The Curious Case of Not Hiring Directly into Software Engineer V (Or Whatever)
“What about the principal consultant role?”
“Oh, we don’t hire into that position.”
This exchange occurred over 6 years ago. At the time, I was interviewing for a role with a consulting agency (or something calling itself that, anyway). They had four salary bands for their developer/consultants, and shooting for the top wasn’t out of bounds with my experience level. So I asked. And then they told me about this policy by way of dismissing the question.
I’m not exactly sure why this instance stands out so much in my mind. Perhaps because it occurred so explicitly. But when I think about it, I think every salaried gig I ever had featured some kind of unique role like this at the top of the individual contributor set of software people. In other words, at every job I ever had, there was always exactly one titular band — Senior Software Engineer II or Principal Developer or whatever — reserved only for the company’s dues-payers.
Not having been a wage worker for a long time, I hadn’t thought about this for years. But I heard someone mention a corporate policy like this in passing the other day, and it got me thinking.
I dunno. Call it nostalgia or whatever, but given my recent opting for whimsy with the blog, I figured I’d riff on this.
The Curious Case of “We Don’t Hire for X”
Stop for a moment, at this point, and think about how deeply weird this little corporate quirk is. I mean, you’re probably used to it, so it might be a little hard to do this mental exercise. Like the job interview, fundamentally nonsensical practices can create a sort of Stockholm Syndrome in corporate denizens.
So let’s blast away the cobwebs with a helpful graphic. Below is the skeleton of what some org chart might look like. As the GIF flashes, you’ll see color coordination. In red, you have the positions that the company will staff from the outside. Remaining clear, you’ll see all of the positions that the company has a policy to staff only via promotion.
Interesting, eh? Trickling down from CEO to C-suite to VPs to directors to managers, you have positions that a company will staff from outside, if need be. Sure, sometimes they may want to promote from within, and often they’ll do exactly that. But companies will bring in outsiders for leadership roles.
They’ll also typically look for outsiders to fill any of the roles at the individual contributor level, from Software Engineer I through Software Engineer XVI, or whatever, depending on the richness and thickness of the HR matrix.
But then you’ve got that one… it’s always an impressive sounding title, and it’s always where individual contributors go to max out, collecting COLAs and generally demurring against nudges to management.
The Elusive Salary Band: The Stock Explanation
I’m going to dig back into my corporate hierarchy terms for the remainder of this post. You can read about those here in more detail, but this graphic should help.
Here’s the explanation that the organization’s idealists and pragmatists offer. (The opportunists mainly stand aside, in sort of a benign, corporate version of the adage, “never interfere with an enemy while he is in the process of destroying himself.”) It’s a superficially plausible one, if you don’t bring too much scrutiny to bear.
The idea is that the top salary band represents the most valuable software developers in the group to the company. These developers combine technical skill with a certain je ne sais quoi that combines experience, domain knowledge, inside company baseball, and embodying the company’s values and training.
You don’t hire into this position because that would be impossible. Take Jenny, your most senior rainmaker in the group. She knows every namespace in the code, can fix anything in the field in short order, and has the trust and love of all the customers. No matter how skilled an outsider may be, they’ll need to spend some time under her tutelage to get to her level.
Outsiders Getting to The Next Level Doesn’t Pass the Opportunist Smell Test
This is an excellent explanation, as long as it’s manufactured by pragmatists and idealists, for pragmatists and idealists. It’s a nice, self-reinforcing narrative that raises loyalty to the company and humbleness as virtues. The good guys win. (Except for the fact that these types of policies are expert beginner incubators, but let’s leave that for another day.)
Except, none of this squares with how leadership in buying positions tends to see the world.
I’ve done a lot of management consulting over the last 4 years. And here’s an observation that may surprise you. While everyone might love and celebrate Jenny in both your group and client situations, leadership generally does not love Jenny. At best, they appreciate her contributions, respect her and are wary of her. And often, she terrifies them.
Having Jennies is a serious organizational weakness.
When you’re running a business, you don’t want employees that can hold you hostage. If the success of your organization depends on some individual not leaving, that’s trouble. If people have to come on and log 2-3 years of work, “paying their dues,” because that’s how long it takes to max out their efficiency, that’s systemic trouble. Good organizations don’t work that way.
And consider that for every awesome Jenny, there’s one who has single-handedly created this expertise bottleneck by building some monstrous 30,000 line singleton that only she understands, and which would explode like a suitcase nuke if she didn’t come in once per week to type in her secret code.
So while you might like the elusive “must pay dues to get here” salary band because it reinforces a feel-good narrative, this is categorically not why your organization’s opportunists tolerate and encode it.
Opportunist Motives Demystified: Why They Create This Policy and Role
Rather than drawing this out to the end of the story for a grand reveal, I’ll just get to it right here. The reasoning for it doesn’t make the whole situation any less interesting.
But let me offer a brief caveat. If you read my stuff about the denizens of the corporate world — pragmatists, idealists, and opportunists — you might conceive of the opportunists as Illuminati-like figures whose every move is diabolically intentional in a 3-dimensional chess game. Not so. Opportunists usually operate at a more intuitive office-political level. They might do something for reasons they can’t exactly articulate, simply thinking that it “feels right” or “is the right play.”
Here we have one of these situations.
Few if any opportunists would state explicitly why they allow this company policy: because it depresses salary across the board while weaponizing mastery and purpose against longer-tenured employees to keep them in place. Instead, they’d say something like, “it seems like a win for everyone. It rewards people for staying, makes us seem more prestigious, and it’s a non-monetary reward. They love it, and it doesn’t cost the company anything to do.”
In short, the opportunists do this to place a governor on top-end salary in the department. It’s a way to keep giving nominal COLAs to veterans who stay around forever, but without letting that distort the standard pay brackets. If there’s a “special, inside-promotion only” band at the top, you can let that band increase 2% a year forever with the top earning person’s COLA, while still keeping the pay for your workforce capped at something not affected by unbounded seniority.
There’s a Lot More to Unpack Here, So Tune in Next Time
It’s about 1 AM, and I’m tired. This is shaping up to be a 3,000-ish word post, so I think I’ll break here and declare a to-be-continued.
Next week, I’ll cover some concepts that explain why software folks and the unique journeyman idealist caste are particularly susceptible to this dynamic. As I’ve said, the opportunists mostly just stand back and watch us do this to ourselves. To understand how that works, I’ll cover some interesting topics:
- A concept that Venkat Rao coins on Ribbonfarm, known as status illegibility.
- An appropos Groucho Marx quote from that post, “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.”
- How immediately unattainable positions manufacture collective organizational status.
- “We never give a grade of A” as a bargaining weapon.
And we’ll probably meander through another few topics as well. So stay tuned for the wrap of examining the realpolitik dynamics of the elusive internal-promotion-only position.