Room Full of Mirrors

… and all I could see was me

A Rumination On A Promotion

May 01, 2020 marked two years since I switched careers. That career change was from a “Linux System Adminstrator” to a “Software Engineer.” Today, I was formally promoted to “Senior Software Engeineer.” So I think it is worth taking a few minutes to write down my views on what switching careers and gaining a new title in that new career has meant to me.

On Switching Careers §

Let’s cut to the quick: as I write this I’m 40 years old, and will hit 41 in three and half short months. When I decided to give up the work I was comfortable doing, I was four years off from the median age for white men in the work force. So I was well into the typical timeframe for an adult’s working age range. Switching careers so late was a scary proposition and one I anguished over. If the position had been with any other company, I’m fairly certain I would have turned it down.

But having made the change, I can confidently advise people: if the change will be to a career you know you’ll love more than what you currently do, i.e. the new career is what you really want to do, then do not hesitate. Nothing compares to switching from a role you are competent at, and merely coasting on, to one that you genuinely enjoy doing every day. It’s worth whatever you consider to be the risks to make the change. There is a caveat, however: the career change may be worth it, but the destination might not be. I was extremely lucky to get recruited to where I am, but if you are not so lucky, do not let the destination ruin it. Take that resumé improvement and roll it into another improvement by finding a better organizational fit.

On Titles §

First, a little background. The institution I left did nothing to prepare me for how things work “in the real world.” I left a state institution where upward mobility was, essentially, tied to moving institutions. In other words, promotions were very rare and mostly only occurred by leaving one university to go work for another university in the system. Occassionally a compensation bump would happen, but it was usually on the order of 3% and never kept up with inflation. These things translated into not understanding one’s worth and not understanding what role titles mean to peers and potential employeers (because the system didn’t really care; you were just moving from A to B in their view).

So, it has taken me a while to develop some understanding of the importance of regularly (roughly) attaining a new title. Personally, a title doesn’t confer any special impetus upon me. I do not change how I approach my work simply because my title is missing some qualifier. I believe, and everyone I have spoken to concurs, that I have been operating at this “senior” level since day one.

But it has become clear to me that titles do matter:

  1. It gives others in the organization some idea of how you contribute to the team. This is particularly true if the organization makes it clear how they define roles. A great example is Square’s growth framework. Their public spreadsheet very clearly lays out what they expect from each person with each respective title.

  2. It shows personal, professional, growth to potential employers. While I have no desire or expectation to ever leave my current organization, the only guarantee the future offers is death. So it is important to be able to show others outside of your organization that you have been able to meet rank up thresholds. And, while they may not have as clear an insight into what that role means as if they were considering someone from a place like Square, they at least have some inkling of what to expect based on industry norms.

Summary §

In short, don’t let your age or time invested in a current career stop you from pursing your true desire. And don’t let complacency or modesty hold you back. Have frank discussions with whomever you need to about what it will take to rank up, and accept it when it is offered. Otherwise, you could find yourself at a severe disadvantage when you really don’t need to be.