Be a star, at the right place
Yunkai Zhou Co-founder & CTO,
Published on May 28, 2018
How to Get Promoted in Tech Companies
Yesterday I got invited back to Google to share some insights about entrepreneurship between US and China. After the event, many people were still interested in asking me about promotion. I learned that the “Promotion Demystified” slides I made 3 years ago were still making circulation within Google. While the Google internal link is not accessible by the general public, I believe a lot of points equally apply to other tech companies, which leads to this post.
Here I list 4 tips for people who are asking “What do I need to do to get that promotion?”
Tip #1: Don’t Be Blindsided by Promotion
Once I was in a promotion committee, and saw a special case. This person’s work had good impact, right scope, etc. Everything looked good, except one thing.
It’s consistent from this person’s team members that he would not do certain things if that thing wouldn’t help his promotion case. This means, the teammates had to pick up the slack and handle some of the grungy work to keep the overall project moving.
He got unanimous vote of no promotion from our committee.
What’s the problem? His motivation becomes promotion only, and that blindsided him.
Is there anything wrong to eye on promotion? Nope. That’s very natural; most people will pay extra attention to things that help them get promotion. But don’t make that the only thing in focus.
Promotion is the recognition for good work done. It’s a side product of good work done; please keep it that way.
Tip #2: Impact + Scope + Leadership
Each company has different promotion process and criteria.
  • Google and Facebook use independent promotion committees to evaluate promotion cases
  • Amazon has senior leaders assigned for each promotion case
  • Microsoft has managers get together to discuss promotion cases
But they all have something in common: impact, scope, and leadership are evaluated for promotion in all the tech companies we know. (Be aware that each company might use different words for these areas.)
Impact: You need to accomplish something that’s important and beyond your current level. It’s not just about what you did, but more about why it mattered. Only showing you wrote 1 million lines of code is not enough; showing that 1 million lines of code made the company 20% more users is a lot more impressive.
Scope: This is about how complex a problem you can solve. Special call out, people often misunderstand this as how complex a solution is. That’s incorrect. It’s about how complex a problem is. The real art is in using a simple solution to solve a complex problem, not the other way around.
Leadership: This includes many aspects, like leading a team, taking initiatives, communicating upwards, downwards, and sideways, cross-$function collaboration, conflict resolution, mentoring / coaching junior members, etc. Leadership can be demonstrated at different levels.
For the example I showed earlier, the fundamental reason that person didn’t get promotion is due to lack of leadership.
Note that these areas tend to be related. To get big scope and large impact, you will eventually need a team working with you, and that won’t happen without leadership.
Tip #3: How to Figure Out My Gap?
Okay, you might say, the list above is too generic. I’m doing all of them already, but why aren’t I promoted?
The fact is, if you are wondering about that, you have a gap, between where you are now and where the next level is expected. And you probably don’t know where that gap truly is.
How do you figure out where the gap truly is?
The first source of that information is always your manager. If you have a great manager, try to have an honest conversation with him/her. Be open-minded and ask for genuine feedback about your gap. DON’T BE DEFENSIVE. Seriously, don’t be defensive. It’s hard, but trust me, you have to try. If you behave defensively during such conversation, you forever shut the door of genuine feedback. Try to listen, even if you are surprised to hear some of the feedback. Remember, this is how other people view you, and it’s tremendously valuable to know how other people truly view you. (Most likely, it’s different from how you view yourself.)
There is a chance that your manager worries about your morale, and downsizes your gap. This is actually normal, and from a good intention. Try to understand it from your manager’s perspective. You have some distance away, but you are working on it and improving. But if I tell you the entire gap, that might disappoint you so much that you feel hopeless and just leave. That’s not good for you, and certainly also not good for my team. So let me share with you half of the gap, and keep helping you getting closer.
So what do you do if you might be hearing a partial gap from your manager? Go ask other people who work closely with you, and are at least at the next level. They are at the next level already, so they have a decent understanding of what’s required at that level. More importantly, they are much more willing to be fully open with you and help you identify such gaps. If you talk to multiple of them, you should be able to get a good picture of where to improve. Remember again, DON’T BE DEFENSIVE to them either.
Identify the gaps, and then identify projects and initiatives that can challenge you and help you demonstrate you’ve filled the gaps. That’s when the promotion is ready and easily landed.
Oh, did you say you don’t work with anyone more senior than you? That’s the next tip.
Tip #4: Network
It is always your responsibility to network. A good network is needed for many reasons: to get things done, to get better ideas, to learn from others, and as a natural consequence, to get promoted. (Again, don’t network just for the purpose of getting promoted.)
How do you build an effective network? By providing values for others. If you provide value for someone, that person is very likely to provide value back to you, and that’s how you build relationship with that person. Even in the case of you asking for help first, you can still provide value after receiving the help.
The best way to maintain relationship is mutual value.
Unless you are the CEO, you always have other people more senior than you in the company. Go to build network with them, and learn about the expectation from them.
And don’t limit to your company only. You also have resources outside of the company, and you should build network with them too.

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Yunkai Zhou - Co-founder & CTO,
Yunkai is a technical executive and entrepreneur. He has worked in companies from technical giants like Microsoft and Google to late stage startups like Sumo Logic, as well as an early stage startup he helped found. In Google, he spent nearly 10 years in Search Ads / AdWords, and has led projects across infrastructure, machine learning, and UI. Yunkai’s passion for using technology to solve real business problems led him to co-found