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Monday, August 02, 2010

Tips for Noogler Engineers

I'm surprised by the number of people inside Google who actually read my blog. I once did contemplate writing a "career guide for Googlers", but finally got off my ass when a Noogler asked me for advice on how to thrive at Google. Given that Google is once again on a hiring spree (something that I'll never agree with), I guess more people will want this advice than not. Obviously, you should take everything I say with a grain of salt, since things change rapidly at Google. With that caveat in place...

Disclaimer: Sanjeev says (and I agree) that if you internalize all this, it will make you less likely to succeed at a startup! Being able to do well at a big company and being able to do well at a startup are completely different things!

Tip #1: Never believe anything management tells you. They don't lie deliberately but frequently things change very quickly, so what's true one day is not true the next. I knew someone who gave up a tech lead position because he was told his group would have no manager, and therefore he was doing all that extra work for nothing. Within a couple of quarters after he gave it up, management made the new tech lead the manager, because things had changed.

Keep in mind that management wants things that are good for Google. You care about what's good for you. The former does not automatically lead to the latter. In particular:
  • Interviewing. It absolutely does not help your career one bit, even though it's absolutely critical for Google in the long term. It's not rewarded, considered during the promotion process, and it burns a lot of time. Put it off as long as possible. And don't even bother with hiring committees. That's even more of a time sink.
  • Mentoring other googlers. Just like interviewing, it is under-valued and not considered real work when performance reviews come up. Even worse is rescuing someone on a PIP. Unless you're a manager, don't even spend time on that. If you succeed in rescuing that person, he did it himself. If you fail, you've wasted a ton of time. Only managers can get any credit from this, so decline any requests to help.
  • Changing projects. This helps Google by spreading knowledge around. The reward system, however does not reward this. The way to get promoted is to stay at one project for a long time, not to switch projects every 18 months, as management might sometimes tell you. (Note: if you want to switch projects, the best time is right after a promotion)
  • 20% time. Depending on your manager, it could absolutely hurt your career. triple check to make sure your manager does not take a negative view on this. I liked my 20% time, but I was well aware of the trade-off for my career I was making.
Tip #2: Google's full of distractions. Take as many of those off your plate as possible while you're ramping up. In particular:
  • Don't subscribe to misc. Mailing lists are a big time sink. I never felt hurt by not reading misc, misc-mv, or eng-misc.
  • Set a limit on the number of tech talks/fun talks per week that you should go to. Try to stay under that number. I'll admit I didn't always succeed.
Tip #3: Nothing matters as much as getting a high performance rating. Ask your manager how this system works. Ask him how to get a high rating. Do whatever it takes. Doing so nets you:
  • the best projects, and your choice of projects
  • faster promotions and more money
  • "secret" founder's awards (they're not very secret because people brag to me about them)
  • respect from your peers (comes along with the promotions)
Tip #4: Pick a really good manager and/or tech lead. Internal studies have showed that your performance at Google is tied very strongly to who your first tech lead is/was. The best tech lead that I know personally at Google is Arup Mukherjee. A good way for you as an engineer to judge tech leads is to see how many of their reports get promoted. If they don't get their reports promoted, don't work for them. Arup was very good at getting his team members promoted. One manager I know forgot to check the "promotion" check-box for his team members during promotion time. (The poor guy should have checked it himself --- he ended up hitting the salary cap for his level) You can tell who had his priorities straight. You can also try to work for a politically powerful manager/tech lead, but some of them could be hard asses and tough to work for.
The big picture: Google rewards hard work, but much more importantly, high profile projects. Never sacrifice a chance to work on those high profile projects versus equally important but unsexy maintenance tasks that will get no respect from promotion committees. Google does not reward the maintenance work, no matter how important it is (Exception: War-room firefighting. Google loves those, and loves heroic performances from people in war-rooms). In particular, if you're stuck doing SRE work but you're a SWE, you need to negotiate your way out of that. In any organization, there are work horses, show horses, and horses' asses. Most people have no trouble figuring out how not to be the 3rd. But it's far better to be a show horse than a work horse. You get all the rewards with less effort. It is rare that the Raymond Chens of the world get rewarded for the effort they put in. (Yes, and Microsoft at its best was smart enough to do so)
Finally, if you get fed up of working for a big company, consider joining a startup.
[Update: Looks like there's actually a high quality translation of this page in Chinese]


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the writeup
With regards to mentorship, does having an intern fall under the same category OR do you think there might be some benefit in hosting an intern?

Piaw Na said...

you shouldn't mentor an intern for a promotion. That won't work. Do it because you genuinely want to help the intern succeed.

Gayle said...

I completely agree with this. I got sucked into hiring at Google and couldn't get out of it once I wanted to. I wouldn't have minded the occasional interview, but 2 interviews every week, plus an hour to write feedback, was just too much.

I wrote up a response to this at

Guga said...

Seems like you didn't have a very good time working for Google. Is that the case?

Piaw Na said...

I had a great time at google, but would have had an even better time if I was less clue free

SJ said...

One problem I'd like to highlight here is that mentoring / interviewing / doing things that don't directly relate to 'performance' can lead to learning and development experiences of other varieties, and the fact that they might not be directly related in your performance evaluations doesn't mean they are not valuable to you.

Tom Galloway said...

A question I've started asking when interviewing at companies where you get interviewed by your prospective manager is "It's a year after I've been hired and you're writing my performance review. What would I have had to do to get a "meets expectations"? How about an "exceeds expertations"?" Assuming they're telling me the truth, it not only tells me what they think is needed to succeed, but also what they consider the key aspects of the job to be.

Now, usually at Google you won't even knew who your manager is until you start. But when you do have your first meeting with them, might be a good idea to ask them the above questions, even if they also likely won't be on your promotion committee, if for no other reason than you know what they think is important about your position.

Piaw Na said...

Some of my best friends are former interns. But I wasn't asked for advice on how to have a great life. I was asked for advice on how to succeed.

sergei said...

I found out about your blog while reading misc.

Piaw Na said...

:-) Internal IPs don't show up on analytics, so I have no clue how many people visit this blog from Misc. :-)

Just a guy said...

Ouch....true, but very blunt

Piaw Na said...

If you want your truth sugar-coated, talk to a manager or marketing person. If I went wishy-washy, then my advice would not be very useful, and you might as well read a journalist's report.

J said...

Xoogler here. Have to frustratingly confess that I think you're dead on about "the big picture": working my ass off on "routine" or "boring" projects didn't help me get promoted, no matter how critical they were. The only time I got promoted was when I was working on things that were "new" and "exciting".

Zumbooruk has a good point, too, I think it's worth noting. I interviewed a lot of people when The Dalles was getting bootstrapped, and I was really proud that I helped bring in a lot of smart people and was able to foster some Google culture in the little time I spent there (even if things changed with time). Hiring smart people is the best way to ensure Google stays as awesome as it is.

Piaw Na said...

To some extent, a lot of the comments about "This is no different than any other big company" is true. However, as far as high profile projects versus unsexy work is concerned, Google has a special problem. While other companies tend have decision makers who are close to the employee make the promotion makers, Google made the deliberate choice for non-team members who have not worked closely with the employee make the promotion decisions. That triples or quadruples the problem low-visibility (but critical) work has.

Tom Ritchford said...

Hey, Piaw! Why didn't you tell me this five years ago?? It's like a guide to everything I did wrong at Google! ;-) (well, I gave up on too many tech talks after the first year or two...)

Good article, food for thought...

Rick said...

This reminds me of other big companies where I've work.
#1 is true of any big company. By the time the message gets out the decision makers have changed their minds. Your four bullet items only help once you exceed at your job.
#2 is not true at most big companies.
#3 most big companies won't let you change projects. Managers tend to be selfish with their talent.
#4 See #3. Changing your manager can take a year or more at a big companies.
Big Picture: Some big companies give rewards out to all, regardless of your level of effort.
Some big companies reward long term players, mostly for survival.
Startups have do more risk, but also recognize talent and hard work.
Google is still probably one of the best Big Companies our there for employment.

Piaw Na said...

Tom, if you were at Google five years ago, you probably don't care very much right? :-)

Rick: I agree. Google is the best public big company in Silicon Valley to work for. Google vs [Cisco|Oracle|Intel|HP|Yahoo|Microsoft] is still no contest. If that was the space of companies you had to work for, Google would be sitting pretty.

Unfortunately for Google, there are large pre-IPO companies in the valley in the same state Google was in 2003... There's a self-selection problem with talent. The entrepreneurial ones who are bad at corporate politics (i.e., the kind of person who cannot or will not execute the advice on the blog post) will likely move elsewhere where the reward structure is such that not playing the game still nets you a high payout. That leaves only the kind of people who are willing and able to play the game. When that happens, if you're not good at playing the game you get pushed out.

Anonymous said...

Piaw, great tips, thanks a lot for sharing your experience and advice.

Maybe you can write another post: To work for google or not? from the perspective of experienced engineer or fresh graduate.

I felt that it was a big disadvantage to work at google of you are an experienced engineer with master degree, because you will be hired into with almost the same level as fresh PhD, and had to learn those proprietary frameworks. Your experience does not have much advantage. Numerous review process will frustrate you a lot. Those engineers who joined before or around 2004 have already took good positions, you need to contribute 500% to approve yourself. Climbing the corp ladder becomes more challenge and google stock price is flat. Joining start up seems a better choice.

Piaw Na said...

Man, that's a good idea. I think you already have the gist of what the analysis would look like. But I have a few interesting stories there that could entertain a few readers.

Cyberfox said...

As a very-soon-to-be Noogler in Kirkland, I found this a very interesting, although (not putting it down) slightly bitter feeling, article.

I'm curious what you mean by 'promotion'? I don't know anything about that side of Google's performance evaluations... I have had zero interest in ever becoming a manager over a long career, and I can live comfortably at my offer salary level, so will I care about promotions if I manage to keep my performance multiple high?

I already made a vow to myself to limit my distractions for the first six months, so I don't lose sight of the fact that there's work to do. :)

I appreciate the idea that Google, while having an awesome culture, still has flaws in its management structure. That makes it somehow more...human.

I've been a startup guy for a long time, but I still think I'm going to love working there. :)

Piaw Na said...


Google has an individual contributor engineering ladder. Promotion means moving up that ladder. There's a separate ladder for managers.

There's evidence that the management ladder is easier to climb than the engineering ladder (there are internal statistics about this, ask around when you join). As time goes on, I expect to see more ambitious people switch to the management ladder for that reason.

Anonymous said...

Morgan: I'm very sorry that you're starting at a remote office. Remote office workers are always trying to justify the reason for their existence. Unless you work at a remote-office-only project, in almost all cases they're the last to know, the last to make decisions, and the first to go.

Except for NYC, the food is usually subpar. In small offices there will be stupid nitpick politics. It's also ridiculous how directors are always desperate to double their headcount by X quarters so they can get promoted.

In short, I would never work at a remote office, ever, again. HQ is a much better place. You have a plethora of choices on the type corporate of bullshit you receive.

Piaw Na said...

Not all remote offices are the same. Munich, for instance, is doing very well and will double. Yes, they had to fight to justify their existence, but the team did such great work that I have a hard time thinking of failure scenarios for them. And it's a fantastic team.

The remote offices that have trouble in many cases shot themselves in the foot. I'm not going to go into details, but let's just say that if you don't manage to snag core people from Mountain View to help build the office culture and projects (and then report back to HQ), then don't expect anyone in Mountain View to defend you when hard times strike and decisions have to be made.

Unknown said...

This is how I interpret your article:

1. Don't waste your time mentoring other people.

2. Find a tech lead who's willing to waste his or her time mentoring you.

Sounds like something from Dilbert.

Piaw Na said...


I seem to have touched off a nerve. There is a group within Google whose job performance is linked to mentoring people. They're called Tech Leads/Managers. To some extent, they are measured on how their people perform.

Let me observe one thing: all the items on this blog entry are easily invalidated by changing the way engineers are measured and evaluated for promotions, bonuses, and raises. It would be really easy for Google's engineering management to implement a few changes to encourage good citizenship. If you find yourself mad at the reality of what it takes to get ahead at Google, the real object of your anger should be the people who put together the promotion system and incentives, not the people who are responding to the incentives the way they are set up.

ChiaLea said...

+1 to Zumbooruk

I've personally spent quite a bit of time trying to help people out and making the organization work better. Whether or not this has been directly reflected in my performance scores, the contacts that I've made and the influence that I've gained *have* been extremely helpful in my "actual work". Working at Google has been extremely educational for me on a lot of levels.

I'm not a manager, mind you. I'm not exactly a normal TL with a team, either. I do a rather unusual sort of work for an engineer. I've also been rewarded for maintenance work, despite my worries on the subject.

The promotion system is definitely not perfect (and I'd love to tweak it in a few ways), but it's got some definite advantages.

Piaw Na said...

I don't think working on a project that sends email regularly to all of engineering qualifies as low visibility mainteneance. Just sayin'

Javier Arias González said...

Ups. I think I did it all wrong. I interviewed as much as I could, in three years I've been working in six different verticals (AdSense, Mobile, Distribution, YouTube, Books and Apps), I'm subscribed to lots of mailing lists, I've attended to lots of interesting tech talks, I very rarely say no when someone ask me a favor, no matter how important the project is and I am now mentoring a Noogler.

What is worst, even if I fully understand how the performance rating works, I once told my manager I didn't care about my performance score, I'm not sure about my level in the company although I know it is a number between 1 and 10 and when I once got the change to chose my manager I told them (both my manager candidates) I didn't really care who my manager would be or what is the vertical I'd end up working, my only question was: where am I more useful to the team?

Obviously I'm not the most successful within Google but somehow my way payed off as I count myself as one of the happiest here. It's a matter of different set of priorities I suppose.

A cuidarse
Javier Arias González

Piaw Na said...


I'll respond to you in a very roundabout manner, by referring you to Berkeley Economist Brad DeLong's blog entry on the fall of communism:

What this means is that the collapse of Communism and the triumph of capitalism need more of an explanation.... [A] market economy is more efficient than a centrally planned one... but the question is why a system that functioned well enough to compete with capitalism in the 1940s and 50s fell apart in the 1980s. What went wrong?

One possible answer is that changing technology changed the rules... the age when countries or companies grew rich by making heavy products in big factories seems to have passed. One can make a case that whereas old-fashioned heavy industry was susceptible to central planning, new technologies, especially in microelectronics, favor free-wheeling competition.... But neither technological change nor globalization can explain the fact that socialist economies did not merely lag the West: they actually went into decline, and then collapse. Why couldn't they at least hold on to what they had?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer, but let me make a conjecture: the basic problem was not technical, but moral. Communism failed as an economic system because people stopped believing in it.... Capitalism can run, even flourish, in a society of selfish cynics. But a non-market economy cannot. The personal incentives for workers to do their jobs well, for managers to make good decisions, are simply too weak....

So why did the system ever work? Because people believed in it.... [T]hey did not take as much advantage of the system as they might have (and did, in the system's later years). And... because people in authority believed in the system, they were willing to impose brutal punishments on those who did try to take advantage....

The market does not require people to believe in it; but the centrally planned economies that live inside a market economy, known as corporations, do. Everybody knows that financial incentives alone are not enough to make a company succeed; it must also build morale, a sense of mission, which makes people work at least somewhat for the good of the company rather than think only of what is good for them. Luckily, under capitalism an individual company can fail without taking the whole society down with it - or it can be reformed without a bloody revolution....

In the end, then, capitalism triumphed because it is a system that is robust to cynicism, that assumes that each man is out for himself. For much of the past century and a half men have dreamed of something better, of an economy that drew on man's better nature. But dreams, it turns out, can't keep a system going over the long term...

I prefer to design incentive systems such that even selfish people do the right thing, rather than relying on the majority of people to behave idealistically. Even if you're an idealistic person, bear in mind that Animal Farm's Boxer did not have a good outcome.

Jim Ausman said...

At Google and any other place you work at, you should behave in such a fashion as to consider your entire career, not just your next year or two at the place you are at. At my last job for instance, I blocked out two hours a week on calendar for "networking." I updated my LinkedIn profile, emailed old co-workers that I had not talked to in a while and checked out Tech Crunch and ACM publications. When I got laid off, I had a new job offer in two weeks! Now you can claim that the two hours a week I spent contributed to being laid off, but I really don't think so.

So mentoring other people, interviewing people and in general being nice to people may not pay any dividends at Google, but it will help you later on in your career as those people develop. Don't underestimate the power of your professional network, it is probably the most important thing an experienced professional has.

Piaw Na said...


Agreed about mentoring: optimizing for life inside Google is not the same as optimizing for life outside Google. I don't regret any time I spent mentoring, but note that I did it knowing well that it didn't help me. Some people I know weren't as aware, and felt betrayed afterwards when neither the mentee nor their manager spoke up in their favor. (The former usually didn't know that it mattered, and the latter should have known better but usually had other pressing business issues he/she would rather see you spend time on)

Interviewing is much more of a mixed bag, however. Many people are not suited for interviewing and shouldn't be doing it. The problem is, if you're not a good interviewer, you hurt Google and you waste your time and the interviewee's time. If you're a good interviewer, you risk being in the same situation as Gayle was in, getting sucked in with no way out, soaking up lots of time to no particular benefit.

Rachel said...

Piaw, I keep coming back around to this post. I agree with most of your observations (and wish I had been less clue-free in my first year too), but your advice only follows from your conclusions if climbing the eng ladder at Google is the most important thing in the reader's life.

"Do whatever it takes" to get a high performance rating? "Decline any requests to help" people who are on PIPs? I don't think so... I need to be able to look myself in the mirror in the morning, much more than I need to get a promotion. I make more than enough to live on and I like my job, so the benefit to my happiness level of these incremental improvements in compensation seems quite minor.
In contrast, some of the behaviors you recommend are kind of extreme. By introducing these things as "tips" or advice, aren't you making some extreme assumptions about the reader?

As a workhorse by nature, perhaps I'm just making the best of things. Still, there's plenty of workhorse work to be done at Google, and it pays well enough to make it a good job that's part of a good life.

Piaw Na said...


Maybe the words "decline to help" is a bit much. How about "avoid being put into a position where it will suck up the majority of your time?"

In any case, the post was an e-mail responding to someone asking me how to succeed. I assumed that anyone asking me that has a goal where moving up the engineering ladder was important. If it's not important to you then do whatever you like!

If you look at my career at Google, I certainly did not optimize my promotion path. I helped people on PIPs, mentored countless folks, sat on hiring committees, and had well over 300+ interviews in my first 3 years alone. Bear in mind, however, that I was compensated largely with stock, and so doing the right thing for Google in the long term (even if at the expense of not getting a promotion) made a lot of sense.

If you're similarly compensated, then yes, always do the right thing. Otherwise, the thing to start asking yourself is: "Why am I working in a company where doing the right thing is not rewarded?" Because in my experience at startups, doing the right thing is always rewarded in very small companies, so it makes no sense to stick around at a place where such activities are actually against your self-interest.

David desJardins said...

Piaw says (paraphrased), "I assume that anyone asking me how to succeed has the goal of moving up the engineering ladder." Frankly, I think that's an incredibly negative assumption, and entirely the wrong definition of "success".

E.g., most people I know don't want to be managers, because they don't want to manage, they want to do stuff themselves. So telling them that they should get on the manager track because that is the fastest way to get promoted, is just nuts.

There is a constant assumption in Piaw's writing that people are other-referenced, i.e., that recognition from others is very important to them, and that work that is not recognized brings no rewards. But many engineers, like me, are primarily self-referenced, i.e., we do what we do for the satisfaction of having done it. It makes no difference at all what others think of it.

I think there could be an interesting article about how to really succeed at Google. And, sure, in some cases getting promoted might be part of that, because if you want to be highly productive then you might need to earn the status that lets you be productive. But promotion is an end to a means (productivity), not an end in itself.

It is strange to me that someone who argues that the entire tech ladder is misguided will then argue that most people should focus on moving up it.

Piaw Na said...

David, I see no contradiction. For instance, as a liberal, I frequently argue that taxes should be raised on people like you and me. That does not keep me from writing books containing advice on how to avoid taxes to the maximum extent possible, nor does it keep me from using every loophole in the tax code to lower my taxes.

Ideally there won't be a tech ladder. In the presence of one, I'll give people advice on how to deal with such a system.

David desJardins said...

Ideally there won't be a tech ladder. In the presence of one, I'll give people advice on how to deal with such a system.

Why not advise them to ignore it? (This is a serious question. I can think of several possible answers. I don't want to assume I that know what your reason is.)

Piaw Na said...

I think the reason not to ignore it is that some battles are easier to fight if you gain higher status. In other words, if you do get to a high enough level and you want to stamp out the kind of abuses you see going on around you, one way to do it is to "level up" enough to take on the battles that you care about.

Another thing is that if you ignore it, what can happen is that the politics of the organization can work to marginalize you if enough people who shouldn't be promoted end up promoted over your head. I was recently helping someone who was in this situation. Even though Google ended up giving him enough of a retention bonus to keep him, after that event he found himself de-motivated and unable to work at the same level as before. If he had managed his career so that he was getting regular promotions it probably wouldn't have come to this.

The alternative, I agree, is to just ignore it and join a startup or smaller organization that doesn't have these issues. Both are equally valid. However, for someone who's just joined, I suspect that that sort of answer is simply not helpful.

David desJardins said...

It seems to me that, in your example, it could have been extremely helpful to the person you mention if he had been encouraged from the beginning to ignore promotions. Then the demotivating effect of seeing other people promoted could have been avoided.

It seems to me that telling people to organize their careers around pursuing promotions that you don't even think should exist is what is not helpful. But I guess we just have a different perspective.

I do agree that one reason to pursue promotion is to gain more status to engage in political battles. That is definitely a way that some people can add value, as those battles can be very important. On the other hand, I think ignoring political battles and status, and focusing on just what you need to do your own job well, is also a very good way to be very effective. Some people will do well at internal politics, while it is not a strength for others, who should play to their own strengths. That is the problem with one-size-fits-all advice (as I expect you would agree).

Piaw Na said...

The problem with ignoring promotions is that due to other incompetent engineers being promoted over him, the person in question could no longer be effective at his job as the newly promoted people now started to interfere with his technical work. That's how he ended up effectively having to quit!

While it's important to do your job, I think it's imperative to guard your ability to do it effectively. Unfortunately, it seems like the only way to do so in a highly political environment is to play the political game. I wish this wasn't true, but the Google you joined is not the same Google that I retired from.

Tarun Aggarwal /Mamta Aggarwal said...

Thanks for the writeup. The same situation is in Adobe also. A very good blog

Unknown said...

Good write-up! I'm a Google engineer in MTV and I'm thinking about transferring to Kirkland office because of lower cost housing, lack of the state taxes and great schools. Anyone knows what would be the approximate decrease in salary if any when relocating to Kirkland office?

JohnnyDoe said...

I am fresh out of undergrad and an SET position at the HQ is my first job! I found your article interesting and managed to gather the following:

1. Work and be "visible"
2. Shift to management asap (if you're interested)
3. Pick the right manager
4. Don't waste too much time.

I need a few more tips regarding the following:

1. When do I get to pick a manager or shift teams? I got allotted into a team with a manager before I even joined!

2. Is it difficult to transition from SET to SWE? I have a feeling SWEs are respected more (and outside Google)

3. How secure can I expect my job to be (are there people who get frequently laid off)? I need tips to stay visible in the SV, just in case.

Piaw Na said...

1. You get to shift teams 6 months after you start work, or whenever your manager approves. However, the best time to do so is immediately after a promotion.
2. Yes, it's challenging to transition from SET to SWE. Don't ask me to go about doing it, I never did.
3. Expect your job to be very secure. I never felt at risk of a layoff while at Google, and the business is doing very well, so there's no need to be concerned as long as the profits keep rolling in.

Unknown said...

Hi Piaw,

thanks for your post post. I will be joining this year out of undergrad, and am considering joining YouTube or Chrome in MTV, or Docs in NY (family/friends on east coast). Do you have any advice on each of those teams in terms of their visibility, which teams are better managed, etc? I know having a great 1st manager is vital but I don't really know each team well.


Piaw Na said...

Any team in MTV will do better than any team elsewhere, all things being equal. Frequently they are not.

If you care about your career, however as opposed to just having a job, move to silicon valley. If you are any good the opportunities there will trump anything you do in New York. And I'm not just talking about Google.

David desJardins said...

The dismissive attitude toward NYC is a rather dated perspective on the tech industry, I think.

Piaw Na said...

Dated it may be, but I've got a fairly good sample of similarly skilled individuals based in NYC and in Silicon Valley. Let's just say that there's no contest, the folks in Silicon Valley are doing much better, both technically and financially.

David desJardins said...

Again, that's dated. If you're looking at people who have spent the last several years in one place or another, then you're learning something about what the situation was over the past several years, not what it is right now.

Divegeek said...

I recently learned (from my manager) another reason to care about the promotion process: at the lower levels of the eng ladder, if you go long enough with "meets expectations" on your performance review it will eventually be suggested that perhaps Google isn't the place for you. There's an expectation that Google hires top performers and an understanding that top performers will struggle at first while they learn the environment -- but that also means that they eventually should begin to do more.

I'm quite happy at Google (BTW: I was hired as an experienced engineer -- 20+ years -- and in a remote office), and not really interested in climbing the ladder for its own sake. I do interesting stuff; work with smart, friendly, people; and get paid well enough, so I'm good with just staying where I am... for years. In fact, I'd be fine doing what I'm doing now for the rest of my career.

But my manager pointed out that I really need to get one more promotion, to get to a level on the eng ladder where people are allowed to just hang out, doing their jobs. For a SWE that's level 5, apparently. This isn't really an issue for me; my performance reviews and the projects I have under my belt will make a strong promotion packet, but apparently I do actually need to care about it.