"I Was Under Leveled!" — Avoiding the Tragedy of Making Only $500k a Year
While most topics in the ByteByteGo newsletter focus on technical knowledge, we also acknowledge the critical role of soft skills, particularly for senior engineers. In today's issue, we are fortunate to have Dave Anderson, former Amazon General Manager and Tech Director, as our guest contributor. He is renowned for his invaluable career guidance in the industry. I follow his newsletter regularly and have yet to find anyone else who offers such actionable and practical career advice.
I also encourage you to check out his leadership and career-oriented newsletter for further insights.
Senior employees and executives make a common mistake while interviewing. They try to answer the interview questions, instead of focusing on their goals.
It's been a while since I wrote an interview advice article. With the tech layoffs creating a spike in interview coaching demand, I thought that passing along some of my most common feedback would be a good use of my time.
When I was at Amazon, one common complaint I'd hear from newly hired employees was, "I was Under Leveled." What they meant was that they felt that they'd received an offer for a position at a lower level than they deserved.
I distinctly remember one Senior Manager (making in the ballpark of $500k yearly.. yes, poor him), complaining that he'd had 250 people reporting to him at his previous company, and now he only had 25 people. He recognized that Amazon was a great place to be (which was why he took the offer), but he was baffled on how he was leveled like this. It felt like a step back in his career.
How does being under leveled happen to someone? How can you avoid it happening to you?
In the case of that Senior Manager, I took the time to investigate his interview notes to see what had happened. It turns out he made literally all the mistakes I outline below.
I regularly coach senior leaders and executives on interviewing. They're applying for roles at companies like Amazon for Principal, Director, and VP positions. In my first practice round with these employees, many of them made the same mistakes.
It's predictable and avoidable. And it all comes down to not concentrating on your goals.
What are your goals in answering interview questions?
Let's say that I ask a question like, "Tell me about a time you disagreed with a co-worker." It's a very common question.
Now, what is your goal here? Is your primary goal to tell me a story in which you disagreed with a co-worker? No. Because you might have a story which has a great conflict, but it won't accomplish your actual goals. What's the potential problem with your stories?
First, if you answer the question in a way that doesn't convince me to hire you for the job, you've failed.
Second, if you answer the question in a way that suggests that you're a lower level employee than you actually could be, you've failed.
You have two major goals.
You want to answer every question in a way that convinces me to hire you, and your answers should convince me that you're at the maximum possible/reasonable seniority.
But maximum possible seniority? That doesn't seem fair. Feels like gaming the system.
The interviewing system is stupid, inaccurate, inconsistent, and many other insulting words. We haven't invented a better scalable system, but it's not great at making fair decisions.
When in doubt, people will put you at a lower level.
When in doubt, people won't hire you at all.
You want to send the message that you're super remarkable, super valuable, and absolutely at the target level (if not higher).
Understand that your interviewer gets an incredibly short period of time with you. They take those tiny hints of data, and make gigantic assumptions about your capabilities and past performance.
Many of the most impressive career jumps people have made were when they interviewed incredibly well. I've heard of engineers at Amazon jumping two or three levels when interviewing at other companies. I've heard of managers jumping from 18-person teams to 800-person teams through a great interview.
Don't leave career growth or opportunity on the table. Think of the message you're sending.
Communicating Seniority with Peers and Interactions
You talk to someone at a dinner party. They say that they manage teams at Google. That sounds pretty cool to you. Google is a neat company. However, you have no idea how smart they are, or how important they are at Google. They could be an entry-level manager, or a VP.
Then they mention that they had a fun discussion with a VP the other day about AI.
Wham. You're now convinced that they're a senior employee. Certainly, not entry level. They are likely Director or VP level.
How does that work? Because you tend to interact with people around your level of seniority.
Is this fair? Nah. But it's how things work. We deal with practical things in this newsletter.
How can you use that information in an interview?
"Tell me about a time you disagreed with a coworker."
I've had senior leaders, managers of 100+ people, say something like:
"There was a college graduate, newly hired onto the team. As we were kicking off a new project, they said.."
You just announced to your interviewer that the most serious disagreement you had with a co-worker was with an entry-level hire. It sounds to me like you're a line manager (at best).
If you're answering a question where you discuss your peers, or someone you interact with, you must explain a situation where you're communicating with someone at the seniority you're aiming for. If you're interviewing for a Director level position, your interaction must be with other Directors or VPs.
"During a meeting, the VP of Marketing for North America asked..."
There we go. Now you're clearly a senior employee.