Climbing the corporate ladder: the FAANG game

Rene Girard, a philosopher, posits that all desire is mimetic; that is, we want things because someone we admire has them. That person becomes a model of our desires, and we aim to copy that person. Thus desire is not a duality, subject and object; but rather a triangle, subject, object, and the person the subject is subconcisoiusly mimicing. 

Applying this to myself, I've realized my desires at work have been mimetic. As a software engineer in a large corporation, I want to get promoted, because senior and principal engineers I respect have been promoted. I want it because people I like have it, not because it is good.

My hunch is I'm not the only one who wants higher social status. Due to these mimetic desires, millions of employees try to climb the corporate ladder.

The corporate ladder

The progressive levels of heirarchy in a corporation (Entry level, Mid level, VPs, CEOs, etc...), are the rungs of the ladder. The corporate ladder spaced in such a way to encourage competition via scarcity. For example, let's all leaders can average 6 direct reports, who in turn each could have 6 direct reports, and so on. Each successive rung of has thereby 6 times the influence. For 216 entry level engineers there could be 36 direct managers, 6 senior managers, and 1 director. 

Power over exponentially more people is not the only reason to climb. Money matters. FAANG tech companies will pay about $100,000-$300,000 more in stock options per year, for each rung of the ladder you climb.

There is an incentive to compete for more money and more power. And that competition is fierce, when only 1/6th of people choosing the path of management can be promoted. (Granted, not everyone chooses to compete, so the odds are slightly better). 

Competition is not the only way to the top. With the trend of increased job turnover and shorter tenures, you can move up by just lasting longer. Alternatively, rather than climb up, you can grow the organization underneath you. A fast growing sub organization, where the headcount (number of people) can double within a year, means rather than being promoted after a bloody fight for a few positions, you are effectively promoted by new people hired beneath you. This increases your odds of success, hence "a rising tide floats all boats."

My corporate ambition

The change in responsibilities of a higher level engineer, does not seem to motivate me, as with higher level, farther from the code, means more of your daily work is about abstract idea sharing, and convincing others.

Programming is a deeply satisfying vocation, one where you can point to the result of your creative work, and see other people using it. The higher you go up, the less tangible your output is. For example, I could ship a feature on a music app, and literally click on it, and use it; but for my manager, who doesn't write code, he can only take pleasure in the work of those he manages. For me, the distance from practice is unappealing. However, I would be remiss to pretend I don't still want to be promoted.  

But for those who compete, who wins? 

FAANG companies are somewhat meritocratic, and merit is measured by "impact." For a software engineer, "impact" is hard to measure, but management still tries to measure, to decide who gets bonuses, and who will be next up for promotion. Sometimes "impact" is a thin proxy over "profit", but oftentimes, a sub-organization of FAANG is so removed from the money, "profit" is hard to measure.

What doesn't work

Entry level engineers (myself previously included), naively think that to distinguish themselves, they must prove themselves to be the smartest in the room. This is foolish. Intelligence can lead to "impact", but not always. Proving yourself to be the smartest will lead to ego based arguments, over the "best" way to do something when either way will lead to the same impact. My theory is that this belief structure is a holdover from a University and high school experience, where students are measured on intelligence, and the best are "promoted" into the best universities and programs. Students are evaluated on their ability to prove intelligence via force feeding knowledge down, and then regurgitating it back out in an examination. Academics, proud champions of the intellect, reward and encourage those who demonstate their intelligence, and create a culture where high intelligence is the most socially admirable attribute. 

What helps in a corporation

Measuring your merit/impact means looking at the projects you've done, and how far you've moved the needle on the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) that your team is measured against. For example, if you work on search, and are optimizing for the percentage of queries where the customer liked the result, and your project moved the number from 68.1% to 69.2%, you obviously had a bigger impact than the engineer who moved the number from 68.1% to 68.3%. But with 100s of engineers competing to move some KPI, where "impact" is scored in percentages, and 100ths of percentages called basis points, it becomes hard to measure.

There are numerous projects that do not directly result in moving some key KPI, but oftentimes, the thing you are optimizing for, e.g. developer velocity (how quickly can we add new features that actually move the needle), can be translated back into measuable output. E.g. if your project led to reducing the time to launch a new feature from 4 months to 2 months, and there are 10 developers launching features, then the 2 months you saved per developer would double the feature launches, which then is partially attributed back to you. 

Articulating the work you're doing in terms of "impact", and choosing projects that have the potential for high "impact", is how to tactically advance yourself. Ultimately, although somewhat quantifiable, this game of estimating output per engineer is an imperfect science, and you must constantly work to describe how big an output your work has. So that when it comes time for review season, where engineers are all ranked against each other, and your name is 2nd or 3rd on a list that higherups are considering for promotion, your projects stand out as high impact work. 

Non-meritocratic techniques

Of course, there are many non meritocratic ways of gaming the system, that I won't go into much depth here. If you're curious about those, read The 48 Laws of Power. The first time I read it, I was disgusted as the author's tone advocates for morally reprehensible behavior; but the second time I read it, and having a few years of work experience, I saw the same patterns of human behavior unfolding on a micro-scale with the very people I work with. It gave me a framework for understanding some amount of behavior. 

To give example of a non-meritocratic behavior pattern I've seen, is rather than generating high impact, convince everyone that what you do is high impact. This is especially useful skill if your work is far away from directly influencing a measuable KPI. One fascinating (but unethical) approach I've seen coworkers use successfully, was to complain very loudly about a problem they see, before they start fixing it. By saying again and again, "oh my God! This thing is on fire, this thing is wasting everyone's time, it's so bad for the customer, we need to fix this ASAP!", you will create a shared emotional context about what's important. You create a feeling in your organization's collective conscience that you are the hero with the courage and ability to solve the most pressing problems. When you do complete them, you let everyone know, and showcase how they've been solved (the very problem you may have created/exaggerated). This makes your work stand out as high impact.