Saturday, November 15, 2008

Achieving Senior Level 63 at Microsoft

I want to share some of my thoughts about succeeding at Microsoft and reaching Level 63, the Senior contributor level at Microsoft. Given that quite a few Microsofties are going to find themselves locked into their current group for a while, the ability to succeed by swinging on the vines to a new group is going to be rare. Within the comments, I hope to elicit advice that follows up on what I start here, and maybe even contradicts it. I'm interested in hearing your stories of success, mentorship, and turning a career that was off-path back on-track. For the folks on the path to L63, I want you to first understand your boss's opinion of you, your opinion of yourself, what it takes to succeed in your team, and then ways you can step up and be on the right path.

Let's Hear it for the Boy! Let's Hear it for the Girl! If you reach L63 during your time at Microsoft, especially if you started at L60 or below, you should celebrate. Here's to you! What an achievement! You have the right stuff to succeed and Microsoft is very happy with you.

L63 is very much an important milestone, and in tough-hiring times like these the following question has never been more important: "Will <<fill in the blank>> reach Level 63 during their career?"

If you're not there yet and your boss was asked that question by your skip-level-boss, what is your boss's answer?

Unless you know for sure that your boss's answer is an immediate "Absolutely!" you need to hit the pause button for one big time-out regarding where you are, where you're going, and what needs to change. And I'm going to tell you right now, I'm 99.9% sure what needs to change is you. Because, except on the rare occasion, Microsoft and your team isn't going to change.

Up until L63, you can pretty continue to be promoted based on raw talent to get things done smartly and efficiently. Things get thrown your way and you knock each and everyone of the challenges out of the park. Then perhaps you're stuck at L62. What got you here ain't gonna get you there. What now?

Think Locally: remember three years back when we talked about the book Corporate Confidential? It's a good time to flip back through that. One of the key lessons is to know who is the gate keeper for your career. Pop quiz: who is it? Think about it. Ready? Let's compare answers... answer is: your boss. Your lead. The person who puts you up for promotion and has promotion conversations with your skip level. It's a question your boss gets asked so it's not a surprise to them. Your boss should already have about a year-long plan about who on the team is getting promoted when - it's essential for team promotion budget planning. And when the time comes, putting you up for a promotion to L63 is the first time your boss will be challenged by your skip-level and by your Aunt and Uncles (your boss's peers) about one of your promotions. It's hard for L63. Harder for L64. And a knife-fight for L65 (some other day). They will have thought this out.

If you're saying "Ah, dude, my boss is in the way of my promotion" then all I have to say is "Duuuude, your boss is the way to your promotion." Perhaps someone can explain to me how you get successfully promoted without your boss's support.

So honestly, what is your boss's answer about if you'll reach L63? If it is "Absolutely!" then the follow-up is: after what accomplishments and around when?

Your Recently Promoted L63 Peers: let's say you have at least one peer that in the past year or so has been promoted to L63. Why? Do you know why? Specifically, what did they accomplish, and what contributions do you see them doing to justify their promotion? Write it down in a team-culture career section you keep in OneNote (start that section now if you don't have it).

Now read over your answer. If you're going into that comfort zone of complaining about politics and butt-kissing and favorites, do me this favor: hold your right palm up, nice and flat like you're about to be sworn in to testify in a trial, and now extend your right arm out nice and wide, and then quickly swing your right arm around the front of you in a nice arc that ends with the flat of your right hand quickly connecting to the left side of your face for a hard, resounding slap. Repeat. Alternate to your left hand appropriately when tired. Continue to do so until you've slapped yourself silly to the point that you're not complaining about how other folks must just be connected or political or adept at the finer art of buttock tongue massage. Excuses and griping and bemoaning aren't the stuff that L63 contributors are made of. So either keep slapping yourself or choose to wake up. Until you can be honest with yourself (and it's not fun, trust me) you will be stuck doing what you're doing and your complaining will be the glue keeping you there.

Turn (it) Around, Bright Eyes: every now and then I get a little bit thrilled when someone joins the team straight out of school (or with a little industry experience) and after a few months it's obvious that Microsoft is the best company for them. They just plain resonate. They are 100% star material. Will they reach L63? Absolutely. And on one total-eclipse-rare occasion, I've been able to be answer the follow-up question: will they reach L65 and say with confidence: Absolutely. Well, what about everyone else? Sometimes the answer is, "well, we'll see..." and other times the answer is, "if they'd only stop doing X and start doing Y on a sustained basis, I could see it..."

If you're not an Absolutely! then do you know what more you need to do? And in your answer, there's a kicker follow-up: not only what you need to do to justify being promoted to L63, but to succeed in comparison to your L63 + L64 peers. For some teams - especially those like Office with few departures release-to-release resulting in level compression - that's a rough bunch.

I have seen people turn it around. If you're off-path, you can turn it around. You first have to be truthful with what direction you're going in and where you actually are trying to head. Get yourself a formal or informal mentor who is already doing what you want to be doing. Successful people looooove to expound upon the secret to their success. Some can even challenge you and give you the tough love and direction you need. Buy a Principal a coffee. There is no better investment at Microsoft for tuning your career. When someone gives you the hard advice to succeed, it's quite the gift. Don't waste it. It's a lot better than folks being ambivalent about your success or failure, right?

Your Team: you have to be able to understand why the L63s and L64s are where they are. You might have the Microsoft Senior Career Stage Profile in front of you all marked up and broken into more sections in OneNote, but which ones matter most to your team? And to your boss. And to your skip level. If your boss is saying "Yes, ready for promo now" and your skip is saying "No, not now" well, why?

Aspects of an L63 Contributor: some random aspects that come to my mind beyond our CSPs:

  • They can own a room: they aren't warming a seat but rather can take charge of a conversation and represent such a deep level of knowledge that they gain respect for what they say and earn a good reputation. Their focus stays on accountable results and this person can bring resolution and closure together.
  • Expert: They are sought after to be in meetings, for instance, so that good decisions can be made.
  • Results-focused: they are focused on getting great results and don't entwine their ego to particular solutions. They don't get defensive if their ideas are revealed to have flaws but rather delight in being able to move to a better solution.
  • Leadership: pro-active leadership that convinces team members of the future direction and even helps to implement it. This is a big difference between those who can complain about the way things should be and those you can actually bring it about.
  • Solutions, not problems: following up on the above, they aren't complaining about problems on the team but rather implementing and driving solutions.
  • Makes other great: the team benefits and grows from the person's contributions. Answers questions from the team, from support, from customers. Knows what the team delivers backwards and forwards. They are a good mentor.
  • Influence when they can, scare when they must: they have fundamental skills in influencing people, but if they need to flip into junk-yard dog mode, they can. They don't give up and walk away but rather fight when they need to fight, escalating only when needed and with lots of justification.
  • Makes the boss great: if the team and your boss are succeeding because of you, of course you'll be succeeding too.
  • Not doing it for the promotion: if you're out for a promotion, don't do work specifically chose to get the promotion. This is like meeting the Buddha on the road. If you come up with a pretty plan to justify your promotion, you've already lost it. Such plotting is obvious and actually detrimental to your career. If, however, you've determined what it takes to have a successful career in your group at Microsoft and have started what you need to start and stopped what you need to stop, then you're on the right path.

When I write all of this, I think back to an older piece by Joel Spolsky talking about Rosh Gadol contributors. Be the Rosh Gadol Microsoftie.

Also, go mine some of Dr. Brechner's Hard Code columns.

No, never: now, going back to that <<fill in the blank>> question above: if your boss is answering "No, never" then this is a red-alert moment for you. Flip on the klaxons! Why? Because when it comes time to roll people out of the team (as teams do from time to time) this "No, never" a marker that is used to help figure out who - at I and II CSP levels - is either on-track or out. If the answer for you is "No" and you don't like that, well, what are you going to do? I suggest understanding why it is "No" first, truthfully accepting the point-of-view as pissed off as it may make you, and then having a self-directed action-plan to get on track.

Discussion: First off, I'm going to be hard-core about comments here. I want them productive and about career success at Microsoft, especially your thoughts about achieving L63. What advice do you have to pass on? What advice do you need? What worked well and what really horked things up for you? If you're a manager, what's your L63 promotion philosophy? I'm not looking for any off-topic comments let alone woe-be-me comments - remember that slap thing?

If you have an itching to talk about something else, please go here: But Mini, I Want To Talk About...

But Mini, I Want To Talk About...

Don't want to talk about reaching L63 at Microsoft and bummed that I've locked down the comment stream on that post to be my way or the cutting-room-floor?

Tell you what I'll do: I'll put this post up to have a post to riff within, but still stay within my commenting guidelines.

What's on your mind?

  • Who's still hiring at Microsoft? How teams are locking down and freaked out about the risk of losing positions if people try to leave? Ideas to move groups?
  • Wondering if the mobile team can be possibly slapped enough to compete against the iPhone and Android momentum?
  • What's up with Arik Hesseldahl calling Microsoft big and bloated? Is that passé now?
  • I still love my Media Center PC, even though lately it's started hating all of us... is this how SkyNet starts?
  • Azure. (shakes head) It makes me want to sing to the Talking Heads about how this is not my beautiful house. It's a solution. It will solve problems. Are they really the right problems, and therefore, is it really the right solution?
  • Kudos for a great PDC / Win7 debut. I'm drawing hearts around my sketch of SteveSi... and littles x's and o's... ahem.
  • On that theme: since the Company Meeting 2008, I've felt that we've turned a corner. A good corner. Do you agree, and if not, what do you believe has to happen for Microsoft to have turned the corner onto the freeway of success?
  • What topics would you like to see discussed in future posts? Ooo, I knows! Something about the new Microsoft Store on the internets!