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How Aggressive Should Software Developers Be About Seeking A Promotion?

Should you be "nice" about developing your career?
Adobe Stock / pathdoc
Andrea Tallarita
Andrea Tallarita

Being nice may be the best strategy to develop friendships – but it is not always optimal in the world of work, which doesn’t really care about being nice to you in return.

Case in point, if you want to get a promotion in the tech industry, should you go after it like a lioness charging down the hills in full bloodlust, or is it best to keep a low, unassuming and modest profile?

There is a correct answer to this question… and another answer that is even more correct.

Today we’re going to explore them both.

Reasons To Get Aggressive

If you take a flight on a plane that has been perfectly engineered, you will probably never even notice the quality of its design and architecture. That’s because the perfect plane does nothing but fly, as smoothly and quietly and peacefully as possible. The less likely you are to remember your flight, the better the plane was.

Adobe Stock / Diego Cervo

Software engineering also follows that principle: the better you are at what you do, the less often will your team and your manager call on you. That’s because your software is doing nothing except for its job, which it completes as quietly and inexorably as the engines of destiny itself.

Ironically, and unless you get to work with managers who are themselves hands-on developers, the engineers most likely to stand out in a business for having come up with a “clever solution” are those who have to deal with problems on a regular basis. A developer who found a quick fix for an emergency is the one most likely to be remembered – even if the emergency was their fault in the first place!

This means that if you deserve a promotion, keeping your head low and your mouth shut and just hoping that your manager will notice you is not a winning strategy. This is true in most industries, actually, but it is especially true in software development, where so often the better you are, the less visible you make yourself.

The most important thing you should know about aggression

Adobe Stock / kues1

Pursuing a promotion aggressively means being proactive, insistent, and bold about it. We will see very shortly what that means in practice.

But before that, it is of the absolute essence to emphasise that being aggressive in this context does not mean being rude, uncivil, or in any way disrespectful. That will only deteriorate your relationship with your manager and your team, which will have exactly the opposite of the effect you are looking for.

If you take anything written in this article to mean that you should storm into your boss’s office, slam your fist on the desk and boom “You’re going to give me that promotion or else!”, then you shouldn’t worry about how to get a promotion. Instead look for articles on how not to get fired.

Principles of aggression

1. Set yourself objectives, stick to them

Adobe Stock / kokliang1981

We all have a little voice inside us that tells us to just lay back and do the absolute minimum on the job. Therefore the first person you should be aggressive towards when seeking a promotion is yourself.

This doesn’t mean pushing yourself to do work you absolutely hate, naturally, much less overworking yourself. What it does mean is defining and plotting (and for most people that means writing down) the steps that will get you promoted – in other words, making an actionable plan – and then finding routines that ensure you follow up on those steps.

Ask yourself which technical skills you will need to learn, what accomplishments would make you worthy of moving up, and how you can demonstrate that you bring value to the company. You may also want to put some relationship-building goals with your colleagues in there, although these are typically not as easy to pursue methodically.

Write all these things down.

This is so important that I’ll say it again.

Write all these things down. Even if you’re perfectly capable of remembering them regardless, it’s a gesture of commitment, and success is always made up of many such small gestures.

Then be serious about going after them, and don’t let yourself slack. Put aside the time, set yourself reminders, and if you fall behind, do the extra work to catch up. Or at the very least, revise and update your plan. It won’t complete itself by itself.

2. Make your intentions clear

Adobe Stock / Nuthawut

The opposite of being aggressive is being coy. And one thing that almost all coy people have in common is that they keep their mouth shut about the things they want.

Don’t fall for that trap. If you want a promotion, one of the first things you have to do once your roadmap is ready is to tell your manager what you want.

You don’t have to share your entire plan – that’s for your use, not theirs – but you do have to communicate what your objectives are, and that you are serious about attaining them.

It’s not enough to just mention your desire when you happen to cross your manager at the coffee machine, or during a call that is about something else. Instead, ask for a dedicated meeting. Use that not just to convey your intent, but to probe in advance whether the company is open to the idea, and as importantly, what their expectations are and how they can help you get there.

None of this is perfunctory talk. If your boss says they will “consider the possibility when the time comes” but shows no interest whatsoever in collaborating with you on your journey upwards, that tells you your aggression levels need to rise. Bring the topic up again after some time, and of course, start considering alternatives. Don’t waste any time seeking a promotion if all the signs are there that they will never offer you one.

3. Walk the Walk

Adobe Stock / gustavofrazao

Suppose you find yourself in the scenario we just described – you spoke with your boss, and the prospects of a promotion don’t look great. So, because the point of that meeting was to communicate your objectives transparently, you tell them in advance that if no openings emerge in time, you will have to look for alternatives.

This can NOT be a bluff. If you say that you will do something, then you must follow up on that, and aggressively! There are few things more terminal for your promotion hopes than threatening to leave if you don’t get what you want, and then staying put like a good puppy when you don’t.

I brought up an example that is conflictual in nature, but really this principle applies to any of your commitments, including your positive ones. If you promised personal progress and results – not necessarily to management, but even just to yourself – then you have to deliver them. If you can’t, then perhaps you’re not ready for a higher position. In which case, go back to Step 1 above and revise your roadmap.

This is not to say that you can never change your mind, naturally. Just be aware that if you change your mind about the promises you made that would lead to your promotion, people above you are likely to change their minds about giving you that promotion in the first place.

The better right answer

Should you be "nice" about developing your career?
Adobe Stock / Cagkan

This article has discussed the appropriate psychological outlook for a developer looking for a raise. But the better question you should ask yourself is whether you should be looking for a raise in the first place.

If you want to increase your salary, then by far the fastest and most efficient way to do so as a software developer is simply to change jobs. Give your company a few years, then start looking for a different position, and quit courteously when you find it. This almost invariably results in a bumped-up salary, sometimes by margins that you would never get with a simple raise.

Getting a raise, by comparison, requires so much more time and effort (and sometimes heartburn). It also depends on an entire bunch of variables that will be out of your control, like your manager’s personal sympathies and the company’s economic situation.

Changing jobs can also be stressful, of course, and in the age of tech layoffs and AI-induced employment anxieties should be pursued with caution (find a job then quit, not the other way round). But precisely because of the issues of the present age, enriching your CV with broader work experience and stepping up the ladder is very much the optimal choice (as we have also argued in our article about how long every developer should wait before they quit).

Staying in the same place may feel more comfortable, but opportunities won’t come to you unless you start going after them. And this very much means taking a leap.

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