Asking for the Promotion

18 minutes, 4 links


Updated August 7, 2023

We’ve covered quite a bit by now, and it’s okay if it feels overwhelming. You’re not expected to know all of these things right now, and it’s impossible for someone, even a senior developer, to be an expert on every topic covered in this book.

If you take what you’ve learned throughout this book and put it into practice each week, you’ll come to a point where you’ll be confident in your technical abilities and ready to ask for the promotion to a senior role. Asking for a promotion can be daunting, but if you feel like you’re ready to make the jump, it’s important to start having the conversation with your manager.

It may sound easy, but it’s harder than a lot of developers realize. You’ll be putting yourself out there and asking your manager to evaluate your technical abilities and your soft skills. If you’re feeling vulnerable, that’s normal. After all, you’re putting your career trajectory in the hands of someone else. Of course it’s nerve-racking!

In most cases, it will be up to you to get the conversation started. Yes, your manager should be thinking about the career development of their developers, but that’s not always the case. You shouldn’t assume that the business will automatically reward you for doing your job well. Sometimes your hard work may be recognized, but there’s no guarantee anything will happen automatically. Sometimes it takes a little nudging to get the ball rolling.

To an extent, you will always need to sell yourself in order to get what you want. It’s best to assume that if you don’t sell yourself, no one else will. It’s up to you to promote your accomplishments and to demonstrate to the management team that you are able to deliver results consistently and that you’re worthy of a promotion. Don’t just assume your track record speaks for yourself and that people will notice.

So, let’s look into some things to keep in mind when you’re gearing up to ask the big question.


First off, it’s important to do your homework. You’ll want to get familiar with your company’s process. Every company handles promotions differently, and the process may differ depending on the maturity and size of your company.

Informal promotions. In smaller companies, it’s common for the managers to have direct authority over deciding who gets promoted. The managers may meet with each other and present the candidates they feel are most deserving before coming to an agreement on who should be promoted.

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Semi-formal promotions. In growth-stage startups and midsize enterprises, a semi-formal process is common. The leadership team will begin to add some structure in an effort to standardize and encourage fairness in the decision-making process. The managers may still meet together to discuss potential promotions, but the candidates are evaluated against certain criteria, rather than individual managers’ opinions.

Formal promotions. More formality is common among public companies and large established enterprises, and in some cases, it can be a very long process. Candidates are evaluated against well-defined criteria for each level of the job ladder. You’ll most likely be asked to put together a self-review and potentially gather reviews and recommendations from your peers. Your manager will also write their own review of your performance. There will often be a committee of senior engineers and engineering managers that will evaluate your reviews and recommend a promotion if they feel you meet the bar.

It’s important to understand what kind of process your company uses to promote employees so that you can prepare correctly. You’ll want to make sure you have your ducks in a row before starting the process, and knowing how you’ll be evaluated is crucial.

Assess Yourself

It’s common for companies to promote employees who are already performing at the level they’re being promoted to. The actual promotion is a recognition that your work output is exceeding expectations at your current level, and it’s a nod from the leadership team that you’re ready to consistently deliver results at the next level.

So, in order to assess yourself, you need to determine how you’re doing in regard to what your manager expects from a senior engineer. This is much easier if you’re in a company that has a clearly defined leveling framework. It’s a good idea to read through the expectations for your current level first. Take notes on each criterion in your current level and give yourself a grade for how well you think you’re meeting that expectation.

confusion In almost all cases, leadership will expect you to perform very well at your current level in order to even be considered for a promotion at all. If you’re not meeting expectations at your current level, it’s going to be very difficult to meet them at the next level. Additionally, in some places you’ll be expected to already be performing at the promotion level, not just at your current level.

It’s important to be honest with yourself during this step. Writing down that you’re exceeding expectations for every criterion at your current level doesn’t help you at all. No one is perfect, and there is always room for improvement. You’ll be disappointed if you get your hopes up only to hear from your manager that there are still some areas that you need to work on.

Next, do the same thing for the next level up, which should be a senior role. You may feel like you are already meeting some of the expectations for the next level, which is great! But don’t get discouraged if there are areas at that level you still need to work on. If you’re honest with yourself about where you’re not meeting expectations for a given criterion, you will at least have an idea of what you need to work on, and you’ll be able to put together a plan with your manager to build those skills.

What to Prepare

Even if you’re not required to put together a formal self-review of your performance, it’s still a good idea to do it anyway. You’ll be able to use this to build a compelling case for why you think you deserve a promotion, and it will give you some good talking points when discussing the promotion with your manager.

Back in the You’re not an Impostor section, we talked about keeping a log of all your previous accomplishments in a notebook or notes app. This is the perfect time to pull up that document and review everything you’ve accomplished in the last 12 months, because that will give you plenty of ideas.

What should you write down?

  • Examples of successful projects. Think of the highest-impact projects you’ve worked on and stress the importance of the role you played in making the projects successful.

  • Concrete examples about how you improved some metric or key result, and the impact that it had. Give actual numbers for the metrics if possible.

  • Examples of how you demonstrated leadership and showed the maturity that is expected from a senior role. Try to find examples of where you put the team first and took action to lift up the entire team.

Your goal with this document is to prove that you are already working at the level that you’re asking to be promoted to. The more examples, the better, but make sure you choose them selectively and purposefully. Think about it as a resume for your last 6–12 months at your current role.

Build Relationships

Building relationships in the workplace is always important, but especially when it comes to asking for a promotion. First and foremost, you’ll want to get your manager on your side, because it’ll be nearly impossible to get a promotion without the support of your manager.

How do you do that?

  • Do your job well. If you’re not meeting expectations for your current level, it’ll be hard to convince your boss that you deserve a higher salary and more responsibility.

  • Ask your boss to explain the promotion process at your company. This will let them know that you’re interested in advancing your career, but there’s no pressure to actually ask for the promotion yet.

  • Ask them what their philosophy is on promoting their employees. This will give you an idea of what qualities your manager is specifically looking for in order to recommend a promotion.

  • Ask them to rate your performance against your current level, and against the next level up. This is a way to have an informal conversation around what criteria you are currently meeting, and what criteria you still need to work on.

These conversations should happen during your one-on-ones where you can talk privately and openly with your manager. You should approach the conversations as a way to gather information and feedback without actually asking the big question yet.

Additionally, it’s good to talk to other senior engineers on your team or on different teams. Even though they are your peers, senior engineers often have at least some sort of say in the promotion process. Your manager may lean on the senior engineers to give their honest feedback about your performance when it comes time to build a case for your promotion.

If you have good working relationships with the senior engineers, they’ll be more likely to put in a good recommendation for you when they’re asked for feedback. Plus, you can ask the senior engineers if they think you’re ready for more responsibility. If you have a good relationship, they may feel more comfortable talking candidly with you about what you’re doing well and what you need to work on. The senior engineers have a unique perspective because they work more closely with you than the managers do. Your manager may be busy throughout the day, and they won’t be able to read every line of code that you write. A senior engineer on the other hand may have a better understanding of certain technical or soft skills you may need to work on before asking for a promotion, and your manager may even consult the senior people on your team about recommendations for who to promote.

Asking the Question

Once you’ve put in the work to prepare and you feel like you’re ready, it’s time to ask for the promotion. To be clear, asking for a promotion is not a one-time conversation. Rather, it’s an ongoing conversation between you and your manager about what you need to do to be considered for the promotion. Very rarely will you be promoted on the spot, so it’s going to take some time and hard work to get across the finish line. Don’t expect things to happen overnight. Asking the question is just the first step to get the ball rolling on the process. So, how should you ask?

exampleOne way to ask for a promotion:

“I’d like to be considered for a promotion to a senior software engineer. I feel like I’ve demonstrated that I’m ready based on my recent performance, but I know there are still some areas that I can improve. I’d like to start an ongoing conversation with you to identify what I need to work on in order for me to reach the next level. What do I need to do to show you that I’m ready for the next step?”

The goal is to ask for the promotion, but not demand it. Humbleness goes a long way here, so it’s good to acknowledge that you know there are still some areas where you can improve. The idea is to work with your boss to put together a roadmap for what you need to work on to get to a point where they’re confident in your abilities and comfortable going to bat for you when submitting their recommendation for your promotion.

Keep in mind that your manager is evaluated on their decision-making skills and their team’s performance, so there’s a strong incentive for them to recommend a promotion only when they believe you are ready. If your manager recommends a promotion to their boss when you’re not ready to perform at the next level, it may make them look bad and hurt their credibility.

There will almost certainly be some areas that your manager would like to see you improve before they will be comfortable enough to recommend a promotion for you. Work with them to develop a plan to improve those areas. They may be able to put you on projects that will give you certain experience, or give you more responsibility that will help you develop skills they want to see you improve.

Put in the Work

Once you’ve got the ball rolling and have a plan in place with your manager, it’s up to you to put in the work to show your boss that you’re serious about the promotion. Set weekly goals for yourself to work on the areas that your manager would like to see you improve. Write them down and review your progress regularly, like at the start and end of each week.

Some things your manager expects of you won’t be easy. You’ll be forced out of your comfort zone, and you’ll be asked to do things you’ve never done before. You may need to make important decisions, whether they’re technical ones or choices about how to handle certain processes.

You may not always make the right decisions, but the important thing is to learn how to think logically, creatively, and collaboratively with the rest of your team. Being a senior engineer is about taking on more responsibility and putting the team first, and your boss may set you up to gain experience in making bigger decisions before you actually get promoted. If you can demonstrate that you’re able to make decisions and lead within your team, you’ll be able to show your manager that you’re ready for the promotion.

If you take what you’ve learned throughout this book and put it into practice each week, asking for the promotion shouldn’t be that intimidating. The hard part is actually applying what you read here to the real world. Not everything is as black and white as it’s made out to be, but the learning curve is where you grow from a junior engineer to a senior engineer.

If you don’t get a promotion the first time you ask for it, it’s not the end of the world. Get as much clarity on why. It may be other factors in the company. If it’s that they think you’re not ready, ask them what areas you need to focus on improving in order to be considered. You’re on a journey of continuous improvement, and you’ll never stop learning about how to improve your craft.

Just because you meet the requirements for a senior role doesn’t mean you’ll automatically get a promotion. But you’re much less likely to get something you never ask for—and you are missing an opportunity to grow and learn.

Conclusion7 minutes, 1 link

By now, you should have a much deeper understanding of what it takes to be a senior software engineer, and you have a roadmap for what areas to work on to prepare for your next review cycle. If you’ve learned something new from this book, that’s great! That means I’ve done my job. My hope is that this won’t be the last time you pick it up. I’d encourage you to revisit any section in the future if you need a little refresher or you’d like to refer back to any tools or techniques you learned along the way.

In Growing Your Career, you learned about the different career paths available to you, whether you choose to pursue the individual contributor path or the management path, and which one may be the best path for you. And don’t worry, you have plenty of time left in your career to make that decision, so there’s no rush right now.

We covered what differentiates a senior programmer from a junior one in What Makes You a Senior Engineer, along with what areas you should focus on developing in order to demonstrate that you’re ready to perform at the next level. These qualities take time to build and some trial and error to get good at it, but in the end it’s worth it.

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