9 mins

Putting a case together for your own career progression can feel overwhelming – but by documenting yourself as you go along, it becomes a much more manageable task.

April 13 – June 22, 2021 Event series
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My first job in tech was as a support engineer at a Visual Effects studio. It was an entry-level, foot-in-the-door job. My manager knew everyone on their team was just waiting for their break, so she made it her job to prepare us for the next step. She taught us how to document our success, plan our goals, and get us the skills we needed to make it easy for the next hiring manager to take us on.

Once I got that next job, I was shocked to learn this wasn’t the norm. There are so many competing priorities for a leader’s time, that quiet, hard workers can slip through the cracks. If I was going to grow my skills with increasingly complex projects and get the raises and promotions that go with that, I was going to have to make it painless for my manager. I would have to advocate for myself. Luckily, I could use the framework from my first job. Now you can too.

Return on investment

If a product costs $5 to make and you can only sell it for $4, you've got a business problem. If you are selling it for $15, you've got a winner. Most business managers think in these terms because that's how they have to justify themselves to their bosses, stockholders, and investors. You should be thinking of yourself in the same terms, to make it easier for them. If you can prove that your return on investment is much higher than your salary, then you can justify that raise. It's also important to frame what you want in how it will help them.

Both of the following examples are asking for the same thing, but one of them will sell better. Which one do you think it is?

  1. It is important that the company invests in my growth, so I deserve to lead the new project.
  2. I increased sales by 10% by creating this feature. If I was given this other project to lead, I could do even better.

Success statements

In order to make the ROI claims to your boss, you need evidence. I call them success statements.

A success statement is a short, easy-to-read sentence that describes an accomplishment – for example,  a cost savings or a profit increase. It is ~100-200 characters, written at a high level, and easy to comprehend for someone who might not understand what you do. Money is the best quantifier because it is the language of business. Time savings for employees is the next best since you can translate that to salary costs.

I ‘improved this thing’ by ‘this measurable amount’ using ‘this method’.

I added a new way for customers to find us, increasing sales by 15%. I did this by connecting with a third party API.

I reduced storage costs by $500 monthly. I did this by switching to a different storage system.

I reduced the time spent doing manual tests by 60 minutes weekly. I did this by creating automated tests.

Writing exercise

Take a moment and write down at least one success from the last month. When you have more time, go through your emails, chats, and tickets to figure out your success statements from the last six months. Then, make it a part of your routine, writing statements down at the end of the week or sprint Ideally, you will write one every time you finish something new. By doing this, you will be amazed at how many you have.

Brag sheets

Brag sheets are a summary of your accomplishments paired with your next goal for advancement. This should ideally be one page, like a resume; you should always be making it easier for your manager to say yes and sponsor your next step.

Next goal

Start with what you are looking to achieve. Team lead? A move to another team? A specific technology you want to work on?

  1. I would like to expand my knowledge of AWS to build and deploy a microservice.
  2. I would like to lead the next project to get more mentoring and managerial experience.
  3. I would like to move from design to UX development to spend more time engineering.

Remember to include how your goal will help your boss and not just you.

  1. This will decrease the DevOps team's workload while letting us create cutting-edge technology. In turn, that will increase our ability to source and retain talent.
  2. This will give me more time to use my domain knowledge and skills to level up the other engineers to increase our collective output.
  3. This will help us bridge the gap between design and UX and increase our velocity.

Record of achievement

This is where you put your success statements to prove your record of achievement. I recommend adding them up, then including the best ones. Fixing one bug is not impressive. Fixing 20 bugs and increasing sales by 10% is.  

In the last two quarters, I have:

  • Increased client signup by 20%. I did this by automating the majority of the onboarding process.
    •  Supporting success statement #1
    •  Supporting success statement #2, etc.
  • Decreased client churn by 10%. I did this by creating new, helpful features.
    • Supporting success statement #1
    • Supporting success statement #2, etc.

Readiness for the goal

Your boss will be asking themselves if you are ready for the new responsibility you asked for. This is where you put the reasons why you are. This can include:

  • Training and professional development.
    • Classes, articles, videos, certifications, workshops, conference talks, etc.
  • Projects where you have done the job.
    • Proof of concepts using the new technology;
    • Taking on leadership tasks without being the lead.

If you don't think you are ready yet, these can be tasks you want to accomplish. You can work with your manager to see if the tasks would be right for you to do, and if not, what tasks you can do to help you reach your goal.

When to use a brag sheet

You can bring your brag sheet to a performance review meeting or a 1:1. It's also great when you get a brand new manager and want to catch them up on your role and career goals.

Writing exercise

Writing a whole brag sheet can take a while, but you can get started by writing out a single career goal and how it can help your current company. Then, write out some examples of how you are ready to accomplish that goal.

For a great breakdown and example of brag sheets, check out this blog post by Julia Evans. 

Elevator pitch

Your elevator pitch is the story to have in your back pocket whenever anyone says, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ You can use this in an interview, networking event, or a client/investor meeting. I have worked with many people on their pitches, and they either don't know what to say because they're new or changing careers, or because they have 20 years of experience and aren't sure what to include. Here are the strategies I use.

Audience first

Think about your favorite movie. Did you learn everything there was to learn about a character? Or just the parts that were relevant to the plot? Creating an elevator pitch is all about telling the right version of your story for the audience. Who is your audience? What is their goal for this meeting? How can you demonstrate you have what they're looking for?

This project started when I was trying to get a job as a backend engineer but didn't have a computer science degree. My audience were recruiters, who only had a basic knowledge of technology. I wanted them to hear the story of how I was an experienced technologist who could solve their problems without using formal education as a shortcut.

Pattern of growth

You are smarter, more skilled, and a better engineer today than you were when you first joined the industry. It does not matter what your job duties were or the industry that you were in. At every job, you learned something, even if you moved laterally or even down. You have to find what it is that you learned. If you worked as a support engineer or on call at an IT helpdesk, you learned technical problem solving, customer service, and multi-tasking. If you worked as a freelance web designer, you learned communication and time management. These are all valuable and transferable skills.

Skills vs. tasks

Your skills are more important than how you used them. You need to take the task (e.g., manually testing software) and turn it into the skill (in that example, attention to detail and quality control). Are you a stay-at-home parent getting back into the workforce? I'm sure you can tell me stories about time and project management, and finding creative solutions. Dealing with demanding clients can require a similar skillset to pacifying toddlers.

Positive attitude

We all make compromises in our careers. No job is perfect, and sometimes, you simply need a paycheck. A few jobs ago, I was a manager, but I went back to being an individual contributor for my next role. When I talk about it, I say that I wanted to get more technical experience. The reality is that I would have been ecstatic to get another job as a manager and continue on the leadership track. However, those opportunities weren't as readily available at the time. The way I framed it is not a lie because I saw that gaining more technical skills could only help me get more opportunities; I made a shift that did not meet my preferences exactly but I framed it positively.

Final thoughts

The best way to improve your documentation is to share it with others. Ask a friend or coworker to read over your work. If you feel uncomfortable bragging about yourself, ask a current or recent teammate since they know your work.

A few years ago, I checked in with my first manager and asked if the framework was still working for her team. Of the employees at her company, 25% of those promoted per year were on her team and 20% of the employees celebrating 15 years at the company had started on her team. The impact was exponential as each person brought this framework to the subsequent stages of their career.

This framework allowed me to transition from an art school graduate to being an engineering leader who helps feature films and tv series get made faster, cheaper, and easier. I love hearing from people who have used this framework to accelerate their careers, make the salary they deserve, and lead their dream projects. To try this yourself, download the template here. Good luck!