things can work like this sometimes. If you don't follow it and maintain your soul or whatever, at least you won't be confused why Brian shot up the ladder so quickly. Promotions and success shouldn't only go to the socially outgoing, which is why I don't think Win Friends and Influence People is all that bad of a book. In a well functioning team, Brian and the talented Roberta can also climb. But if you're really pissed about Brian, stuff like this is probably why he's doing well. At least you know!

If Roberta needs to learn to schmooze a bit by reading a book, or learn how to navigate a crappy team and save a career to fight another day by doing an 18 month jump as this article states, I think that's ok. We train our bodies and minds to try and even the odds in the job market and health context, so what's wrong with training our personalities and corporate strategies a bit so the good can rise up too?

The only caveat with this genre of corporate how-to'ing is it only works if you never mention that's what you're doing. That's sort of obvious, but it's an interesting quirk because this is important stuff to pick up on for good, talented, non-A-Hole peopl who do want to find a way to do good in existing corporate structure. But it's naturally sort of a toxic underbelly of work culture, and many are opposed to learning it.

My frustrations with this behavior are less about not getting it, or not being able to participate, and more about finding the exercise distasteful, dishonest and ultimately destructive. The absolute worst aspect of this game is how clumsy and obvious these machinations can be. Employee trust in the entire organization is damaged when dimwitted ass-kissers with the subtlety of a brick are rewarded in lieu of any actual contributions and at the expense of decent people. Too often these environments are constructed in such a way that good people cannot succeed without serious comprises to their integrity. They get weeded out by their own moral disgust. The hierarchy then functions as a reverse sieve, allowing only the slime and detritus to remain.

It's also really less about being socially outgoing and schmoozing, and more about vociferously agreeing with everything that comes down from on high, and sniping at others for not immediately falling in line. I'm an introvert who generally enjoys going out for drinks, telling absurd jokes and making a fool of myself in public for cheap laughs, but unless I start puckering up and tonguing more asses, it won't help me navigate the corporate world. For someone like me, rather than forcing myself to be more extroverted, I actually need to do a better job at keeping my jokes to myself and limiting my self expression, so as to not threaten the fragile egos of those cursed with small amounts of power. I think your comment seriously underestimates the levels of animosity and petty one-upmanship that permeate the corporate ladder.

Haha I guess you don't fall into the bucket of knowing how the game works can bring some measure of inner peace.

A cool related read, https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/11/11/the-gervais-principle-..., sounds like you're referring to "posture talk" in that context. That whole series might be interesting to you as well, especially in relation to organizational trust expectations.

I think for me, if I really did care about expectations of org trust and morality as must-haves vs. nice to haves, beyond must-have legality standards, the civil service calls, right? I wish the corporate beast didn't call for such pragmatism, and I'd be a lot less at peace if I didn't see really good operators make it to the top using their own tolerable measure of this behavior (as in personally, ethically, and competently good).

Anyway, I feel you! I guess I can only cycle back to my last point:

> it's an interesting quirk because this is important stuff to pick up on for good, talented, non-A-Hole peopl who do want to find a way to do good in existing corporate structure. But it's naturally sort of a toxic underbelly of work culture, and many are opposed to learning it.

That Gervais Principle series, and the Company Hierarchy chart that opens it, was one of the first things that came to mind when I read this article.

My takeaway from the Gervais Principle: the only way to win, if you're not a sociopath, is to be a loser.

I've made my peace with that fact.

Or, well, a little more positively: just try to avoid the whole corporate rat race all together. But it often has a way of finding you as this great HN comment, which was actually the first thing that came to mind, explains:


I just realized that the author of the comment you point to is also the author of the FA. Wanted to point it out to others.

Interesting. I didn't make the connection. Or, well, I guess I did.

Great read, I've been digging into it the last two hours. It was analysis I figured was out there but had trouble finding. Perhaps I'm a Jim-like reluctant sociopath s/

> I'd be a lot less at peace if I didn't see really good operators make it to the top using their own tolerable measure of this behavior

Fair points here, and I do think the amount of disgust generated by this environment varies considerably by individual. One thing that contributes to that feeling of disgust for me is that being authentic hasn't always come easily. If you are someone who has had to hide aspects of yourself for your own safety, or perhaps worked to overcome some mental illness, it can be a hard pill to swallow to go back in the metaphorical closest just to earn brownie points, but I digress :).

I've read your link before as well, and unfortunately I must count myself among the losers, at least so far. I've been clueless and even attempted some minor stabs at sociopathy (as defined at the link), but without much success.

That's a great point. There is a fair bit of encouragement leading towards behaving as one's authentic self.... but suddenly in the private sector arena, which really matters for life quality, it suddenly is the wrong advice. I've had some trouble navigating that turn as well, fwiw.

Being exposed to this as someone who was raised by a hyper-capitalist mother has forced me into therapy because of how badly it messed with me psychologically.

It really put me in a dark place.

yeah probably a bad child-rearing approach

Not my mother, ha. Entering the workforce.

You get taught your entire childhood that the only thing that matters is how hard you work. That you're only as good as your word, and the path to success and happiness is paved by your work ethic.

But that isn't how it works, is it? The people that wind up the most successfully aren't necessarily the people that had the most determination, that put in the most work. (Not that it doesn't help)

It seems you can viably make a living by either working yourself to the bone, or by being really good at bullshitting and office politics.

Having acquaintances that are much more successful than you, yet couldn't produce value if you held a gun to their head really makes you think.

And that's not the worst bit -- many of them don't actually care about their work/job, or what they provide to a company. It's a means to an end, they do as little as possible.

How do you live with yourself like this?

Life is way more complicated than parents tell their children.

Preaching "the only thing that matters is how hard you work" probably demaged more lifes than COVID will ever do. What about supply and demand? ("selling sand in the desert" might condemn you to failure no matter how hard you work) What about alliances?

I used to believe in pure meritocracy also. Nowadays, at least on a individual level, I have solid doubts. Suppose you are in a position to promote/reward one of two contenders: a "jerk" and your best friend. The "jerk" happens to be better (by your standards), but not clearly better. Who should you reward/promote? By the meritocracy law this is a no brainer but is it the right/optimal decision? By doing it you will erode a friendship. Do this often and soon you'll be without allies thanks to the "God of Meritocracy". By the other hand, if we go too far in this path, we arrive to Nepotism and society will suffer with it. Like most things in life there is a balance that must be kept.

> How do you live with yourself like this?

Pre-define your endgame lifestyle, calculate the costs, and then get off at your stop.

Seriously, it's like a project cost estimate. How many kids do you want to have? Where do you want to live? What do you want to live in? When do you want to retire? What do you estimate yearly costs will be by the time of retirement? Calculate the cost of everything (it'll be in the millions) and then you've got a handle on how much money you'll need every year, and what you need to grow into.

Then you've got a target to aim for, and you can either adjust the target (increasing frugality, downgrading your expectations) or you can upgrade your weapon (switching careers, gunning for higher-up positions).

It's important to remember that no one actually feels rich or successful. If you have a million dollars, you'll be able to hang out with guys who have ten million dollars. But those guys can hang out with guys who have a hundred million dollars... it's a never-ending slide of bigger houses, better vehicles, longer vacations, more important jobs, and it never feels satisfying- unless you decided where you were going to stop.

How could you be bothered by someone being more successful than you if you already decided how successful you wanted to be?

This is actually spot-on for my views in this area. I have a QoL in mind, the inputs required, and a general expectation that I won't get morality from my workplace unless I go to the civil service.

It brings a form of inner capitalist peace. Rant incoming....

I think many Americans, of which I am one of course, expect their offices to be that moral link, and from there all of this anger (justifiably maybe once it shows false) flows as that morality doesn't exist there. This anger gets made worse by the SV trope of "Making the world a better place by X," which overtime starts to ring untrue because of course it's untrue. This then gets further exacerbated by seeing a-hole, incompetent Brian's lifestyle far outstrip yours, and it seems like Brian doesn't much care about making the world a better place but is succeeding at these companies. What management books has he been reading?

This is an old hand but it's true: if you want morals and a sense of tangible community, seek out a bowling league, your Boy Scout troop (RIP s/), your church, Boys and Girls club, a soup kitchen, the PTA, local govt, school boards, mentorship programs, jesus I can go on and on. These are places that are crying out for volunteers usually and make tangible impacts on local communities that a fleet of donated Chromebooks will never make. Why do I feel empty inside after closing this project? It's because it doesn't compare to mentoring a low-income kid into college that only requires of you 1x Thur night a week to do vs. 400 sprints and Brian to get those Chromebooks out the door and into a school.

Want to go really wild? Take that dev or infosec job at your city govt. Lord knows they need the help - be the team that unfks the COVID unemployment API (if only it was that simple haha, but still). But no, that job pays $90k to my $160k and no Asana.

What am I supposed to tell you friend :shrug:. Morality is out there but it takes a paycut or IRL interactions on a Thursday night. Buy into tech capitalism and the UES apartment and all the tradeoffs or don't, but you can't have it both ways in this system.

I agree with everything you said, but having worked as a contractor for the civil service, there's not a lot of morality here- more incompetence and cruising for pensions than can possibly be believed, though.

As an aside, that pay cut is exactly why the gov't programmers are struggling. Top talent wants money, and the government will not offer competitive salaries, so the government IT structure is all garbage, and the cycle continues...

Because working hard is not important if it has no impact. I've had people work really hard, I tell them to make sure to do blah, and to focus on blah2, and to let people know that they did blah3. They ignore that and just work on what they think is important, and work super hard.

Then eventually people realize what they did is a bit "offtrack" and doesn't connect to an existing system that everyone agreed is going to be the base platform going forward, and it's also not immediately useful because it didn't focus on blah2, and it doesn't cover this use case that everyone else cares about (but that they don't think it's a big deal), and other people don't ever figure out it does blah3 because they never documented it properly and used a less familiar term for it. Also, everyone is now stressed out, because what this person did now needs to be replaced in way less time. Well then, all that "value" they produced was just a waste of company money, frankly.

So yeah, I would promote the person that worked less hard, but was well connected to figure out what others care about and is important to the company, and made sure that piece worked great. And the person that produced less, but enabled others to produce more (either from a technical standpoint, or a morale/assurance standpoint) so overall the output was greater. It's a no brainer.

Also, people who are constantly thinking about their own productivity can be dismissive of others, creating a bad work environment. So you don't want to elevate those behaviors.

I think the person is talking about cases where working hard had a big impact, but the person did not benefit from it.

This is fairly normal. The only job I had where this wasn't the case was the one where the manager and his manager had grown from within - had worked on the same stuff we had, so they knew the ins and outs.

In all other cases, it's a manager who came from another team, and while they were very technically competent, they had never done our job. They usually were not in touch with what was needed to get the job done, and placed little value on much of the labor needed to get it done. This usually leads to team members manipulating their way into getting someone else to do the real work so they can do their manager's pet project. They get the promotion, even though the pet project dies soon after, and the folks doing the bread and butter for the team stay where they're at.

This straw man is the thing you fall back on to rationalize not working hard and not caring, just playing politics and taking credit for each other's work?

> grow headcount faster than baseline

Lol I was on the floor with this one. It's funny because it's true. My super went from being my super to one level above skip, while I was trying so hard to get a measly raise/promotion after 4 years of dedicated work. It was always "This year, we are going to work on getting you ready to operate at the next level."

Want to get a promotion, just add the number of people you manage.

Probably why they also try to pressure ICs into management.

If I am at my limits for direct reports, I can start having people report to one of my reports, and my status grows. Just like multi level marketing.

> If I am at my limits for direct reports, I can start having people report to one of my reports, and my status grows. Just like multi level marketing.

Absolutely it also makes it way easier to argue that you should get a promotion when you are a manager of managers. Inflating the title's of the people under you is the quickest way to get your own title boosted.

Yeah this got a really heavy chuckle out of me and every meaningless scrummaster story point chart I saw produced and discussed

> Third, while you shouldn't take performative rituals at face value, you must still perform them— enthusiastically and with gusto.

When I was 11 or 12, my father gave me a copy of “Parkinsons Law” (https://www.amazon.com/Parkinsons-Law-Pursuit-Progress-Busin...), explaining that this is the most important book on management I will ever read.

I found it super entertaining.

When I left Google in 2015 to go on sabbatical, I distributed 20 copies to various middle and upper-middle managers, mostly as friendly/jocular warning/admonishing.

When I returned in 2016, it seemed that one half had gotten the joke, and the other half had used it as a manual.

Either way: The linked article shows that the author has red-discovered Parkinson’s Law for himself.

(I recommend y’all read the book)

That book is $900. Must be out of print. This book may be similar https://g.co/kgs/MLZWGh

Here’s a scanned version of Parkinson’s Law (PDF, 11.3 MB):


Thanks for that! :-). The PDF is definitely worth the download :)

My experience in the US big city tech scene is that the best way to get promoted or given a raise is to simply get a new job every ~3 years.

I feel it gets harder at higher levels where companies prefer to promote internally and/or want previous experience at that level (ie: lead a cross-functional project with 20+ engineers, etc.).

The job I want is one that is often filled internally.

For years I'd take a lesser title and then work my way into that position, but any time that doesn't happen, you're stuck not being where you want to be.

When they don't fill that position internally, the first question is, "why are none of their people up to the task? What sort of dysfunction will I be walking into at this place?"

It's sort of a weird, sideways version of "I wouldn't want join any club that would have me as a member."

There might be another side on this. There might be a decent manager who knows that the current employees don't have the skills to do the job. Being 5-10 years in the company does not necessarily mean you are a good leader or manager to be promoted and become team lead, VP of engineering or CTO. Companies do that same mistake all the time.

Yes, it works well at the lower levels, but this strategy falls apart if you want to work your way into the upper levels of an established company. These companies want someone who has proven that they can deliver results within the company, understands how the company operates, has built enough relationships within the company to have sufficient influence, and isn't going to establish a team and then leave for another job in a few years.

This true; at least in the US; where I am - in my experience. If you are at Sr. Manager or Director level (leading group of 10+ HR reporting to you or cross functional team lead), it gets increasingly difficult to change jobs frequently.

At this point you hope your network can help you... and pre-covid why you would do speaking engagements /conferences.

I think its the best way to get a meaningful raise. Many jobs will promote you but still can't go more than 10% of your current base, max. While switching jobs you can net a lot more than that.

It's 7% at my company. Not even worth it since they expect a 15% increase in hours and increase your responsibilities. Hourly, it's actually a pay cut, even if the yearly comp goes up.

There is a flip side to this. As employees see this happen, they get jaded and stay in their position, then work less and less until they effectively get an hourly rate promotion.

True. I'm living this right now.

Wish I didn't love my current job to death. No way I am ever going to willfully move away from here I think.

Pretty much a luxury problem though.

Life is more than just money. If you're not hurting for money and you're on a good team, by all means stay.

Changing every year is good as well.

This is super cynical and also kind of superficial from the perspective of an external observer.

Yes, the more competitive the company, the more competitive the people who are in it. Good companies harness that competitive energy to bring out the best work from its employees. Employees who are competitive also want to be surrounded by other competitive employees both to feed that competitive need and also to learn and push themselves further. A competitive person never wants to be bored.

Getting promoted is equivalent to influence. The higher up the ladder, the more influence one has, both from the top (closer to the decision makers) and the bottom (respect if IC, or mandate if a Manager).

You can only cheat your way up so high without earning that influence. Also, each level up the ladder requires a whole new set of strategies to make it to the level above that.

What I've seen in my career is that some of these so called "cheating" EMs, Directors and VPs got there during the early company because they were in the right place and right time to rise up quickly. However, they never last in that position for long. If they didn't have the genuine skill to become an influencer, after a few bad quarters, they will be asked to take the blame and lose their position. If they were acting in bad faith during their tenure and lost support from others they will also have a difficult time rising back up again.

I've found there are two really tough and visible dividing lines in a typical tech company: 1. the line between individual contributor (IC) and first level manager and 2. the line between the top managers and the executive class (directors, VPs, etc). These two lines define the three basic tech castes: ICs, managers and execs. While it's pretty straightforward to be promoted internally within these castes, it's difficult to jump from one to another, particularly from "normal manager" to "Director/VP". Thinking back to the last few companies I've worked, I'm having trouble remembering more than 1 or 2 director-and-above level people who actually started out as not-directors. Maybe the list of companies I've worked at is not representative, but in my view, execs tend to get hired as execs and don't promotion their way up to the title. So, following the "work hard - performance review - feedback" treadmill is great for climbing a small part of the ladder, it's not sufficient for making the big jumps that represent major career growth. Moving from caste to caste takes some different wizardry I haven't figured out yet...

I have a friend who skipped castes with impressive speed; his trick was getting a Harvard MBA, which put him in the club. First job with the MBA was a VP position at an SF tech firm.

He's super smart but I have a feeling this would be a generally applicable strategy, if you can afford it and really do want to be in the executive caste.

Only a few people can get Harvard MBAs.

If anyone here could chime in with anecdotes or generalized advice about moving “up” castes, I would be interested to hear it. In my limited experience, being early at a growth company (e.g. Uber in 2014) increases the probability that you’ll be able to grow headcount under you and accumulate initiatives quickly enough to go from IC or line manager to director. Have seen it happen with a couple of friends. This approach requires a bit of timing and divination, though.

That's probably because the 3 paths are orthogonal: becoming a better IC would make one a worse manager; and becoming a better manager wouldn't make one a better exec. Just like an exec wouldn't turn into the business owner no matter how hard one tries. The ladders that connect ICs with execs exist, but they are outside of the building.

This is going to sound a little touchy-feely, but I'm going to write it anyway.

There are a lot of games in the world, and what the author describes here is one of them. And you can play this game if you want to, and you might even win at it. But it's worth remembering that you have one existence, one set of time and energy to spend in this life. If you decide to look at the world this way, and operate with this mindset, then that's how you're choosing to spend it. You will not "make it" some day and suddenly reverse course.

More and more these days I think that people who are unhappy in the modern world live in prisons of their own making. Yes, a lot of people think this way and work this way. I think it's good to know the game is out there, and that you'll encounter people with this mindset. But you do not have to play the same game. Yes, you probably need a job. Yes, your material rewards might be lesser if you don't engage in this kind of stuff. But you can still live a perfectly good life—perhaps even a better life—by building it around other principles.

I don't mean this to be a lecture, or condescending, or anything other than a reminder that just because you have to work, it doesn't mean you're stuck playing the games other people are playing.

This is incredible advice.

The company I'm currently CTO at I had founded when I was 23. It's now a multi-hundred million dollar company, growing very quickly, and about to cross 100 employees. I've learned a lot along the way, but I've especially learned from managing parents. As I started managing parents and realizing how much they base their own values on how their children would think of them and their life principles, it became apparent to me that this is how I want to live my life too.

I have struggled with depression and anxiety from an early age, so, when I start attaching to an overly-cynical view of how the world operates, I ask myself "Do I need to believe this is how the world operates? How does this serve me? Would I want my children to embody this world view?". If the answer is no, then I try to have my world view serve me and end up much happier and actually much more effective in the long run.

I've come to realize you have to be a bit of a pessimist when understanding how things "really work", but going about your life as an optimist and working around the structures is just as important if not more so for people like myself who were born with a broken operating system.

"I ask myself "Do I need to believe this is how the world operates? How does this serve me? Would I want my children to embody this world view?". If the answer is no, then I try to have my world view serve me and end up much happier and actually much more effective in the long run."

It's a nice thought, but proves to be difficult to implement long term. Sure you might convince yourself for a few months that things are like X, ignoring the evidence that they are Y. That's your prerogative, you can operate in whatever reality you wish. Eventually reality catches up to you and you have to pay the piper.

It works the other way too. You can bullshit and operate politics without the skill, until one day reality catches up to you and people see your ”work” for what it really is.

I've seen this happen to people. They couldn't get another job -- ever. They happily lived in their massive homes and retired early. One sails boats. Doesn't seem like a cautionary tale, as long you can stomach being a fake.

sometimes at 70, when you're the most powerful man in the world.

And sometimes never, and you will be even eulogized post-mortem by clueless crowds

> It's a nice thought, but proves to be difficult to implement long term ...

It's actually the only long term approach -- literally. It's not ignoring reality, rather, it's choosing not to lose hope that we can create a better future.

Because, as we've seen, the world is what we make it, for better, and for worse.

Sure, you can choose to filter out certain things from your reality. Eventually you'll get railroaded because you failed to factor in certain things which someone whose able to adopt a realistic frame of mind would've captured.

If we look at WW2, you see Neville Chamberlain, the optimist, pursuing a policy of appeasement giving Hitler the benefit of the doubt and proclaiming "peace for our time" after signing of the Munich agreement. Meanwhile, Churchill, a realist, realizes that Hitler is not going to stop until he's dominated all of Europe.

So who do you prefer to be in this story, the naive optimist Chamberlain, assuming everything will be okay? Or the realist Churchill who recognizes the threat, and takes the necessary evasive action.

I didn’t say filter out.

Churchill was a combination of a realist and an optimist / idealist.

One method to distinguish between the things we think are real, but are not, is to see what you can change by pretending things are actually like X. Whatever doesn't change - that's evidence that's "real".

To paraphrase, "reality is that which, when you pretend otherwise, continues to be the way it is."

> The company I'm currently CTO at I had founded when I was 23. It's now a multi-hundred million dollar company, growing very quickly, and about to cross 100 employees. I've learned a lot along the way, but I've especially learned from managing parents. As I started managing parents and realizing how much they base their own values on how their children would think of them and their life principles, it became apparent to me that this is how I want to live my life too.

I feel like I'm now a father to my hypothetical children.

Siblings and friends work equally as well.

Do I need to believe this is how the world operates?

The way I like to say it is, I choose not to live in that world.

You bring up a fascinating subject. The tricky part about pessimal realism is that too much of it becomes a self-fulfilling and agency yielding prophecy. And so the challenge becomes this: how does one pragmatically engage with optimal realism?

I guess another way to say this is path dependence is a real problem. Finding the solution is not trivial. Perhaps the most painful place this reality becomes evident is in the interpersonal and societal sense. It's a trope that as we get older we realize "we can't save everyone" or "we can't fix everything." And so the question becomes how do we determine a) what's in our control b) what really matters and c) how we orient ourselves for the future?

I don't have a great answer, but I think part of the practice is learning to become whole with your pain, your emotions, your hopes and your intuitions in a balanced manner. And I think another part of the practice is figuring out how to build your own tribe along the way to make it practical for you to find support in a trustworthy community.

People problems are hard!

> I try to have my world view serve me and end up much happier and actually much more effective in the long run.

Easy to say when you're a millionaire that never has to work again

You are right, but there is a sober middle ground.

There is a famous quote by Hungarian writer Mikszáth saying "It is not enough to be honorable, one also has to appear so".

You don't have to go all-in in "the game", it's enough to strategically adjust even minor things to make sure your work doesn't go unnoticed, that you aren't spending effort and emotional energy on things that will ultimately not lead to anything. If you're doing it for your own enjoyment, to feel good about accomplishments or just scratch your problem-solving itch, great. But if you're naive and want to be a "good boy" who helps others because and who just naturally takes on work that is unrewarding in itself, but you feel you need to play nice etc, then perhaps this view can help. People will step over you and you will not understand why things are happening. You will feel betrayed when it's not really betrayal, just "the game" being played.

Be aware of it and make a conscious choice of when to play it and when not to play it. But when you don't play it, be aware of the trade-offs.

With all due respect to Mikszáth, you don’t have full control over how you “appear” to others. Sure, we can influence our appearance with our actions but it’s also impacted by things outside our control. People will always view our actions through their unique lens biased by their own experiences, thoughts, mental models etc.

I think the Stoics would argue it’s better to just focus on what’s the right thing to do regardless of how it “appears” externally

> I think the Stoics would argue it’s better to just focus on what’s the right thing to do regardless of how it “appears” externally

But Stoics also do not pursue "fame and fortune." The advice is fundamentally not directed at Stoics.

Fair point, but I was following the GP comment theme that “playing the game” for fame and fortune may not be the best path

People are simpler and more predictable than you'd think. There are techniques (as outlined in the article) that can predictably improve how other people see you.

> I think the Stoics would argue it’s better to just focus on what’s the right thing to do regardless of how it “appears” externally

That quote is often referenced in political corruption cases, where the politician argues he's innocent but acknowledges they might appear suspicious because they weren't careful enough to be sure to also "appear honest", not just "be honest". It's also how you have to collect paper trails and documentation if you expect that some case of yours may go to court, even if you're innocent.

Anyway, I see that people are misunderstanding what I was pointing at.

Yes the right thing is important, but it's important because it's the right thing, not because it will lead to promotions and money and fame. Don't confuse it. My qualms are with people who declare that they will stick to their principles, out of principle and not at all because they expect anything in return. And then they get upset when they get nothing in return. My problem is with this second part, not with the first.

> My qualms are with people who declare that they will stick to their principles, out of principle and not at all because they expect anything in return. And then they get upset when they get nothing in return.

If one were a touch cynical though, loudly complaining about not getting credit with a pretended naivety is also one way of playing ‘the game’ , as you put it (even if it’s not to your taste).

>And then they get upset when they get nothing in return

Good point, I’m tracking you now and agree 100%. Thank you for clarifying

Now that's a classic! I mean the way you argue, not the quote. Very nice, very classic moral relativism and postmodernism. People should never trust themselves and their understanding of the world.

What I'm saying is that understanding the game that others play is necessary, whether you want to play it or not. If you don't play it because you're ignorant and don't even see that this is going on then you allow yourself to be exploited, you will expect things to happen to you that won't happen, then you become bitter and envious. On the other hand, if you consciously recognize that this game exists, you can navigate it better and still live the way you want, without being surprised by the consequences. For example, you can spend a lot of invisible effort on a project, because you hold the principle that you will not produce bad work even if nobody is looking. That's fine. But then don't go expecting that someone will reward you and don't be upset when promotions don't come. If you consciously understand this, you will know ahead of time that that "manipulative jerk" office mate will get promoted, so when it happens, you don't get angry and disappointed. You can stay calm and concentrated on your own journey.

By realizing that you do that invisible hard work (that leads to other people's promotions and enriches others) for your own spiritual sake or for a higher cause or for the order of the universe or whatever other reason, you can live in a balanced way, because you're consciously going in with this trade-off. You live up to some principles that you won't play games, you will play straight up, with high quality work without boasting and playing it up or telling anyone about it, but you also don't desire the riches and the status, that's okay.

My issue is with people who do wishful thinking. They set some principles first and declare that this is how the world operates. When it doesn't operate that way, they don't update their model of the world, but shut their eyes and deny the dark side of getting ahead, but then still complain that the world doesn't conform to their ideal.

This is far from postmodernism. I say look at the objective cold facts: who gets ahead and how, understand the rules, then consciously play it or don't play it, but know each trade-off involved and don't be surprised when your choice leads to the predicted result. And that predicted result could be perfectly fine! You don't have to get promoted out of technical work. Many people explicitly hate managing people and budgets and playing politics and love working with concrete technical things, and will happily trade those promotions and high-class life for an honest, principled, simple life working on interesting problems for decades without climbing a career ladder or keeping up with the Joneses. Nothing wrong with that! But then know that this is the deal you're subscribing to.

In my experience, a lot of people play the game so they can go play other games outside of work.

Most of us are stuck working in some form of organization-pays-for-our-labor employment. As long as you're there, you might as well learn and play by the rules as they actually are, not as you wish them to be. For the 8 hours when your butt is in the chair at work, make them effective 8 hours, such that you can maximize your remuneration according to whatever system the company has set up to evaluate performance. Then you can go take that money and buy freedom to do other stuff in the rest of your time - or even opt out entirely for a few years.

I know a few people for whom work is their calling. The crucial thing to remember there is that they're still playing in somebody else's game, who oftentimes can pay them less because it's not a game to them. There's perhaps less psychic stress in this, but also less financial remuneration, which can foreclose on some other things in life that you may care about.

This is only relevant if you need a lot of money to play other games outside of work. Most people don't.

>This is only relevant if you need a lot of money to play other games outside of work. Most people don't.

I didn't downvote you but you misinterpreted what he wrote. The end of the 2nd paragraph explained that "other games" means the other more desirable non-work activities people would rather do:

"play other games outside of work" == "buy freedom to do other stuff in the rest of your time"

This does apply to most people.

Maybe I'm still misinterpreting it, but to me it seems like he was talking about activities after work, not instead of work. So if you want to, say, regularly dine at the finest restaurants, buy expensive toys, and live in a big mansion, then sure you need to know how to play the game, but if you're an average Joe, and just want to go to a bar to hang out with friends, or watch a movie, and maybe have a hobby like restoring vintage cars in your garage, then you probably don't need to make that much money.

Also important to remember that winning this game results in a massive difference in income and purchasing power.

Two promotions at a FAANG can be the difference between 200k and 600k in pre-tax compensation. That might translate into a difference in retirement age from 70 to 35, depending on your life goals and rate of spending.

The tremendous amount of ink spilled over FIRE leads me to believe few who play the game well enough to snag those two promotions will manage to escape their golden handcuffs.

The more the press talks about it, the more unusual it is. See shark attacks vs automobile fatalities.

That's the thing about FIRE. It is always a guy in his late 30s with 2 kids and a big house in a metro city trying to sell FIRE to new grads.

IMO, fire becomes impossible the second you have kids. Because all parents I know have some kind of super natural urge to provide better for their children. A house in a better school district, university education and the knowledge that they can have more if they work more, will inevitably stop people from making that early exit they so yearn for.

This becomes even more evident once you get used to roaming in 'high achieving' circles, because the second you RE, you and your children get pushed to the bottom of that social structure (in terms of material possessions)

FIRE also has a wierd hypocrisy to it. It advocates for avoiding life style creep. But, if you avoid lifestyle creep then you can pursue any of the things you would have after retirement as a primary source of income anyways. Especially if you don't expect to take on fresh debt. (new house, new car etc)

That being said, I live a FIRE esque lifestyle too. Because the core tenents make sense even without wanting to FIRE. But, every tech guy in their 20s seems to want to Fire, but I haven't met a single person in their 40s that actually has.

I know a few people in their 50s who managed to FIRE. I think a lot of people want to do it earlier but then life gets in the way. The ones that I know who actually retired early did so when their company got acquired or ipoed (most were director level, one of the people was a very high level IC/eng fellow @ unicorn). Basically there was a push and instead of staying in re-org or finding yet another opportunity they said "retirement!" and had the money to make it reality. The guy who was IC actually still codes/commits to OSS; I guess he just doesn't code for money anymore.

Note sure if you read the article the same way I did -- but I saw it as something that people do -- not something the author was necessarily recommending. He's saying that is how people get ahead.

I agree with you that it is a game. It isnt a game that I play, but it is a popular game. Denying that many people do this seems like wishful thinking or denial of reality.

The easiest way to see this is the typical corporate track -- you're told that if you work hard, every 2 or 3 yrs you get promoted. You do the math internally in your head and realize you'd get to -- say SVP at age 50. Then you look around and there are a bunch of 35yo SVPs. Once can see that and realize there are shortcuts/cheats in the game, or one can ignore it and hope for advancement (only to get to age 50 and realize it was all for nothing.)

I think what the author provides is of great value -- they are trying to show you a reality you may not see. The value is not to encourage you to do it, but perhaps

- to get you to step off some hamster wheel of death

- to get you to realize you need to be an entrepreneur and your own boss

- to get you to weed out these types of players if you are already an entrepreneur and your own boss

- to get you to find companies where these things are not the case (hint: check out the executive team on Linked In -- are they under qualified? run away from this company. Are they hired from outside rather going up the ranks? be careful)

Also note: the author isn't actually advocating playing these games. Just describing how they work.


"[These rituals] are macro-useful in a sense that they allow humans to generate billions of dollars of productive activity. But that doesn't mean that you should be spending your time on them."

"Assuming you're good, if you choose to work in a big company the right strategy is to work 9-5, not stress about anything, and collect your paycheck. Climbing the ladder seems extremely suboptimal to me."



Reminds me of the sound advice I am glad I got early in life (whilst still in college) from a book called "Work Less, Play More" by a petroleum geologist named Steven Catlin[1]. Play the games on your terms if at all possible. And save yo monnay!

1: http://www.swt.org/play.htm (brief and pithy overview there; should be all you need but I recommend reading the whole thing in a weekend)

> brief and pithy overview

I've seen people using "pithy" around here a lot lately.

Is being "pithy" a good thing?

My main previous exposure to the word is in regards to woodworking, where the pith is generally weak wood that you want to avoid when making things.

Usually it’s good. It means short and to the point in most contexts. Maybe things can be too pithy, if they’re so short that they’re incomprehensible. But it’s much better than meandering and off topic.

(This response was not pithy)

I wouldn't say it's necessarily good. If you think of TV when a character says something as they're leaving a room and everyone goes "ooohhhh". That's a pithy comment. Something like:

"Hey baby, you looking for a real man for tonight?"

"Yeah, let me know if you see one!"

Good to be pithy when you're dealing with obnoxious drunks in a bar. Maybe not so much when talking with your boss.

1.(of language or style) concise and forcefully expressive.

It might be slightly pejorative. I usually take it to mean slightly hyperbolic, not necessarily meant to be taken completely literally.

its usually a complement when describing a poet or writer. Meaning precise and meaningful.

such as a pithy Vonnegut quote.

I meant pithy in a positive light - i.e. short and sweet, just the facts please.

This rings true. There's a YouTube channel where a man with a campervan goes out camping in the nature and cooks food, sips whiskey and looks into the horizon. So simple yet so attractive and there's many comments of older people saying they can no longer do that but live it through these videos. I'd rather be doing that on my weekends than busting my back to get that promo.

One life so we might as well just live it.

Which channel are you referring to? I'm a fan of Steve Wallis and would love more of this content to live through vicariously.

It's "Living The Van Life". I'll check out Steve Wallis, thanks!

Well put. I completely agree. One thing I'd like to add though is that choosing to not play this game does not mean there's no path to large impact / success by conventional metrics. I came away from this article with the distinct feeling that it is focused on big corporate jobs. That certainly is where a large segment of workers are at, but it's not the only place you can be. In particular, I think that in the early stage startup world you don't get a lot of what the article is talking about. In early stage startups decisions made by rank-and-file employees can have very tangible and significant impact on the time scale of weeks to months, not quarters to years like this article seems focused on. Does this early stage startup world have its own set of issues? Of course. But there do exist good opportunities where culture is healthy and good work gets rewarded.

I really like this article's take on this general notion. http://www.samkyle.com/work-for-yourself/

Is it really? In the startup world you don't "switch projects" every 18 months. Instead you pivot to a different business plan or start a new company. Grow headcount faster than baseline applies as well.

@alexryan's dead sibling comment...

I actually work at one of those companies. At the moment we're not hiring, although we may be in the future.

> You will not "make it" some day and suddenly reverse course.

There's a bunch of ways this effect shows up all across life:

"How things start is generally how they continue" (rails feels like rails in basically every part, from the stuff a rank beginner does to diving into the guts for advanced usage)

"This was my last job. Every job was 'my last job'." https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OneLastJob

"A hippy in motion stays in motion, a hippy at rest stays at rest." (the mindset with which you start a thing tends to persist)

And, I don't know if there's a name for it, but the game of Go is legendary for players being able to replay games exactly as long as they can remember the first few moves. If the conditions and players remain the same, why would the game go any differently?

> live in prisons of their own making

I have found nothing more painful or exhausting than fighting oneself; when we hold ourselves back - put ourselves in prisons of our own making - we're both the occupant fighting the bars and the bars fighting the occupant. IMO something like RSI also shows up if you do that long enough.

One way I've found out of it is - and this might sound a little weird - apply a bit of Flatland. A circle is only a wall while you're in 2d; add a dimension (a direction orthogonal to the current ones) and walk around it.

(another way is talk therapy; and meditation trains the "muscles" (and more) that you use for any of this)

What I think you're getting at here is that it's up to each person to choose whether they want to chase the promotion and higher pay or whether they want to focus on just doing meaningful work.

Perhaps not everyone will come to this cynical of a conclusion for themselves, but in my own experience this way of thinking is almost always a false dichotomy. There's no law that says pay vs meaningfulness of the work is a zero-sum trade-off, but a lot of people giving career advice take it as almost a given that this is true. There is exciting work to do and problems to solve in the higher paying, higher levels in a big company (by that I mean, senior or staff engineer, manager or sr manager. I don't have any hands-on experience at the higher executive levels, I'm still chasing those promotions myself). And there are endless things to be frustrated with at the smallest of startups even when there's no bureaucracy or perceivable "office politics" to worry about.

My own takeaway has been, at the end of the day this is still a job. In almost any job I can find positive ways to contribute, opportunities to learn, and make my own self fulfillment. So I might as well do that at the job that pays 3x more.

In tech that difference in pay between a couple of bands of promotions or between a startup and big co, can be absolutely massive. Don't feel bad about chasing the higher paying roles, that increase in income can buy you a lot of optionality. Maybe you can retire early, or take long years of sabbatical in the middle of your career, or devote a year or two to starting your own startup in the future without worrying about not taking a paycheck. This may ultimately be a lot more satisfying than shuffling through low-paying jobs searching for roles where you'll be perfectly happy in spite of that, because you may never find it anyway.

>it's up to each person to choose whether they want to chase the promotion and higher pay or whether they want to focus on just doing meaningful work

There's also something in between: Work as a means to other ends, not seeking personal fulfilment in one's day job.

All these discussions and articles I read here about career advancement and what not seem so incredibly foreign to me.

Similarly, for some of us the game that the author describes is way more appealing than a more straightforward 'work hard and earn your way up'. Not everybody in tech cares about software; I'm just in it for the money. Reading stuff like this makes career development actually sound exciting.

What looks like prison for you can be freedom for someone else

I don’t intend for this to sound judge-y but I’m curious if not being internally motivated for the work impacts your motivation, particularly with work that is essential for the goal but not particularly high status/visibility. Do you find motivation waning?

When X allows you to achieve goal Y, you can get a lot of X done even if you have no personal interest in X. If you're poor and have few options, most of the time you're gonna do whatever job you can get because you just don't have a choice (speaking from earlier life experience). For some people it's being a waiter, janitor, working at mcdonald's, etc. Very few people breaking their backs on construction or 16 hour catering gigs grew up fantasizing about being a laborer, but they still manage to pull off incredible feats of endurance and work. Why would software or other office jobs be any different?

In short, I work in software to get paid well to retire asap. I've never needed work to find fulfillment and growth in life, so I'm never short on motivation because I can't wait to stop having to work.

To extend your analogy, I’ve found a vast difference in quality between construction contractors who view their work as a profession/craft vs those who view it as a job/means to an end. The irony is those in the latter category have complained to me that they find it hard to find work, those in the former always seem to be in demand and making money. That’s to the heart of my question, I was wondering if that kind of motivation inadvertently can affect the ends you’re aiming at.

Regardless, I’m happy you don’t need work to be fulfilled and seem to be on a good path for what you’re after

My point was that to me, being able to do construction at all is remarkable, and an example of how you can do a lot without personal interest.

It's important to distinguish between excelling at X, and excelling at a career in X.

IMO to really excel at a career in X you need passion and career skills. But your passion doesn't have to be in X directly. You can have passion for early retirement, income, or even just competition, and still out-perform most people who do care about X. Per the article, all a contractor has to do is work enough to move up the ladder and I can easily imagine them having their own company and out-earning the passionate contractors within a decade, while I can also see someone passionate at a craft just stagnate because they're happy doing their thing, not realizing that the career side needs work too. And of course, to excel at X itself is its own story. But since we were talking about a career perspective, I just wanted to illustrate how excelling at X itself is irrelevant to someone who's just using X as a means to an end Y, beyond what's needed for career progression.

So I wouldn't agree that motivation for X is a problem for getting to Y. I would see that as a weakness with career skills and not knowing how to utilize motivation for Y itself. But I would say that motivation for X can actually be detrimental for pursuing X itself, for example by being so fixated on pursuing quality that you neglect skills like marketing and networking, which are almost always needed to do anything beyond whatever you can do at home. Being a passionate artist alone usually won't get you far. Being a passionate musician who knows people in the industry can get you gigs in movies, shows, musical events, etc.

And thank you, I also wish you luck in pursuing your goals

> being so fixated on pursuing quality that you neglect skills like marketing and networking

This is a really good point. I think people can be so target fixated on one area that they neglect other areas that could actually have a systemic effect of improving their main domain of expertise. You’ve given me some important things to think about

Thanks for the kind words! Glad to know this exchange was interesting for both of us.

This comes from someone who threw away a decade of my life because I didn't want to play the academia game - there's a sweet middle spot, play the game as long as: 1. It's fun at least on some days 2. You don't win at the expense of someone else's undeserved loss 3. You can actually switch off from it

You have to play the game no matter where you are, even foraging in the forest. There's no concept of living life without rules, so might as well embrace the reality and keep it under your control instead of the other way around.

I want to second what you're saying here. I used to feel pretty down about my work because I felt like even though I was making good money and progressing career-wise, the things I was working on were not contributing anything positive to the world, and would also be scrapped for a new iteration using the tech-du-jour within a year or two, and nobody would ever see them again.

If I wanted to have a more lasting impact and more reach, I'd have to compete with thousands for a spot somewhere like Yahoo or Google, and again, whatever I was working on would still be scrapped within a year or two.

This is why I dropped out of working for money and started working on my own passion projects. I'm very lucky, because I remember what it was like working on passion projects before I entered the workforce, so I at least knew roughly what I was looking for.

> But it's worth remembering that you have one existence, one set of time and energy to spend in this life. If you decide to look at the world this way, and operate with this mindset, then that's how you're choosing to spend it.

One other perspective:

Yes, the ideologies we subscribe to will highly influence what we see and experience.


You can choose to experiment / experience quite the many ways or living and being in the decades you're likely to he here.

Each day is a new opportunity to act differently if whatever you were doing yesterday doesn't serve you and those around you.

As a counterpoint, I believe that I essentially behave the way you are describing, frequently doing things like going to meetings and saying "this big project won't work, it will harm the end user" which doesn't make you well liked. While I may firmly believe what I am saying, I'm sitting there getting passed up by promotions. Eventually I'll be the lowest ranked engineer with 50 years of experience in the world.

I guarantee you, playing by the rules will not make you happy.

Saying something like that in a work meeting is a bad idea even if you don't want to play any games. That's just basic human psychology, and if you can't deal with it perhaps you shouldn't be promoted.

> This is going to sound a little touchy-feely, but I'm going to write it anyway.

Yeah, it's quite touchy feely. But quite possibly completely right too.

I would love to hear about other models of the world that are employed to think about it. My view is that there's about 5 mental models given how mundane human life is in general (I'm speaking in hyperbole of course).

I'd love to hear more. What are the five?

So you are reading this, thinking it’s advice? I am reading this, thinking it’s a failure in many companies and needs to be addressed.

I really like this post and your way of thinking.

Everything in life, including life itself, is temporary. Except for two facts:

- Nobody has more than 24 hours in a day.

- Nobody escapes death.

You forgot taxes. Everybody pay taxes.

well, not really

Play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

“There are a million ways to make money.” I’m a highly skilled, highly experienced individual. I never have to do anything I don’t want to in order to keep a roof over my head, food on my table, and even a handful of expensive hobbies.

I once played a different game, for about five years. I became really good at it, and I made a lot of money playing it. Like you describe, I was in a modern prison of my own making.

While there are kernels of uncomfortable truth in the article, I think there's at least equal parts begging the question.

"The kinds of opportunists who are attracted solely to wealth and status have no principles at all beyond accumulation of these two objects." Well, yes, by definition, but it's not clear that the definition is useful. Iff those people exist, that's how they'll act is used to not-so-subtly suggest that these people actually exist and they're taking "your" promotion unless you defend.

"I can do anything I want for three years and it won't show up in the metrics!" No, you can do anything you want and it won't show up in the SEC/Wall Street reported metrics, but you better believe Amazon has faster-acting internal metrics than that.

'"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"' A pragmatist or realist would also say the same thing rather than demand an embargo on shipping features for three-months for what might be seen as (and might be) navel-gazing.

It's an enjoyable read, but in a similar vein as Harry Potter is an enjoyable read. Maybe it will provoke some thinking that's applicable to your work life, but it's more entertaining than educational, IMO.

> It's an enjoyable read, but in a similar vein as Harry Potter is an enjoyable read. Maybe it will provoke some thinking that's applicable to your work life, but it's more entertaining than educational, IMO.

That's the unfortunate reality with a lot of Substack type newsletters.

The real world truth is often so boring and simple that it can be summarized in a short blog post. Want to get promoted? Work on important projects for the company, build rapport and relationships in the company, build a reputation for getting things done on time with high quality and low drama. You'll either get promoted, or build a foundation upon which you can pivot into a promotion at another company.

That's boring to read, though, so much pop-business advice turns into ego-stroking stories about how the reader is morally superior to all of the other unprincipled ladder-climbers around them. There's a large appetite for stories about how the world is unfair, and there are many writers happy to deliver those stories.

I'm part of a mentorship program for junior developers. These kinds of articles have been detrimental to a lot of impressionable young people who are growing up convinced that the world is thoroughly corrupt and therefore the only way to win is to become corrupt yourself. In reality, if anyone finds themselves at a company where people are promoted based on lies, nepotism, and general corruption then you don't want to get promoted there anyway. Get out while you can, because any company that rewards people who play games over people who deliver results is doomed to go downhill. In the real world, the good companies really do identify and promote those who consistently deliver results.

> Work on important projects for the company, build rapport and relationships in the company, build a reputation for getting things done on time with high quality and low drama.

This will not get you promoted beyond the middle rungs.

Agreed. Being reliable and getting things done is not memorable. Someone who is actively getting in people's faces, pushing along agendas, meeting with others, and on the whole being "visible" as projects move along is more likely to be associated with getting things done than someone who quietly gets work done and is liked by everyone but does not make a big ado about it.

People get promoted not for what they do, but what they appear to do.

There's not a lot of room in the upper rungs. The audience of people trying to nab that promotion from VP to SVP at $FORTUNE500 is an awful small audience to write for.

and the number of people who are actually qualified to dispatch such advice is even smaller.

These pithy, cynical takes are devoid of any real claims or suggestions. What are you actually proposing as a way to the top rung? Gaming the system and being cutthroat?

I am not proposing anything. I am just observing what happens empirically. Doing these things tends to get people soft influence but no formal authority. It's simply what is.

You have never seen someone do good work, visibly, and be promoted for it?

You'll need to say more :)

You're a bit too optimistic.

This article isn't saying "be evil or be out-hustled by evil", it's saying "avoid high growth companies because they are full of charlatans".

Find a nice job at a small company growing organically.

Agreed. I read it as a criticism of VC-funded, growth-focused, investor driven companies and I believe the criticism is totally valid in that lens.

High growth companies have made a lot of employees very rich.

There are tech or tech-adjacent companies with tens of thousands of employees that have around for decades, when not 100+ years, who are corrupted in more than one meaning of the world. And they pay decently well, when not top 10%. I may have worked in one of those.

> These kinds of articles have been detrimental to a lot of impressionable young people

This article is a satire, similar to Starship Troopers movie



"too damn well-made for its own good" and said that it confused audiences and critics.


Similarly, "How to get promoted" may be confusing. But you may also use these "tips" to identify [and fire] employees which try to abuse your corporate promotion system.

Not to disagree with your overall criticism, but:

> Want to get promoted? Work on important projects for the company, build rapport and relationships in the company, build a reputation for getting things done on time with high quality and low drama. You'll either get promoted, or build a foundation upon which you can pivot into a promotion at another company.

Did you answer the question posed in the article: Which of the top leaders in your company get there by doing this? The only common theme seems to be "build rapport and relationships in the company".

> No, you can do anything you want and it won't show up in the SEC/Wall Street reported metrics, but you better believe Amazon has faster-acting internal metrics than that.

How would amazon metrics be faster? The main point is that a lot of large/systemic changes ("pay off tech debt") can take a long time to show up in any metric, giving you cover to get promoted as people don't think of timestamped metrics as time-delayed as they actually are.

Let's say you have internal metrics around feature cycle time.

If that number is getting ugly, you might be able to get some tech debt projects going. If you spend 3 months just on tech debt, ship 0 features, and then still have just as bad a feature cycle time in the 3 months after that as in the 3 months before... that can get noticed. And it's not gonna look great.

Whether or not your org does notice that or not is a question about the sort of company you're working for. The original article here assumes you're working at a fairly inefficient and unmotivated one.

The 3 years he quotes is from his perspective, which is from the view of "what company-spanning initiatives are we going to tackle" or "what teams and projects do we need to bootstrap or expand on?". It takes years for these things to get done and have the desired impact on the bottom line, but within those years are individuals and teams growing their respective businesses. Those businesses are absolutely monitored yearly/quarterly/weekly at some level of abstraction in the company.

Yes effects are measures quarterly. But causes for those effects are not visible in 1 quarterly.

How long it takes for work to have impact depends greatly on the scope of that work and the level of abstraction you're viewing the work at.

Part of the problem here is the place in the blog ascribes value to where you are rather than what you did. If nobody is asking how you influenced the current state of being but is instead just evaluating the person presiding over current success, then the behavior described is unsurprising.

Thank you, came to say something similar. This is basically Machiavellian corporate politics, by someone clearly bitter at the way the system works.

The bit I found useful in there is the idea that the people who don't care about quality still might care about promotion ­- for some people it's just a job, and for others skipping on quality is a way to be seen to produce a lot of quantity. It's easy to see how 1000 lines per day is probably going to get you promoted in a hurry, regardless of whether there are twice as many bugs in that code than the average of the code base and twice as much code as there needs to be. Those multipliers make a massive difference in the long run, but are probably too small to detect in individual commits.

> "I can do anything I want for three years and it won't show up in the metrics!" No, you can do anything you want and it won't show up in the SEC/Wall Street reported metrics, but you better believe Amazon has faster-acting internal metrics than that.

I can't speak for Amazon, but what he said is true in my company. We have metrics, but a 3 year horizon sounds right. Rarely do bad endeavors get killed quicker than that.

A lot of times people yearn for promotion only because their peers are promoted. At least that's what I saw in Uber. When Uber had only a handful of senior/staff engineers, few people were vocal about promotion. But when Uber suddenly promoted a large number of people, everyone was screaming for a promotion. In contrast, few engineers in Netflix complained about titles for all ICs had the same title - this may be selection bias, though.

That is to be expected, similar to the way open discussion of salaries puts upwards pressure on salaries. When Bob sees Alice get promoted, he asks himself why. Maybe it's obvious that Alice is a better employee, but not by so much that Bob feels it's out of his reach. So he works harder and then asks his boss if now wouldn't be a good time for that promotion for him too.

Or maybe it's not obvious why Alice got promoted and Bob didn't, so Bob asks his manager. Hopefully the manager can explain the reasoning in a way that Bob can understand, and Bob can get to work to level-up or can accept that he's just not as good as Alice. (If the manager can't come up with a good reason...well...that's a problem. For the manager.)

If no one's getting promoted, then there's not much point in asking for a promotion. May as well keep your eye on jobs at other companies if you'd like to get ahead. Sometimes companies try to keep the promotions quiet, in an apparent effort to suppress the masses clamoring for a promotion. I suppose it works, as much as suppressing salary discussion works. ("Here's your annual raise this year, you did a _great_ job, this 3% shows that, almost _no one_ gets 3%, this is super high. Great job, Bob! Oh, and don't worry about that promotion, it's super rare to get promoted within your first x years at the company, it'll come...")

A lot of this blog post topics are expressed in the Gervais Principle, which is an amazing (and long) reading I strongly suggest to the candid souls [0].

However, I think the following is really original content, and worth citing:

> 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!"

[0] https://www.ribbonfarm.com/the-gervais-principle/

Yeah what a fun (fun? not sure) area of applied psychology. It's interesting to read about it because we sort of know this is how the game works sometimes, so it's refreshing have the safe context of a book that states it plainly.

Sometimes its hard to find candid takes on it, as either the weird pickup artist books take up all the bandwidth if one tries to google for it, or its "leadership books" that don't steer into the area for various reasons

This is The Prince of career advice: simultaneously accurate and evil, apparently written by someone who is aware of that fact.

There are many who read The Prince as a work of satire. Even so, the comparison still holds.

There's an alternate reading of The Prince as a pro-democratic piece - throughout the entire work, Machiavelli reminds the titular Prince that the strongest cities, in terms of power, were those that were governed democratically, where all men of the city felt that they were defending, not just a prince, but an institution they were a part of. Almost all of his infamous pieces of advice are prefaced with "this is the second best answer, and only if you absolutely must hold on to as much personal power as you can."

EDIT: grammar, is -> are

This is my preferred reading as well - the dude is pro-democracy _specifically because_ he knows what the right move is for a king, and it sucks for everyone else.

He wrote the book as much as a warning as as a reason for the prince to invite him back to Florence.

Author here— I’m still not sure if this post is satire. You can read it both ways, and I think it works.

I think it may be your sincere ambivalence that makes your article so great.

Also, unfortunately, I can assure you that your astute perception is exactly how (some parts of) the world works, especially at senior executive levels. There are complex, interlocking systems of “make me look good - take down that guy - do what’s good for us, not what’s good for the company” that can make this mentality legitimately powerful. At the C-level, correct but slightly misphrased statements can create a fired-in-90-days failure (literally the difference between “but” and “yes, and”). It’s _insane_.

Anyway, you’re doing gods work here lmao

I recall someone in college pointing out that many people who take the Business Ethics course treat it as a work of satire.

Boy were they right about that.

Good god almighty this section of the article strikes close to home. Extremely accurate from the perspective of 3rd employee -> leaving at ~50 employees.

"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."

Kind of sounds like how a group of humans from pre-Agricultural Revolution times would start their tribe. At the beginning, it's a couple people busting their butts to build something useful. If successful, it evolves in to a larger group primarily concerned with gossip and status.

The Asana ticket comments are a political shooting gallery

Yeah, the article brings back all kinds of bad memories.

Exactly my experience too

I’m having the same reaction as many here - it’s ugly but often true.

BUT - if everyone followed this advice, I believe the org will fail eventually. Promotions aside, I think it takes enough people with real long term responsibility and care to actually keep things moving up and to the right.

So is there a less cynical framing here? Are there long term strategies to do good work and also get promoted? It might be harder (or less lazy) than jumping teams every 18 months and ignoring OKRs, but I’d like to hold on to some hope that we don’t have to secretly become a complete and total drain in order to succeed. I’ve done okay without stooping, and my current manager is a good counter-example IMO (though may be rare). Surely there are some ways to encourage true engagement over feigned work and to discourage leechy behavior?

This extremely-long series of posts includes some advice: https://thezvi.wordpress.com/category/immoral-mazes-sequence...

But it's not optimistic about the compatibility of middle-management success and your soul.

> Are there long term strategies to do good work and also get promoted?

I would say that there are, but they involve also getting lucky.

> 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.

I grew with a rapidly growing company. While I don’t disagree with the author that these sorts of environments exist in our industry (or most industries), or even pockets inside of a company, I don’t think this experience describes mine. Maybe I’m willfully blind or naive (or maybe I was too low level to experience this), but I’d caution someone of taking this strategy wholesale and start assassinating the careers of your colleagues.

Keep in mind, a major goal of a company is to make money. The leader of the company is generally aligned with that goal. Those are their incentives. They hire people to make them more money. If you play a different game according to this quotation:

> So your job isn't to make good decisions to improve company metrics.

Then, if the leader is competent and they determine you’re doing this, you’re probably going to get fired. They might also be bad, and you might get promoted if you fool them. But you’re also probably fooling yourself if you also have the goal to grow your own skills.

Instead, I’d suggest this mindset: When you’re joining a company, you’re joining a group of humans who created a system to help them to work together. Each system is a bit different, tailored to the company and the people who compose them. Some are passable. Some are terrible. But there is variance, and you should probably think about the strategy you employ when you join a new company (or re-evaluate how you operate in your current one).

You don’t need to trust the system, but you do need to learn to see and work the system. I guess if the environment is truly toxic and your only goal is to get promoted, exploiting as the author suggests might be working the system. However, there are systems you can work in a more productive way that might end up making you feel more fulfilled.

"growing my skills" is extremely weakly correlated to "making more money for the company".

What I personally realized and often told to people I mentored that consider the promotion ladder separate from your work and your career growth.

Most larger tech companies have some kind of leveling system. You should work with your manager to understand where you are currently and what are you lacking to move to the next level. Start doing those things (even if no-one asks you to do them) in a public way, document everything and share it with your manager. Managers generally want to promote their people but usually only 5-10% of the employees can get promoted in the cycle so they have to fight other managers for the promotions. So the better case you build for yourself, the easier it is for your manager to sell. I find the promotion game is easiest because you just need to do the required thing once to check the checkbox, and the quality of the outcome doesn't even matter much.

For career growth, think about what you want to do or be after this job in the company. Even if you plan to stay in the company, I find it better to think outside of the company, since you focus on things that are transferable, rather than company specific. You skills and general knowledge transfers, political alliances or knowledge of the particular codebase doesn't. For example if you consider being a founder, VP engineering, lead Swift engineer, then think about what kind of skills should you practice or people to know.

Then for work, try to find opportunities in the company to work projects that you actually are interested in, help your career growth or/and work with people you enjoy working with.

The problem what I saw is that people though promotion is some kind of automatic response if they just do their work well and ended up disappointed when it didn't happen. Ideally it would be like that but unfortunately in reality there are ~10 promotions available the cycle, and management has to choose who receives them. Or they would join project they didn't want to, hoping they would get promoted but in the end didn't because they were still lacking other things. Or work you might find interesting or important, might not be something that helps you get promoted. It's just easier think promotion ladder as a side metagame you need to play to win some prizes.

So career growth is about investing to the future, work is about being happy/fullfilled in the present and the promotions just increase your salary, and in some cases access to information and increase freedom choose projects you want to work on.

I think this title should be suffixed with "past the standard ceiling". And it's often quite cozy to stay below that ceiling, you can ignore most of the corpspeak and office-warfare and still prosper.

That's also where all the intellectually stimulating things happen, there's nothing of interest to a real hacker in upper management. There's only money and status there (and often lots of it), but no real puzzles.

The corporate management players know very well about the one thing they have to avoid - significant failure - thus they will never cross a truly competent person. Their entire career depends on it. Just make sure to push back from time to time to not take too much on your shoulders.

Some hackers have big ideas that require staffing and financial investment.

They will have to play the game that the OP is describing :).

I am not condoning that game, but it's simply not entertaining for a lot of people (myself included).

Haha, love this. There's a lot of truth in there for sure. I think some people definitely get promoted like that, while some others legitimately do so by being really good.

For me, the standing part though which I have observed is that: "An organization cannot commit suicide." In that sense, most companies have an accretion problem.

And what people don't realize is, that's true of your manager, their manager, and up all the way.

It would take someone external to put the breaks, which only happens if the company starts to do bad, then the shareholders expect change, and so a garbage collection takes place, and accretion starts again.

One thing that I wish was more obvious to me when I was starting my career on how to get promoted - work for a growing org in a growing company. If your company and org are stagnant or shrinking - there is likely a cap on how many people at certain levels they will support. And even if not, promotions will be slow due to budget.

This is gold. Beyond the second level (or third level if they're thin levels) of SWE/IC, promotions are at least as much about there being whitespace that needs filled as they are about your individual trajectory/ability.

If the entire pie is expanding at a breakneck, nearly unsustainable pace, there's so much whitespace that modest performers can get quick promotions. If the entire pie is static, even strong performers will be promoted far more slowly.

Because the first few promotions are (mostly) about the individual ability/capability, it can be tempting to assume that mid-career and late-career promotions are "more of the same". They're not.

It's all about who is the favorite. I had a tech lead who didn't know what SCCM was even though we supported a thick-client that was installed using SCCM. He had numerous other deficiencies in things like system design and wanting/trying to avoid implementing security fixes to bring us inline with standards. But he knew how to talk to management and the business to make them like him. He was very much a 'yes man'. Unfortunately I speak my mind, so I am just intermediate.

Sounds like he had more of a head for the business and you for the nitty gritty tech, so you were both well placed.

Nope. He didn't understand the business either, he just agreed with everything they and management said.

I had a story with incorrect requirements where the business and the tech lead would not listen to me, even when I explained it in multiple ways. It wasn't until I spent 3 weeks building it and had a consultant raise my same concern that they realized their mistakes. In my opinion it came down to them being classist assholes - don't listen to a midlevel dev, only the highly paid consultant.

I'm actually not that well versed in the nitty gritty. I tend to be more of a big picture and concepts guy. I had at least some respect from other tech leads on that project, just not my own. Perhaps my tech lead felt threatened or just enjoyed talking down to me and talking shit about me. I had two other tech leads find out that I was only a midlevel dev and they both said that wasn't right and I should have been a senior (technically the role I was filling was supposed to be for seniors).

Oh well, that's life.

Ah, the rising tide lifts all boats. This seems also true in business, money is made riding trends.

related excellent ribbon farm articles:


Yes, very strongly related, as is the book Moral Mazes (which I suspect the author has read, given the reference to "rituals").

Author here. I haven’t read moral mazes, but a few people mentioned it. I’ll pick it up.

It's interesting that you reached such similar conclusions! I suppose that means there's something fundamental at play here.

This piece does a nice job of narrating opportunism as a pathology. But I'm more interested in hearing about opportunism as a survival strategy. That is, when opportunism "wins" and becomes the default and not the abberation.

When the opportunist gets to the top (or is already at the top) and sets the rules to make themselves look good.

When the executives design the KPI's and OKRs around those rules to make their boss look good, themselves look good, and their org shuffle along.

When the directors begin adjusting their own internal metrics to focus on work that makes their boss look good, while at the same time, confusing their subordinates who assume those metrics reflect performance.

In that environment, I've seen the average mid-level manager seriously adopt the posture that article jokingly suggests. They have to for their own survival. If they're not opportunistic, they're out of a job. Their team is out of a job. Even if they know the metrics are misleading or false, or why the meetings don't matter, they're have to fight for attention, or else they risk losing vital resources for the team.

How cancer metastasizes across the organization's body and then becomes the body, would be a really interesting case study to read.

I suggest you read Moral Mazes by Robert Jackall


The only civilized way to get power and money is to have people with power and money want to give it to you.

Just give a shit, if you honestly care about what you work on and try hard it will take you very far.

Of course part of it comes down to luck, you have be working amongst decent people who can/will recognize good work. But on the whole I have found that just caring and trying hard will almost always take you where you want to go in a job.

> 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.

I hate that's it's mostly true, but it is mostly true indeed.

Unfortunately if everyone follows this to the letter the company will most likely crash. Someone's gotta stand up and be accountable for their decisions, which means also MAKING the decisions. Making decisions is dangerous. The above is the recipe for never being accountable and always being on "the cool stuff".

"fewer opportunists in security"

We must work in radically different parts of security.

Not a lot of HN posts make me emotional, but this one did. I'm a middle-manager in a corporate, manage about a dozen teams (just to give you a sense). I want to say we don't have those practices in our company, but you know - I just don't know. I was promoted not because I played a better political game than someone else, but because I (think) I was the best for this job (got promoted instead of my own manager who left the company). I don't see other people playing the game but I could be blind to it. That's why this post made me _feel_ I might be missing on the game that's going on. However knowing my peers (same level as I am) I don't see them doing these things. I don't like this post.

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