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I've worked for a smallish (~200 employees) insurance provider for almost 5 years as a web developer. My 5 year review is next month and I think this review is a good time to reflect on the growth I've achieved over the last 5 years and look forward to what my future with the company might be.

Ultimately, I want to use the review to let my boss know that I'm interested in earning a promotion. I feel sort of directionless in this effort because there is no clear track for advancement in the company. We've had a few guys who have been with the company for a long time earn Business Analyst titles (ex: Software Developer/Business Analyst), some people in the company have earned "Senior" or "2nd Level" positions (ex: Senior PC Tech or Developer II), and then of course there a couple who have earned management positions.

All of that to say that if you asked me what I'm looking for, I'd struggle to answer eloquently. I've managed my projects well, offered unique solutions no one else had thought of, impressed clients on several occasions (to the point of them going out of their way to write kind reviews of my work to my boss), stayed late to hit important deadlines, and proved that I'm a reliable employee. But I don't know which of the previously mentioned titles is best for me.

My biggest concern is that there are currently no open positions so I can't say "I'd like to apply for X position."

Most of what I'm trying to communicate is that I'm eager for advancement and I need their help figuring out what that might look like, what the company may need from me, and what areas I might need to get better in so that I'll deserve it when the time comes.

I don't want to come across as demanding a promotion where there is none available. But pay is slightly lower than the industry average albeit not totally unreasonable (pretty typical for a non-profit like we are) and I don't know if I want to keep working for this company for another 5 years if there's nothing out there for me to achieve.

How should I approach this topic?

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Most of what I'm trying to communicate is that I'm eager for advancement and I need their help figuring out what that might look like, what the company may need from me, and what areas I might need to get better in so that I'll deserve it when the time comes.

I'd pretty much put that to your manager verbatim in the review. Something like:

I'm eager to further my career here, I've enjoyed my time over the last 5 years and believe I've proven myself a valuable employee. However, I'm undecided on an exact path to take at present. What positions and opportunities do you think are likely to become available that could be a good fit, and how would you suggest I best target those opportunities?

That won't give you anything conclusive of course, but you'll be able to "read the room", so to speak. If they sound keen, eager, and start pointing out lots of opportunities and potential paths, training they could put you on, talk about timescales etc. then this gives you a great starting point in deciding what direction you want to take.

If they act shifty, start talking about how that's not really on the cards, they're vague, just generally say "oh some stuff might come up in future", "we could change your job title if you like", etc. then there's likely not much future there, and you should probably look to move on.

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You would normally engage with your manager on it and give him a version of that spiel.

Now, he or she is not going to do the work of "deciding what you want to be when you grow up" for you - in the end, driving your career is always your sole responsibility. But they can begin to coach you on what the options are, what they think you can work on to ready yourself for those options, and so on. You can seed it with questions like "What does the career progression here look like? What is required for me to become a Whatever I Am Right Now Level +1? What would be required for me to go after another opportunity like management or Random Role X?"

If you don't have a regular one-on-one with your manager, it's time to start. At least every other week if you're this lost and 2 years in. It makes me sad how many managers out there don't proactively do this with all their reports, but most are at least open to doing it if you ask.

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  • I think asking what the career progression here looks like will be a big one, you're right. – TheIronCheek Mar 5 '20 at 14:34
  • We do annual reviews but nothing like a regular one-on-one. – TheIronCheek Mar 5 '20 at 14:36
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In general, this kind of review will go much better if you tell them the plan.
If you show the initiative, they will likely shuffle things around so that you can get to where you want to go.

On the other hand, if you've been there 5 years and you don't even know what you want to do, you're likely in a position where you've been riding the current to wherever it leads.

If you just express that you are looking to move up somewhere, then it's likely that you'll be presented an opportunity or title eventually, when it's convenient for everyone.


With that said, your next steps are probably to

  • Gain awareness of the company on your own. What do others above you do? What skills do they have? How did they get there?
  • When you see what there is (and also importantly, what there isn't--gaps!), you can then choose where you want to progress
  • Evaluate your own skills properly
  • Make a roadmap
  • Present that roadmap to your boss, but be flexible. Allow for feedback.
  • If the boss agrees, execute.

Especially if your manager is non-technical, it's common for managers to forget about the growth of those below them. Don't expect someone to spoon feed you!


TLDR: The review it self is a great opportunity to take the first step, not the zeroth step. Do the work on your own

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  • "this kind of review will go much better you tell them the plan" - agreed. That's my struggle. I like what I do now and the company I work for. If you asked me 10 years ago what I wanted to be when I grow up, it'd be basically what I'm doing now. But now that I've achieved it, I have a lot of flexibility in terms of how to advance. So what I'd like to do is focus on a combination of where I'm most naturally gifted and what the company needs the most. Accurately self evaluating would help decide the former but I need managerial input to know the department's future for the latter. – TheIronCheek Mar 5 '20 at 14:31
  • If that's the case, then maybe it can't be helped. Personally, i'd try to talk to my manager asap so you can spend a month planning. If you can't, then i guess you gotta burn a review chance getting feedback and try again later – Mars Mar 5 '20 at 14:45
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I'm going to answer this question by letting you know what I have done to move up within the company I work for and I am currently doing now to get a new title.

At the end of my annual review I asked if there is anything that I can improve on. I also asked if there was anything extra I could do to better the company. (I got put on a new project to assist with inventory management, and also added two more goals to our tracking system which affect the bottom line of the company.) At the end of this conversation I also mentioned that I would like to grow within the company and further my career here. This always looks good to management it shows dedication to the company instead of just looking for the better title where you could potentially look elsewhere for your promotion. If the conversation continues beyond this and leads into talking about a potential promotion just go about it naturally but it's best to wait until you can show that you can follow through what was asked of you.

After the meeting I created a document showing proof of my accomplishments for the company, and also my own personal achievements outside of work. I am going to my manager with what title I would like to hold, along with why I feel like it would be better for the team and for the company. (With this title there will be more structure and a clear "chain of command" when it comes to issues within the department.)

I have not gone back to sit down for a promotion proposal yet. There are a couple of goals I would like to accomplish first, and also it's best to wait a period of time after the review to show you can truly focus on your goals and deliver what was promised as well as maintain.

DO NOT SAY YOU DESERVE IT that is the quickest way to be shut down. Be confident and sell yourself on how and why you can do more for the company with a different title. In the meeting focus on the company's goals and not your own. You're more likely to be approved.

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I'm going to answer this with a slight frame challenge, because I think the root of your problem is you don't know what to say to your boss simply because you don't know what it is you're asking for. I'm basing this on your statement of,

if you asked me what I'm looking for, I'd struggle to answer eloquently

You also mention other people getting different titles, but you aren't clearly interested in a specific title. While it's okay to ask your boss for help figuring all of this out, it's important to reflect inwardly, too - what does "a promotion" or "advancement" mean, to you?

I feel sort of directionless in this effort because there is no clear track for advancement in the company

Don't focus on the company - focus on yourself. What you want, what you are worth. Some companies will lay out a clear advancement path, but even when that's the case, that path may not actually be rewarding for all staff, so focusing on what the company is putting in front of you is looking for a solution without understanding the problem. Let me repeat: the real problem here is that you need personal direction. Then, you can decide if the options at the company make sense or not.

I also want to highlight something else in your question. You say the following:

I've managed my projects well, offered unique solutions no one else had thought of, impressed clients on several occasions (to the point of them going out of their way to write kind reviews of my work to my boss), stayed late to hit important deadlines, and proved that I'm a reliable employee

That's all great! It sounds like you are a valuable employee. But consider that evidence as self-answering the question you ask a few sentences later:

I need their help figuring out what that might look like, what the company may need from me, and what areas I might need to get better in

Ultimately, it sounds like you're already doing what the company wants you to do. If you ask your boss about your future, they may simply say, "keep being a good employee!"

The situation you're in is fairly common among software developers working for a non-software employer (an insurance company). What they want is a really good software developer. It's not surprising that there isn't a predefined "path." Existence of a well structured and unlimited growth path is usually dependent on an organization being really large, and/or focusing on that specific thing (software development, versus insurance). Neither of those are the case for your employer. But that might not be terminal, depending on exactly what you decide you're looking for. Ultimately, if you're eager for advancement, you need to:

  • Decide what "advancement" means. Do you want to get better and better and better at what you're currently doing? That will likely play into your employer's desires very well. Some employers like yours will be very happy to compensate a really good developer well, but you may be limited in terms of "growth" if "growth" means management or a future without limits in terms of the scope, subject matter, or focus of your development efforts.
  • Talk honestly with your employer about what you want. If you want to keep getting better at what you're doing, say so. If you want to be able to try different tech stacks or dip your toe into project management or business analysis or some other position, say so. The worst that can happen is you get told that the company can't really support that.
  • If your employer is unsupportive of the direction you want to go, you have a decision to make: how much do you care about that particular type of growth? If you care a lot you may need to focus on doing a good job of picking a new employer who will support that path. But many people will be somewhat complacent in the sense of preferring a steady job over their "ideal" type of growth opportunity.

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