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I work in software development and at my current company, becoming a senior developer (and beyond) is a really tough task. The process takes a lot of time and involves multiple conversations with the team manager (and his manager) in which they will present their vision of how they see you, then you present your own self-assessment and then you talk about the differences. Feedback from other employees is taken into account as well.

I have a colleague on my team who is a solid developer (currently in a mid-level position) who applied internally for a lead developer role which we are currently looking for candidates for. While I appreciate the colleague in question taking responsibility on some fronts, organizing meetings and introducing new tools/technologies, I would consider him an "upper-mid-level" developer, based on his code, his approach and some other factors. Another developer on my team I spoke with regarding this has very similar views.

The colleague in question wants to be transparent, so he informed everyone that he has applied internally for the lead role. The colleague often complained about "not coming forward despite working for Company for years" and I know it would be very demotivating for him if I say that I don't see him fit for the role. However if/when the manager asks me about my opinion, I have to be honest - and I feel bad about it because I know the colleague hopes to get this role. I also don't want to stay in the dark and try be anonymous, and the colleague definitely deserves transparency.

How can I tell him that based on his current skills I don't see him as an appropriate candidate for the position in question without ruining our team spirit?

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  • 18
    Sometimes saying nothing at all is the best bet.
    – Neo
    Sep 24 '20 at 12:58
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    You say he's "currently in a mid-level position", you say you "consider him an "upper-mid-level" Developer", so wouldn't the logical next step for him be to step up to be a senior developer? From the way you describe the situation, it sounds like he's already most of the way there...
    – Aaron F
    Sep 24 '20 at 15:20
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    What is your position in this situation? Is your position of the same level as your colleague's, or are you his boss, or is your opinion about promoting him anyhow taken into account by the Company? It is very important to answer your question properly. Sep 24 '20 at 19:35
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    @Chris That is a stock photo and I suspect the name might also be made up
    – hojusaram
    Sep 25 '20 at 3:40
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    It seems you're mixing the terms "Senior developer" and "Lead developer". Imo they're quite different: being a team lead does not necessitate being god-level dev in a particular field. It means you know how to lead, motivate, cooperate, etc. Being a senior dev necessitates being a very good developer. Though they're not mutually exclusive, they're also definitely not the same thing. Someone can be perfectly qualified for either and not both.
    – rkeet
    Sep 25 '20 at 8:05
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How can I tell him that based on skills I don't see him as an appropriate candidate for the position in question without ruining our team spirit?

You don't. You wish him good luck and that's it. It's not on you to to tell him you don't think he's qualified. Let him go through the interview process and for all you know he may surprise them.

If you are approached about your opinions, by all means be honest and factual. But it's up to the hiring team to decide on his qualifications.

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    Yes, why poke your head in uninvited, he may be your future team lead and remember you in a bad light
    – Kilisi
    Sep 24 '20 at 0:51
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    So the management may deny the promotion and justify it like "based on the feedback we received from the team...". The colleague will for sure want to find out who thinks he's unqualified, so either we tell him or risk creating an atmosphere of distrust... Sep 24 '20 at 8:21
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    @KenaiSingh: If management points the finger at you (or the team) when this colleague asks why he didn't get the promotion, that is a failure on management's part to keep their internal communication internal. In your position, I would feel like management sold me out and did not treat my honest review confidentially. The end result is that I wouldn't be straightforward with them anymore if I they make me take the blowback for it.
    – Flater
    Sep 24 '20 at 11:22
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    @Flater From the question, the OP specifically does not want to stay anonymous. It sounds like the OP plans to tell this colleague directly. Sep 24 '20 at 13:42
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    " It sounds like the OP plans to tell this colleague directly" ... making him die inside, while not wanting to ruin the team spirit ... Sounds like cooking an omelet without breaking eggs to me.
    – Fildor
    Sep 24 '20 at 14:05
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Frame it positively: Name areas he should improve to become a Lead. Be as clear and actionable as possible. That way, you support your coworker and tell he what he has to do to reach his word.

Some sample phrasing could be: You told us you want to become Lead Dev. I greatly appreciate that you take responsibilty and that you want to improve things. I know its sometimes hard to objectively see yourself. So I want to help you by telling you areas where you improving yourself would greatly help your path to the Lead Dev Role. Work on X, Y, Z. (alternatively: improve or learn) Once you done that, you will be ready! I wish you the best.

If he asks something like: So you think I am not fit for Lead Dev? Answer something like: Not yet, but I can see you becoming a good one in the future.

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  • I agree with this one. I took a management class and one of the things they mentioned was, when giving criticism, always provide key guidelines/goals as to how someone can improve and additionally, how you/firm/other people can help them improve. So you need to provide concrete reasons why you don't think they are a fit. Then, concrete targets that they can hit, so that they can reach their goal. And then when hit, reward them. Also frame the discussion in looking forward, not in the past.
    – confused
    Sep 24 '20 at 10:28
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    I believe that advice is appropriate for a leadership role which includes management/mentoring. But the OP is not in a role where their criticism is needed, or requested; they are an observer–and, to be blunt, a gossip, in that they've broached with a colleague their opinion on the promotion-seeker. No good can come of this.
    – CCTO
    Sep 24 '20 at 13:52
  • I strictly answered the posed question of How? The question under which conditions this should be discussed is imo a separate topic, and depends on how the nature of the relationship between OP and the other person is.
    – Benjamin
    Sep 24 '20 at 15:23
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    I'd only go with the positive encouragement if it makes sense, in particular "Not yet, but I can see you becoming a good one in the future" can be true or not, OP might want to stay truthful to avoid drama later when it turns out the other dev is simply not made out to fill a lead dev position. In this case an alternative would be to point out other paths that could seem more fitting for the dev, e.g. a manager role, a pure architect role or a particular tech specialist role etc. depending on their strengths. Take this simply as a suggested addition, feel free to adopt or not dep. ;) Sep 24 '20 at 22:18
  • I'd very much go with this. Tell him what he is great at (give examples if possible), then give areas for work, giving examples of what you would need. I'd also talk him through the higher standards your company has, so he knows they're higher and how that works. It's impressive that he is willing to be transparent and that demonstrates leadership skills IMO. Remember, people change and grow and that in itself is a key requirement for a development position. If you can create positive pathways forward for him, and affirm how he's grown, that can actually be deeply encouraging and real.
    – Brian C
    Sep 27 '20 at 7:22
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If management asks you for your opinion, give it to them. I second Benjamin's answer in that you should be aware of the framing; don't say that he is unqualified outright, rather say that you are unsure and mention the areas in which you see potential for improvement.

Do not say to your colleague that you think they are unqualified. This is for a number of reasons:

  1. It achieves nothing - your colleague won't change his mind.
  2. It may create bad blood. If your colleague is indeed promoted, you may have to work with them. In this case, you do not want them to dislike you already.
  3. If you are not asked, it is simply not your place to give such opinions. They may be a solid but not outstanding developer, but management might consider them for their qualities as a person. After all, a team leader has to be personable, this role requires social skills.

Summary

If explicitly asked, give feedback. Otherwise, say nothing as there simply are no advantages for you.

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Tell your colleague what you would need to see in order for you to recommend them, which leaves you open to the possibility that they have assets or artifacts you just haven't seen yet. This builds from Benjamin's answer, positively and honestly telling the colleague where they have room to improve, but while communicating that you want to support them as much as possible.

For example: As I understand it, a lead role would require you to lead 3-4 people across 6+ months, including selecting some project metrics that benefit the company and presenting them at a CTO level. Could you highlight some areas of your work that speak to those so I can reflect them in my recommendation? If you don't think those areas are quite where they should be, I can keep my eyes open for some good opportunities for you to show those skills in the future.

  • If the colleague can back up those skills well, you can write better feedback that highlight the positive things they have done.
  • If the colleague acknowledges their weakness there, then you agree, and you have aligned yourself to help shore up their weaknesses.
  • If the colleague thinks their experience is stronger than it is, you can say what you were hoping to see, and subtly acknowledge that you may not be able to give an unqualified recommendation in that area.
  • If the colleague disagrees that you're using the right guidelines for what a lead dev entails, that could be a productive conversation. If possible, refer to the job listing, any internal job ladder descriptions, or experiences with other colleagues that proved those skills useful.

I've used similar techniques for letters of recommendation and outside-of-company referrals: You can simultaneously reveal what you believe are weaknesses by asking for help in writing a stronger recommendation, which might also help the candidate present their work in a way that better suits the role.

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Benjamin provided a very good answer that I'd like to expand upon, and provide a bit of a rebuttal to Ian Jacobs' answer.

The bottom line is: You should not tell him you think he is un-/underqualified for the Lead position. Telling him such outright is likely to break him and you may end up losing him as an employee.

What you should do instead, is, as Benjamin suggested, tell him that he is lacking in certain areas which are of critical importance for the lead position. Tell him what those areas are, and what he needs to do, in an actionable way, to get him where he needs to be. The difference is, in the former situation, you are telling him "no". In the second situation, you are telling him "Yes, but first you have to do X, Y, and Z, and once you've done that then you'll be ready". His goal is to be a Lead Developer, at your company or at another. If your company will get him there, then he'll stay; if you won't, then he'll find another company who will. So while you can't give him what he wants now, you want to show him that what he wants is attainable and if possible in the short-term.

As for the other alternative, to simply butt out and wish him good luck: don't do that. You have strong reason to believe he will fail if he tries. Presumably the committee which reviews these things do not provide detailed feedback. So he'll apply, get rejected, and receive no feedback. That's a "no". And as we said above, if your company says "no", he'll find another company that will say "yes". You'll lose him as an employee if you go this route; there are infinite questions on this site from people who say "I lost my promotion what should I do", and the answer is almost universally "find another job". So don't put your employee in this position if you value him.

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  • Do keep in mind that the OP is not in any position to tell him 'No' or 'Yes'. The OP is not his boss or even management in the company. The only way he could possibly influence the decision is to either talk to the people in charge (which he is afraid might happen) or try to talk the OP out of doing this, but it's already after he has applied. So him telling him 'I don't think you're good enough, you should improve on X' is NOT the same as the company doing that. In fact, even though he tells him no, his colleague might still get the promotion, which will get awkward fast.
    – Mark
    Sep 25 '20 at 11:37

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