5 min read

Inside Out

Inside Out
If you didn't cry when Bing Bong died, you're a monster. All credit to Walt Disney Studios

Getting a promotion is an important acknowledgement of professional growth.

It means more responsibility, more opportunity, more respect and probably, more money or other benefits.

If you're lucky, you might have access to a well-defined, highly transparent promotion process, with clear expectations around what you need to do in order to be eligible to advance.

That's what it's like at Atlassian, but that doesn't mean it's easy.

Awwww, Participation Award

Every role in Atlassian is broken down into a number of levels that indicate general experience and competence.

For example, the software engineer role is classified as a Professional role, and has levels ranging from P30 (graduate) to P70 (senior principal engineer) and beyond.

Each level is backed by a growth profile, which defines the expected behaviours and outcomes for someone who is operating at that level.

For example, a P40 might be expected to own individual tasks and shepherd them through to completion, but a P50 would be expected to own individual projects and shepherd them through to completion.

The combination of levels and growth profiles allows any person to understand what they should be doing now (for their current level) and what they should be targeting if they want to be promoted.

Once a person has been operating at the desired level for a while, they can work with their manager to put together a case explaining why they should be promoted.

The person doesn't have to nail everything at the level above, but there needs to be a significant amount of evidence that they've got what it takes. They also need to have at least a few people who are already at that level or higher and are willing to vouch for them.

Twice a year, there are scheduled promotion opportunities, where the case for promotion can be submitted for consideration.

At that point the case is evaluated according to the growth profile of the target level. This evaluation process varies by the target level.

For example, for P40 -> P50 promotions, each case for promotion is assigned a calibrator who reviews the evidence provided and either endorses the promotion or declines it.

It's a pretty good system.

Except for one thing.

There are a lot of hoops to jump through and a lot of ways in which the promotion process can be stymied. You need to have been effectively demonstrating capabilities at the next level for a while before being officially recognised, and there aren't always opportunities available to do that.

As a result, the general consensus is that it's easier to leave Atlassian for a promotion than it is to get promoted internally. Or perhaps, to quit and come back wearing a fake moustache, applying for a job at the next level.

To me, this seems like a situation that is ripe for improvement.

Come On, Group Hug!

I've experienced the Atlassian candidate evaluation process from both sides (i.e. as an applicant and as a hiring manager) and it feels like it's pretty good at making decisions about who to hire and why.

There are multiple interviews with different people, well documented evaluation rubrics, official training and qualification, high standards for written feedback, a group debrief session to consolidate thoughts, concerns and opinions across all of the interviewers and finally the involvement of an experienced calibrator to facilitate decision making.

Why not use that same process to make decisions about promotions?

In the world where you rely on the candidate evaluation process for promotions, it might look a little something like this:

  • The manager and the employee would come to some sort of conclusion about whether or not the employee is ready, probably using the growth profiles
  • They would raise an intent to promote, maybe on a cycle, maybe at any time of the year to avoid clustering interviews together
  • The interview scheduling system would do what it normally does and gather together a group of people disconnected from the candidate and schedule appropriate evaluations
  • After doing all the things, the group would come together and make a decision
  • If the person was successful, they would be promoted, with the caveat that it comes with a six-month probation period, just like a new hire. During this period, either party could decide to reverse the promotion with appropriate reasoning
  • If the person was unsuccessful, there would be a cooldown period before they could try again, to stop people from flooding the system

The Facts And Options Look So Similar...

Using the same process for internal promotion as for external recruitment seems like it could work.

It reduces organisational complexity. You wouldn't need to create and maintain two separate processes with very similar goals. One of the things that stops a big organisation from moving as fast as a small one is complexity, and while this might not be the biggest simplification, every little bit counts.

It would probably improve the recruitment process. The more you do something, the better you get at it. If you combine the load from recruitment with the load from promotions, participants will get more opportunities to hone their skills and the process itself will have more opportunities for improvement.

It's more consistent. If you've already got a process for bringing people into a role at a certain level, using it to make decisions for promotions internally means that you're making consistent decisions. The bar for entry and the bar for movement become the same purely by virtue of using the exact same system.

Having said that, I can see some potential downsides too.

It might be more expensive. The current promotion process involves a lot of preparation time from the manager and candidate, while also requiring a decent amount of time from a calibration point of view. But the candidate evaluation process generally involves more people overall, each one spending between 1-3 hours on information gathering and evaluation, so it's hard to tell how the numbers stack up.

I'm also not sure what the raw promotion vs recruitment numbers look like, so if there are more promotions overall, that could tip the overall cost balance if the candidate evaluation process was even slightly more expensive.

Switching the process might have financial planning ramifications. I'm not generally involved when it comes to planning that sort of stuff, but I imagine that there needs to be a bucket of money allocated ahead of time for promotions and allowing them to happen at any time might throw a spanner into that process. This could be solved by still sticking to a cycle, but you run the risk of overloading interviewers at certain times of the year.

There is a chance that the candidate evaluation process makes worse decisions. There is definitely more work that goes into building and justifying a case for promotion than goes into candidate evaluation during recruitment, which probably leads to better decisions. Still, if we're happy recruiting people using that process, we should be happy promoting people with it.

Still, even with those potential downsides, I think it's worth a try.

I Call This An Unqualified Success

Replacing the current promotion process with our candidate evaluation process seems like a good idea, but I suspect I haven't thought about all of the angles.

Still, it would at least deal with the perceived problem of it being easier to leave and get a promotion elsewhere, and it would bring a lot of consistency to two very similar looking systems.

I don't know if I'm in a position to propose something of this magnitude, but I'm going to sask around and see what people think.

Surely I'm not the first person to consider this.