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