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I'm a software engineer working in the games industry. I recently started a conversation with my manager about moving to senior. He mentioned that I probably don't yet have enough experience to be considered for senior in the near future. I asked him and a number of other co-workers how much work experience they think I have, and they all said they think I have about four years total. (At this company people are typically promoted at about seven years.)

Problem is, I have more experience than four years. A short work history: I started my first job in the industry in a small company in 2004. I worked there for about two years. Then I moved into contracting and independent game development, which I did for five years. After that I decided to go back to school for four years. Two years ago, I started my current job. So, assuming my co-workers have included my two years at this company in their estimate of my work experience, they think I only worked for two years before coming to this position, whereas I worked seven.

I believe there are two factors which affect their impression:

  • Much of the work that I did was in contracting and independent game development, and people are (perhaps subconsciously) discounting that time since it didn't closely match the current work environment.
  • People know that I am a recent graduate and assume that the amount of time I spent working before that must have been minimal.

Those are reasonable assumptions to make, but I believe them to be erroneous. Since the opinions of my teammates and the directors affect whether I'll be up for promotion, I believe I need to do something to address this. How can I go about resolving this problem? (Or alternatively, should I not expect to be able to resolve this?)

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    Perhaps they are referring to experience (seniority) only at the company rather than overall? When you meet formally, you can certainly reference your experience before the company, but if their criteria only pertains to in-company experience, it would be arguably be up to their perception of your performance and value to the company. – Frank FYC Nov 11 '17 at 22:22
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    It seems like it's simple enough to just correct your manager by pointing out that you worked for 5 as a contractor in addition to 4 years as an employee, but I'd be very surprised if that makes him suddenly change his mind - the decision is probably in no small part based on the quality of your work and how much knowledge you demonstrate (at least if they're reasonable and not literally just considering how long you've worked). – Dukeling Nov 11 '17 at 22:26
  • I agree, I don't think he'll suddenly decide I'm worthy of promotion. I should have mentioned in the original post that I understand promotions are merit-based, and I have to show skills to progress. I'm just worried that the process simply won't start because they think I don't have a number-of-years requirement, and that an impression of limited work experience might cause a confirmation bias that would work against me. – Jorge Rodriguez Nov 12 '17 at 7:14
  • He said he wasn't aware. (He can be reserved with his reactions.) I didn't push it too hard that day, I'll have to see what he says in followup discussions to learn what he actually thinks. – Jorge Rodriguez Nov 15 '17 at 4:53
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When it comes to promotions and job levels , very rarely do your actual years of experience matter as much as how you have demonstrated you are capable of operating at the level demanded by the job title. A company that uses different level titles for a job will usually also have a listing of qualities they look for in a person that holds that title. If you haven't demonstrated you possess those qualities yet, you won't be considered for promotion regardless of your years of experience.

That is to say, when they say it takes 7 years to reach a "senior" level, they don't mean you will automatically attain that level after sitting in front of a computer writing code for that long. They mean that for most people it takes that long for a developer who wants it to obtain the skills (hard and soft) necessary to meet the requirements of holding that title. Some talented individuals given the right opportunities can get there faster. Some might take longer. Some might never get there. It depends on your talents and how hard you push yourself.

A lot of the judgements on these qualities are subjective, and perception plays a big role. So it could be your managers' perception of you is incorrect and is holding you back. But it could also be you actually haven't demonstrated the qualities they are looking for in a senior position. And that could be because of lack of opportunity, or because you just aren't there yet.

What can you do? First, have a frank conversation with your manager. Ask what requirements they are looking for in a senior position and where, in their view, you fall short. Be ready for some brutal honesty, this may not be comfortable conversation. But then ask what you can do to fill those gaps. Ask what specific things you can do to show you are ready for a promotion. You need opportunities that will help you grow in the areas where you are lacking, or to demonstrate you already have what they are looking for. Most managers will appreciate having an employee willing to push themselves to get to the next level. If you already have the skills to hold a senior role, this should be easy. If not, it will give you a chance to grow.

  • It's an obvious answer that I just needed to see. – Jorge Rodriguez Nov 12 '17 at 7:22
  • I mentioned in my other comment: I understand that promotions are merit-based and I have to show skills to progress. I'm just worried that the process simply won't start because they think I don't have a number-of-years requirement, and that an impression of limited work experience might cause a confirmation bias that would work against me. You're right though, the best way to resolve this is to have a frank conversation with my manager. – Jorge Rodriguez Nov 12 '17 at 7:24
  • If an impression of lack of experience is what is holding you back, that conversation will also be your chance to set the record straight. Advice from one of my past managers when I was seeking promotion: Try and get them to be specific about what you can do to get on the path toward promotion. If they give you a list of specific goals, you will know exactly what you need to do and it will be a lot harder for them to deny you when you accomplish them. Good luck! – Seth R Nov 12 '17 at 16:30
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I'd start a conversation via email with your manager and ask for clarification on how much experience you need (you can then drop in your current level of experience more easily in any replies that may come up):

Hi Bob,

Further to our discussion the other day about the possibility of promotion to a senior level at some point in the future - could I clarify roughly how much experience you think I'd need to make a reasonable case for moving up to senior level? This is something I'd really like to work towards, so if there's anything else I could work on in light of a senior position, it'd be great if you could let me know.

Try to sound enthusiastic and willing to work for the promotion rather than just expecting it, and you've more chance of a positive response.

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