Promotion: The end of Title Games.

A couple weeks after I started Microsoft, 13+ years ago now, my dev manager at the time invited me to lunch with him. Over lunch he asked me a question that would define my career: "Did I see myself becoming a manager or a technical individual contributor at Microsoft?" I said I was interested in pursuing the individual contributor track and he explained how career advancement was more challenging via that route. I accepted the challenge that day and today I reached my goal. I am now a Principal Software Design Engineer at Microsoft.

For those of you unfamiliar with titles at Microsoft, "software design engineer" is what Microsoft calls a "programmer"--or "developer" if you prefer. Sometime in the early 2000s Microsoft expanded the title to indicate your seniority at the company. The titles progressed like so:

  • Software Design Engineer I
  • Software Design Engineer II
  • Senior Software Design Engineer
  • Principal Software Design Engineer
  • Distinguished Engineer/Technical Fellow

I think there is a distinction between Distinguished Engineer and Technical Fellow but I don't know what it is. Both are titles for partner level engineers at Microsoft. They are people like Dave Cutler, Anders Hejlsberg, Mark Russinovich and Peter Spiro. In other words, people that defined or redefined some significant part of our industry.

I'm obviously not one of those guys. But I thought I Principal was achievable.

Interestingly, it wasn't the title that I was most interested in. When Microsoft first thought about introducing titles based on seniority I was included in a focus group to poll employees at al levels of the company about the idea. I think I was an SDE II at the time.

I vividly remember saying, "I personally don't care about titles but I know there are some people that do. I expect introducing titles [based on seniority] would make those people happy. For the rest of us, I expect there would be little effect except the people that care about titles might start treating people with lesser/higher titles differently. Not sure that side-effect is worth it."

A year or so later, I remember being effectively dismissed because I was "just" an SDE II working with some Senior and Principal SDEs. I remember being extremely frustrated there. I silently vowed that I would never treat people differently based on their title. I also looked forward to the day I would reach Principal and be done with the Title Games.

It feels good to be done with the Title Games. :)

To end on a funny note, the way I found out I was promoted is a pretty funny story.

Jenny and I traveled out of state to see family over the long Labor Day weekend. Saturday night, after everyone was in bed, Jenny comes up to me and asks, "Is there something you want to tell me?" I froze, racking my brain as to what I might have done wrong recently. I honestly couldn't think of anything and said so.

Jenny then asked, "I think Carolyn sent me a Facebook message meant for you." Carolyn is, of course, Carolyn of MSI fame. We were interns together on the Windows Installer team back in 1998. Still friends today. And now I was thoroughly confused.

I grabbed my phone, checked messages in Facebook (I never use Facebook) and saw that there was a message from Carolyn sent that evening to both Jenny and I. It said something like, "Happened to be looking at some of the title changes in the address book. Congrats Rob on making principal! Well deserved!"

I was shocked and didn't actually believe it. I grabbed the nearest laptop, connected to Outlook Web Access, sent an email to myself and double clicked my name to see my contact card. It said Principal Software Design Engineer.

Jenny was beaming at me and congratulated me. I still didn't believe it. In my mind there was no way I was promoted this year. Two layers of management changed above me at the mid-year and I was certain that made the politics of a Principal level promotion impossible. Maybe next year... maybe.

The next week I received several emails from people congratulating me on my promotion. Each time I feared my title change was a mistake in the address book. Finally, I forward one of the emails to my manager with a short message, "I keep getting emails like the one below. Is there a glitch in the address book or do I just need to have my review?" His response:

You need to have your review. Congratulations.

I smiled and texted Jenny. Boom, done. Now get back to coding, you know I am!

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