Few Microsoft engineers change positions between mid-May and mid-August—they don’t want a role change to adversely impact their annual performance ratings, which lock around mid-August. Of course, managers shouldn’t allow position changes to unduly impact ratings. Then again, eating a taco from a roadside stand should not result in dysentery, but sometimes it does.

Once ratings are locked in mid-August, there’s usually a spike in people transferring amongst teams. Should you transfer? Don’t be a fool. Determine if it’s worth it.

Transferring jobs costs you career momentum, especially cross-division transfers (details below). If you hate your boss and your team, a change may be due. If you’re stuck at the same level with no growth in sight, a transfer may be necessary. If you just want to try something new or play with some cool technology, then I hope you like your current level because you’re staying there a while.

Transferring jobs costs you career momentum—it had better be worth it. If you like your current team and manager, and you’re making good progress on your career goals, stay put! Enjoy! Don’t transfer arbitrarily—it will set you back. How much? When is it worth it? Glad you asked.

How long will it take?

Job searches take about a month, maybe two, for entry and intermediate engineers. Senior engineer searches can take a few months, and principal engineer searches can take four months or more. Likewise, it usually takes longer for principal engineers to acclimate and return to full productivity (six to nine months) than senior engineers (three to six months) or entry-level engineers (one to three months). That’s because principal engineers are expected to impact the entire group, and it takes longer to learn the entire group’s social and technological dynamics.

Eric Aside

You can read all about these Microsoft career stages in my Level up column. The times I give are rough based on ranges I’ve seen with friends, colleagues, and personally over the past 15 years.

Adding up these time spans, a job transfer can cost up to five months for an entry-level or intermediate engineer, nine months for a senior engineer, and a year or more for a principal engineer—and that doesn’t count the potential impact on annual review rating. Surprised? Wake up! Transfers aren’t free.   

If you are a senior engineer and transfer in February, you may not be adjusted to your new team by June, when annual calibration is done. You may need an additional six months to regain your momentum after a poor rating. I talk about how to establish yourself quickly on a new team in The new guy, but timing of transfers is an important consideration.

Transfers within your division or, better yet, your current group cut search and acclimation times significantly. People are more likely to know you, and you’re more likely to be familiar with the people, their engineering methods, and their technology. All of this makes landing a role and attaining full productivity faster. The basic rule is, “The further away you travel, the longer it takes.”

Quit stalling

Hopefully, you are enjoying your current role and have a supportive manager who’s helping you meet your career aspirations. If not, you’ll want to compare the transfer cost I just outlined with the cost of staying put. If you are in hell, then you probably want to transfer at nearly any cost—but what if your career is stalled?

You’re stalled if you’re not achieving your career goals in terms of level, skills, or role—whatever is important to you. Will your stall last longer than the search and acclimation of a transfer? That depends on the kind of stall: a crowded elevator, out in the void, or a caged animal.

Crowded elevator

If you’re seeking a senior or principal promotion at the same time as several other members in your team, your elevator to the next level is pretty crowded. You may not be able to get in.

A team with 20 members will promote roughly six people a year. This rate is based on a bunch of variables, like promotion budget (typically around 2 percent) and the size of promotion raises (typically around 6 percent, but can vary widely based on current salary). Out of those six available promotions, you’d expect perhaps one or two senior promotions, zero or one principal promotions, and the rest entry-level or intermediate promotions. Thus, if you and three peers are due for a senior promotion at the same time, two of you are likely to be stalled for six months at least.

Even if only two people are due for promotion, they may not both be promoted—budget is a necessary but not sufficient condition. There also needs to be a business need and readiness of the people involved.

If you are stalled due to a crowded elevator, you can…

  • Work with your manager to ensure a spot for you on the elevator (fast, but risky).
  • Wait a year for the elevator to clear out (costs six to 12 months, and others could take your place).
  • Hope other people transfer, leaving space in the elevator (risky, and may cost a year).
  • Transfer to a group with a larger or less-crowded lift (risky, and costs search and acclimation time).

Your best choice is the option most likely to get your career moving in the least amount of time. Be honest with yourself about the risks, and choose wisely.

Eric Aside

Concentrate on one promotion stage at a time. If you’re looking for a senior promotion, don’t worry about the principal stage elevator being full. That’s far enough away for many factors to change by the time it’s your turn.

Also consider how important promotion velocity is for you. If you have unrealistic expectations, you may never be satisfied. If you enjoy your current role, you may not want to rush into a larger one. Either way, talk to your manager about your goals. At the very least, you’ll find out what your manager is thinking.

Out in the void

If your team is working on a fringe project—one that isn’t part of a major product line, doesn’t ship, seems like a pet project, or involves unusual work for Microsoft engineers—you’re out in the void, and career growth may be limited. Basically, there’s only so much investment Microsoft puts into fringe projects—you don’t want to be caught unaware.

Being out in the void isn’t necessarily bad. Often these projects provide unique growth experiences that can accelerate your career. However, if you stay too long, you might find yourself stalled or your project canceled. Usually, a two- to three-year stay is enough to gain experience without significant risk.

Caged animal

The worst situation is when your manager prevents your career growth—you become a caged animal. While this is relatively rare, it can happen. Sometimes it’s not intentional.  Perhaps you’ve outgrown your current role, but you and your manager don’t realize it until it’s too late. Now you’re stuck.

While transferring out of your cage may seem like the obvious solution, consider your situation carefully first.

  • Is your manager about to leave? If he leaves in less time than a search and acclimation would take, you might be better off staying. Who knows? You might help fill the leadership void.
  • Was the cage unintended? If so, you and your manager can probably identify opportunities opening up in the near future on your current team.
  • Was the cage one of your own making? If so, transferring won’t help. You need to deal with your own demons directly before throwing them at someone else. Remember, focus on your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses in order to grow.
  • Do you work for a filthy barnyard animal that plays favorites, lacks integrity, and garners little trust or respect? If so, by all means, leave as soon as possible—involving HR as appropriate.

No one should remain a caged animal. Release yourself and get your career back on track.

Leaving on a jet plane

What about transferring outside of Microsoft? Putting aside my belief that, even with all its faults, Microsoft is an awesome place where you can truly change the world, transferring to another company is an option that will certainly impact your search and acclimation times. Your search takes longer because interviews are tougher to schedule, there’s often travel involved, and there’s more paperwork. Your acclimation takes longer because you may need to move to a new city, the corporate culture will be quite different, and the technology may be quite different. Be prepared for your transfer time to be as much as double what it would within Microsoft. I hope that new job is twice as good.

Eric Aside

Personally, I’ll never leave Microsoft for another software job. Allow me to quote from my introduction to the last chapter of my book, Hard Code:

I love Microsoft. Having worked for academia (RPI), the government (JPL), small business (GRAFTEK), mid-size business (SGI), and large business (Boeing), Microsoft is by far the best place I’ve been. For all its faults and gaffes, Microsoft has three amazing strengths:

  • The people in charge earnestly want to make the world a better place…through software. At every other company I’ve known, the approach is the opposite: be successful in a field and hope it improves the world.
  • The people in charge hire the best and then fundamentally trust them at the lowest levels to make decisions and run the business. Naturally, this has led to some problems over the years and forced checks to be put in place, but empowerment is more than a nice buzzword.
  • The people in charge embrace and encourage change and then have the patience and perseverance to see it through. So many companies fight to keep their comfortable status quo. Microsoft fights its size and legacy to constantly improve and adapt to the world it helped shape.

Keep moving

The bottom line is that you never want your career to stall for long. If you are stuck with little chance for growth due to a crowded elevator, being out in the void, or being caged, take action to open your opportunities.

Sometimes creating opportunities means transferring jobs. Sometimes it means altering the situation in your current role. You might also consider a discipline change or change in area ownership. Keep your options open and your career moving.

Since many divisions are now functional organizations where movement within discipline is easy, the perfect time to recharge your career may be at the end of a ship cycle. Often divisions encourage people movement at the end of a cycle, so take advantage of the short search and acclimation times available.

Take charge of your career. Avoid chasing the latest trends or mimicking your peers. Instead, be thoughtful about your career. Choose to be around people you respect, trust, and enjoy. Choose a path that leads toward the growth you seek. Prepare for success, and it will be yours.

Eric Aside

If you decide to transfer, be sure to check out Get a job for advice on finding the right role and The new guy for advice on establishing yourself in your new group.