Secret Strategies to Win Promotions Other Devs Can't Get

What’s the easiest way to get promoted? Work hard, do a great job, add value, right?


Ask any experienced employer and they’ll tell you. The absolute last thing they want to do is promote a hardworking employee who does a great job. It’s the fast track to failure.

This sounds brutal and unfair.

If you do a great job in your role as a developer, don’t you deserve a promotion as a reward for your hard work?


Well, who are the people who deserve and receive these coveted promotions, and what makes these developers so special?

Why Developers Won’t Receive the Promotions They Deserve

Many developers have misguided ideas about the job and promotions market. These naive (and incorrect) ideas include:

  • Job hopping is the only way to level up in your career.
  • Work hard, be indispensable, and you’ll get promoted.
  • You have to know the right people.
  • Nepotism or merit drive true promotions these days.

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not saying these ideas are terrible on their own or that they’re inherently harmful. I’m saying these ideas aren’t inherently and automatically true.

What if you believe these ideas?

If you do, you’re setting yourself up for career stagnation and crushing disappointment. Paul Ingevaldson, in an article for Computerworld, shares the hidden reality of the job and promotions market.

Today’s topic is the question I most often received as an IT manager: “Why can’t I get promoted?”

The person who has done a good or even a great job should be given praise and monetary rewards, but he shouldn’t be promoted. The business world is littered with great salespeople who failed as sales managers, great engineers who failed as engineering managers, and great IT analysts who failed as IT managers.

Instantly things are crystal clear.

If you want to be promoted, you’ll need to be an A player in your current role and an A player in the role you’d like to move up to.

I’m not talking about training or skills.

I’m talking about your core competencies. Dr. Bradford Smart, creator of the proven hiring methodology Topgrading, outlines the core competencies needed to excel in any role.

Competency and behavior ability to change chart

Image source: Positioning systems Blog

Here’s the bad news about core competencies. Many of the ones listed above are difficult to learn or improve. However, difficult isn’t impossible.

This is the problem.

It’s also why most developers will struggle to receive the promotions they want. They’re not prepared for the specific positions they want.

What Developers Need to Win Promotions

The list isn’t long, but it does require some upfront work.

  1. An alliance of people who want you to be promoted (or who are neutral to the idea).
  2. The abilities, skills, and competencies needed for your desired role.
  3. The political acumen needed to negotiate with or circumvent competitors and naysayers.
  4. The ability to track the hidden job market.
  5. Assurances of success and continued performance.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these.

You need an alliance of people inside and outside your company. Your alliance will vary depending on your specific needs. Here’s a shortlist of the people and resources you may need in your group:

  • an HR decision-maker
  • decision-makers in your desired role
  • influential references in your current role
  • quantifiable value you can use as leverage to demonstrate your worth
  • examples of proposed value you can provide in your desired role
  • what you’ll need to provide your team in your current role to ensure your departure and transition is smooth

Next, you’ll need a list of the core competencies, abilities, skills, and resources required to perform well in your new role.

Here’s where things get difficult.

You’ll need to map out the political landscape in your current role and your new role, whether that’s in the same company or a different one.

You’ll need advice.

You’re going to need to identify the socially astute people in your organization (who are open to you) who can give you a realistic sense of your organization’s political layout.

You’ll need this for both your current and desired roles. Here are some political questions you may need answers to.

  • Who are the kingmakers, the people who have the power to block promotions?
  • Who are the shadow leaders, the hidden employees who wield a large amount of tangential power?
  • Which groups or teams need to be appeased before a major change or promotion happens?
  • Which people have been passed over for promotions and why?
  • Which employees are the favorites, groupies, or “pets” of those with powers?
  • What are these various individuals and groups competing for? Should you, can you help them get what they want?
  • What’s the breakdown of friends and enemies in your current and desired role?

You can branch out from there, asking the questions that make sense for your situation. Doing these gives you clarity, showing you how to navigate the political climate in your target role.

What about assurances?

How can you assure the above people that you’re a great fit for the role you’re pursuing? There are three ways you can do this.

  1. Share your past performance in your previous role as a developer. Offer quantitative and qualitative evidence that you’re a superstar. If you’re not one, become one.
  2. Show decision-makers and influencers that you have an in-depth understanding of your desired role’s obvious and hidden challenges. (This should be based on research.)
  3. A 30-, 60- or 90-day plan to begin addressing the issues present in your desired role. Use Ramit Sethi’s briefcase technique to structure your plan in a way that wins hearts and minds.

Providing assurances isn’t hard. It just takes some upfront work.

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