Thursday, May 06, 2010

Promotion Systems Redux

My spies at Google tell me that my essay on promotion systems drew a reaction on a Google mailing list that I didn't read even back when I was employed at Google.

I did get a few interesting responses. I won't post them here, but I'll address what a few points: The first was that the system isn't actually the worst of all systems. An even worse system would have all the characteristics I pointed at, and add one more feature, which is to have promotions be cut-throat (i.e., for you to win, someone else would have to lose). The peer review feature does make people nicer to each other, though what I found as time went on was that if you were too low on the hierarchy, your opinions didn't matter to the promotion committees anyway, so more cynical senior people would feel free to ignore your requests for help.

Someone else pointed out that the real compensation at Google was much more dependent on raises, stock and bonuses, so the promotion system didn't matter. But that's not true at all! First of all, there was a level-based salary cap, and people did hit them. So at some point, you have to get promoted if you want your salary to keep going up. Bonuses were based on salaries, so those don't go up if your salary doesn't go up. Secondly, even if it was true that options and bonuses was all that mattered, then you just validated the claim that eliminating the engineering ladder wouldn't hurt productivity at all!

Finally, people seem to have an inordinate amount of faith in a process executed by humans who had limited amount of time to read and evaluate a person's work. When I sat on intern hiring committees, I would dig through change lists and discover all sorts of nasty things about an intern's projects (the intern was rarely to blame, but his/her mentor was definitely at fault) that would lead to a "no hire." Yet I was usually the only person who bothered to do that kind of digging. Most people on the committee just read the person's packet and took everything at face value because it was way too much work otherwise. I've sat in on promotion committees where the director moderating the discussion (remember, the managers weren't supposed to influence the process) would provide out-of-band commentary by murmuring about how good a candidate was. I also saw cases where someone working on an un-sexy project was denied promotion just because the rest of the committee hadn't heard of it, and had no understanding of what the work was. I've even seen sympathy promotions, so I have no illusions about whether or not the system was fair.

Now, a traditional management/promotion system might not do any better, but you bet the heck that at least the employee would be confronting his/her manager and at least demand clear guidance about what he had to do to get promoted. An employee denied promotion by a faceless committee can't do that. This was what was on Reed's mind when he said he still favored a traditional system executed well.

In any case, I think it's very healthy for Google to have an internal discussion about this. But do I expect the system to change? No. The super-star rule I referred to in that previous post would prevent that. I did have a discussion with a VP about this. He told me that when he first joined Google, he tried to change the promotion criteria to better formally recognize leadership, mentoring, and the importance of spreading knowledge (technical or otherwise) throughout the organization. The result? A bunch of very senior engineers (who had all benefited under the current regime, and were understandably worried about their career prospects under a different system) shouted him down. If a VP can't change the system, no amount of blogging from outside or inside the company will, so these will be my last words about the topic.
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