The case for writing your own promo

The Philosopher Developer

May 03, 2022

This is advice that I have given multiple times, to multiple managers. I figured it was time to write it down.

At many tech companies, there is a formal process for requesting a promotion. At Atlassian, the biggest part of this process is a collaboration between a promotion candidate and their manager on compiling documentation justifying the promotion. The main requirement for this documentation is that it provide strong evidence, based on a standard framework, demonstrating that the candidate is performing at the level they're targeting for promotion. Ultimately this document (the "packet") is reviewed by a panel comprising 7 senior staff members, and the panel ultimately decides by vote whether to approve it.

I've noticed that different managers take different approaches to this collaboration. Here is advice I find myself giving often:

You should be the primary author of your own promo packet. The best way for your manager to support you is (a) as an editor, helping to refine your narrative and select the strongest evidence supporting your case; (b) as a coach, encouraging you to work on the packet (and dedicating time to work together on it); and (c) as your advocate, ensuring your work and accomplishments are recognized, and providing a safety net so that you aren’t disadvantaged by any challenges you might face in effectively advocating for your own promotion.

As a rough guideline, I recommend an 80/20 breakdown: the candidate writes 80% of the content and the manager writes 20%.

Many managers bristle at this suggestion, mainly because they view this as their responsibility and it somehow feels wrong to ask a developer to spend time justifying their own promotion. In general, I find these managers want to attempt something more like 20/80. Here is why I believe the candidate-led approach (80/20) has many advantages over the manager-led approach (20/80):

  1. You are the foremost subject matter expert for your own work. Ideally your manager is close, but no one knows the work you've done or the impact you've had better than you do. Your expertise provides the raw material to make the best possible packet.
  2. You will benefit from playing an active role in your career development. The 20/80 approach allows the candidate to take a more passive role: answering questions, providing clarification, etc. This teaches the wrong lesson and sets them up for future disappointment.
  3. Success is more likely with fewer dependencies. Ask any team with an OKR that relies on another team to deliver something. Switching from 20/80 to 80/20 is a bit like removing a dependency from a project.
  4. You will learn more by doing it. Authoring your own packet forces you to deeply understand the expectations of the role you're targeting. Also, communicating persuasively is a valuable skill for anyone to learn; it's the same skill that makes you effective in writing technical proposals, project proposals, etc.
  5. Your manager can provide more value as an editor. It is a challenge to impartially assess your own writing because writing itself requires energy (this is why editors exist). The quality of your packet will be greatly enhanced with an editor, and your manager is a better person to serve in that role than you are.
  6. You should own the outcome. In the end, if your promotion is approved, you should feel proud! If your promotion isn't approved, you don't want to feel like a victim. In the end, no one should be more invested in a successful outcome than you are.

The biggest objection I hear to all of these points is "But as a manager, this is my job". I view it a bit differently. I would say that your job is to support your team in performing their best. When it comes to promoting team members, what's best for them isn't for you to spend hours writing up a page that will ultimately determine their fate. Giving someone the responsibility to drive their own results, offering help and guidance along the way, not only supports their professional growth but offers the greatest chance of success.