Celebrate other people’s victories!

“Why did that moron get promoted and I didn’t???” Tell me you’ve never thought that. I’m sure you have at some point in your career. I’ve thought it plenty of times. It was so toxic. Eventually I learned that when you start genuinely celebrating other people’s achievements, instead of envying them, it opens your eyes and you learn more from others.

You may have gotten burned by watching other (less deserving?) individuals get promoted over you so you may be approaching my story today with some cynicism. After all, the Peter Principle can be real (that employees rise until they reach a level of respective incompetence). But in my 25 years in the industry (11 at Microsoft, 11 at Amazon, 2 at Google), in the long run the system does tend to do the right thing. In all 3 companies we did a significant amount of due diligence in promotions. So these days I choose to focus on the positive.

My journey to reach this mindset was not pretty, nor am I proud of some of the steps along the way. But I am proud of where I am today. This is the story of that journey.

Prologue: A high school band concert

My 14-yr old son has been playing trombone in the school band for a long time. The last couple of years, getting together to play instruments during a pandemic was difficult, but the kids powered through with a positive attitude and ingenuity to make it work, playing their instruments on Zoom for many grueling months. Then when they were able to get together in person, they wore special masks tailored for their specific instruments, which I’m sure was awful. Recently, as covid restrictions eased, they were able to put together in-person concerts. I can’t imagine how difficult this entire process must have been. I continue to be awe-struck by their tenacity and their spirit. Their concerts were awesome, and I proudly attended every one of them.

At the last concert of the school year the teacher was going to be giving awards. I have to be candid and tell you that the prospect of sitting through an hour of politely clapping for other people’s kids (that I never met) sounded dreadful. I even thought perhaps it would be possible for me to turn the dimness of my laptop down to discreetly get some work done while the ceremony was happening. My wife’s disapproving look as she saw me slowly pulling out my Mac was enough to kill those plans. So I forced a smile, and settled in for a long hour of fake politeness with a big sigh.

Yet something amazing happened. The teacher announced the name of the kid who got the first award and his peers exploded in jubilant cheers. I looked around the auditorium in disbelief. This wasn’t forced politeness. This was genuine happiness and honest celebration of that kid’s achievement. I was puzzled and intrigued. These teenagers were actually proud of each other!

As the ceremony went on, this continued, and I willingly became an active participant. Not everybody got an award, but the ones who did and the ones who didn’t celebrated all the achievements with equal excitement. I had never seen anything like this before! It was so refreshing.

At what point, as adults, do we lose the ability to celebrate other people’s achievements in earnest? — I thought to myself as we were driving home.

Because it’s true. We grow up, and we focus so much on our own achievements, and our frustration when we don’t get something we believe we’ve earned (like a promotion) that it hinders our ability to celebrate other people’s achievements. That’s toxic.

1993: Hoping others don’t succeed… out of necessity

Being an immigrant, I lived below the poverty line all throughout high school and college. At any given point I probably had no more than a couple of hundred dollars in savings, so I was only able to put myself through university with scholarships. But since I was an alien, and most scholarships were only for US citizens or permanent residents, I was only eligible for a few, very competitive ones. I needed to pretty much keep a straight 4.0 grade point average to get them. College professors graded on a curve, so other people getting As reduced my own chances of getting As, which reduced my own chances of keeping my scholarship, which reduced my own chances of finishing college. I wasn’t particularly competitive by nature, but I started hoping others would not succeed simply out of necessity. It was just a pragmatic self-preservation need in a zero-sum world.

1997–2009: Microsoft: the envy seeps in

21-yr old, fresh out of college, and first job at Microsoft!

I joined Microsoft as a Software Engineer out of college in 1997. Back then, the levels weren’t available on the directory. Talking about your level was about as taboo as talking about your actual salary. It was just considered a very private piece of information. You had no idea if the person next to you was an entry level engineer or a principal engineer.

I don’t know if it was done as an equalizer so that more senior engineers couldn’t bias a conversation by pulling rank, or simply to hide the fact that a lot of promotions were quid pro quo politics. Microsoft in the nineties had a number of irregularities of that sort. For example, there was an individual that started having an affair with her manager’s manager (who was married). It was pretty scandalous and they weren’t particularly subtle. That individual was promoted every single year for four consecutive years without discernible merit or even the basic qualifications required for the job.

Without knowing what individuals were being rewarded by the system, I had no idea what behaviors I should be emulating. I received very little growth guidance from my managers. I had no mentors or role models. My first few years of career growth were very much in the dark, and so I meandered through the entry levels throwing things at the wall to see what would stick. I figured hard work and dedication would eventually be rewarded.

Then one day circa 2002, the company decided to make the levels available on the directory. I had been actively pursuing a promotion to Senior Engineer for a while. I had created some cool technology that saved Microsoft millions and even pulled off an all nighter for a Bill Gates critical demo, yet was passed over for promotion on two consecutive attempts, so I was carrying some frustration already. That morning though, I was throughly disgusted, as I scrolled through the directory looking at who was Senior Engineer. If I was carrying a chip on my shoulder over my failure to get promoted, that day it became a boulder, because I saw what I thought was injustice after injustice.

Was the system unfair? Probably, at least in some cases. But today, when I think back about that time, with more insight, I think perhaps some of those individuals had done things that I was unaware of, or perhaps if I paid more attention to their actions with a more objective lens, I would have seen things I didn’t. If the older and wiser Carlos from 2022 could time-travel to 2002, I’d grab the younger and more hasty Carlos and I‘d say: “Dude, stop. You’re doing a great disservice to your career. Have more humility, put your feelings aside, open your eyes. You could be learning so much from the people you despise.”

But, time travel doesn’t exist yet, so without that guidance the younger me descended into a spiral of frustration, resentment, and a general crappy work attitude which got me further and further away from that promotion I had been chasing. In fact I got in so much trouble that I almost got fired.

To be fair, it wasn’t just me being toxic. Ballmer’s Microsoft was truly a toxic place in general. Bill Gates’ Microsoft was amazing; Satya Nadella’s Microsoft fills me with hope, but there’s a reason Steve Ballmer’s Microsoft is called “The Lost Decade.” I first-hand saw constant political fighting and backstabbing as the company slid from mediocrity into oblivion. Finally, in 2009, I had had enough: I left Microsoft and joined Amazon.

2009: Amazon: a fresh start!

I was aware that I was in a vicious cycle, so I decided to have a fresh start, deliberately leaving a lot of my preconceived notions behind when I joined Amazon.

Amazon was peculiar in a number of ways, one of which is the cult of the Principal Engineer. Principal Engineers at Amazon are put on a pedestal, and their word carries a huge amount of weight. More so than at Microsoft or Google. This also means there’s a giant spotlight on them at all times. The most prestigious internal talk series is the Principals of Amazon (POA) Talks. Getting a Principal Design Review is a rite of passage for any amazonian. It’s not uncommon to hear “go talk to a Principal about that” when there’s doubt about which way to go in a project. There’s also a strong expectation that as a Principal Engineer, you’re a clear, visible role model and invest in helping others around you grow. The Principal promotion process was also extremely heavy in the early days, with rounds and rounds of members of the community scrutinizing the candidate’s code, design docs and behavior, and ended with a required consensus from a centralized panel of Distinguished Engineers.

All of a sudden, I had very public role models around me. I had a clear North Star. Every single Amazon Principal that I met was awesome. Principals are ~3% of the Amazon population, so not every team has easy access to one. I started treasuring my tiny bits of exposure to them here and there. These were individuals that I respected. I started opening my eyes more and more in every single meeting, often catching myself thinking “wow, when I grow up I want to be just like that person!”

In fact this is how I found my first true mentor. My team had signed up for a Principal Design Review, and this guy I didn’t know kept asking really hard questions that showed a huge amount of insight and judgement. He was wearing bright red shorts in the middle of winter, which I found eccentric and intriguing. I didn’t even know who he was, but I walked right up to him after the meeting and I asked him to be my mentor. He turned out to be a Senior Principal that had single-handedly architected a bunch of critical parts of AWS. It also turned out he only wears shorts to work, and he only has 5, each one a different color for a different day of the week. He was my mentor for years, and influenced me in so many positive ways (but I don’t wear shorts in the dead of winter — hi jasso!).

I was so inspired by this group of people that I thought: I want to be part of this community. I would be proud to be a part of this community. People around me got promoted to Principal. I myself went for Principal promotion, and didn’t get it the first time around. Instead of envying their promotions, I celebrated them. I sought them out to learn how they had done it. I listened to them talk during meetings. I read their design docs. And eventually, I too, was promoted to Principal Engineer in 2014. I think that change in attitude had a lot to do with it.

Parting thoughts

I was in an organization where the VP would send an email after each promotion season, listing the individuals that were promoted with a little blurb on why they were promoted. They stopped doing that “because it was hurting the feelings of the people who had failed to get promoted that time.”

No, no, no. I want to know who is getting promoted and why, even if I was up for promotion that cycle and I’m disappointed I didn’t get mine. I have to have the humility to understand they may have done something exceptional that I didn’t do, and that I should learn from that. Every time I see somebody achieve something, I view it as an opportunity to dissect the work that person put to get to that point. Every time that an individual with a level higher than mine speaks, I view it as an opportunity to scrutinize the behavior that person exhibits. Spending 25 years of my career at Microsoft, Amazon and Google has exposed me to some extraordinary individuals, so I’ll take all the osmosis I can, to become a better engineer and a better person.

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