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What does a promotion mean for a programmer?

The man congratulates the programmer on his promotion

Recently during one of the trainings, I heard, not for the first time, that "a promotion for a programmer means a horizontal promotion, not a vertical one". I was thinking about this issue for many days, before I started to study it thoroughly.

The labour market of the IT industry is one of the most difficult... for employers. For highly-qualified programmers the professional situation in our country is still (and probably will be for many more years) very good. Specialists can choose from dozens of job offers. A scanty group of programmers receive at least 15 job offers... every day via LinkedIn.

It is not a secret for a HR specialist, as well as for any good manager, that in order to keep the best people in our company for many years, they need to be rewarded in a special way. Often we think that the most efficient way is to grant a pay rise or to promote an employee. And, no matter how, in the first case, it is hard to find a dissatisfied person with respect to a pay rise, yet, in the case of promotion, we can do more harm than good. Even though we have the best intentions. Having small budgets for salary increases we would like to convince the above-average programmers not to even think about changing the employer. Therefore, when we have an opportunity, the best programmers become team leaders or managers. It happens that an employee is then surprised or left with a bad taste in their mouth. Sometimes, the employee rejects the promotion. Or either due to their low level of self-assertion or pure curiosity, on the contrary, an employee accepts the promotion, but soon after starts looking for other job offers.

What went wrong?

It turns out that despite a pay rise of about 20% in the case of a vertical promotion, the programmers are, most of all, interested in further professional development, i.e. a horizontal promotion and continuous learning of new skills in the latest technological areas. They eagerly gain new knowledge and experience, aiming to becoming experts in their field.

What are the other reasons for unwillingness of the programmers to accept a promotion?

This question cannot be answered in one sentence. The easiest way would be to write that such attitude depends on individual predispositions of a given person and a supervisor or member of HR team should perfectly know which employee would welcome a promotion and who would be discouraged. Let's not cut corners and let's explore the issue in depth.

Is promotion for programmers prestigious?

To a certain degree. Definitely, a good manager enjoys prestige among the programmers, but very few would think "great position, I wish I were in their shoes". Why is that? Because promotion is not only about the pay rise, but most of all about:

  1. Additional responsibilities
  2. More paper work
  3. The necessity to employ, and what is worse, to dismiss employees
  4. Responsibility for work done by others
  5. For the above reasons, they have less time to follow the latest technological developments.
  6. Possible negative impact on a family life

Re 1. Here, there is not much left to say. A leader or manager has always extra responsibilities, it is something that a front-line employee probably has no clue about. In return for a higher salary, an employee has less direct work with a specific product, but...

Re 2. ... more of the so-called "paper" work, meetings, interviews or negotiations in order to bring together all engaged parties in the work on a given project. More frequent meetings with other senior employees impose slightly different relations, even if the atmosphere at work place is based more on partnership and is more "relaxed".

Re 3. Basically, despite huge efforts of the newly promoted leader/manager, at one point they will have to face staff changes in their team. Whether it is an advantage or disadvantage. Against all appearances, both situations can be stressful, and it is connected to...

Re 4. ... responsibility for someone else's work. If we are front-line workers we are in a quite comfortable position. By doing a great job we expect approval and gratification. By being aware of shortcomings, we are also aware of possible consequences. In the case of responsibility for a team, there is pressure connected to the outcomes which we not always can control.

Re 5. There is no point in writing at length on this issue. Multitude of responsibilities on many occasions translate into the impossibility to devote one's time to technological development.

Re 6. Often, promotion means more hours spent at work or taking it home. Undoubtedly, it can have a severe impact on previous work-life-balance.

Of course, all the above examples depend on individual predispositions. In the case of born leaders, they will greet promotion with a smile on their face and will treat it as a completely natural stage in their career. The task for supervisors and HR team is to select such people very accurately, and to provide others with a specific pace of horizontal development.

And what about you, what is your experience? Both from the point of view of an employee and a supervisor?

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