The Meritocracy Myth of the Tech Industry in America
The tech industry (at least in America) likes to think that it’s a meritocracy. Everyone is judged purely by their ability and contributions. If you contribute a lot of complex code or ideas, you’re rewarded. If you don’t accomplish much or make many large mistakes, you’re let go. However, the reality of the situation is much more nuanced and since we have people involved, nothing is truly a meritocracy. Instead, we also have an aspect of who can sell what they’re doing or who can build a good brand for themselves (internally or externally), or who’s work is most visible. To a large extent, this makes sense, if I’ve done amazing work but no one knows about it, how would anyone know to reward me? If I’m doing something really complex but I’ve made it seem easy, how can other people recognize my full contribution?
There are many overt examples of self-promotion. For example, in interviews, it’s common to ask about a candidate’s prior experience and projects. Interviewers then try to evaluate that person’s contribution based on what information they share. At many companies, as a part of the review process, employees are asked to write a self-assessment to reflect on their accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, at some companies, including Box, we’re asked to write a promotion case in order to be considered for promotion. This case outlines our accomplishments and the ways in which we are performing at the next level. There are good arguments for why each of these is useful — a good sense of self-awareness is important. Likewise, no one can better assess your accomplishments than you, so even if others might not think you’re ready for promotion, you might still be able to convince them that they just haven’t noticed 90% of what you’ve done. However, if self-promotion doesn’t come naturally, these tasks can be very difficult or can even cause a lower assessment than an individual deserves.
Likewise, there are many more subtle examples of self-promotion. I have an easier job of explaining my worth to the company in my self-evaluation or promotion case if everyone already knows what I do and my value to the team. If my manager or people in strategic positions are already aware of my skills, I’m more likely to be selected for stretch assignments that will further grow my career. Additionally, if people know what I’ve worked on, they’re more likely to see me as a subject expert and will come to me for help and with questions, further enforcing the idea that I’m knowledgeable. In all of these cases, I might not be able to point directly to self-promotion as the cause, but it nevertheless plays a big role in my career.
Unfortunately, self-promotion is a skill that we’re not all equally good at and is often not even viewed as a skill that needs to be perfected. To make it even more challenging, some groups are actively taught not to brag; it’s seen as vulgar. For example, in many Asian cultures, fitting in and the harmony of the group are some of the most important and emphasized characteristics in the individual. Many of them have proverbs and sayings around this — in Japan, for example, they say ‘The nail that sticks out will get hammered down.’ If you receive a compliment, you will be seen as a rude if you don’t follow your thank you with something like ‘but that’s not really true’. They will often downplay their skills — they might say something like ‘I’m so sorry, but I don’t speak English’ when what they really mean is ‘my English is good, but I’m not perfect’. Meanwhile, in the US, this would be seen as a form of weakness and the assumption might be that you really aren’t good. Even within American culture, we’re not all taught an equal level of self-promotion — girls are generally discouraged from self-promotion much more than boys. Other character traits also affect this — for example, extroverts tend to be much more comfortable with self-promotion than introverts. The ultimate result of all of this is that not only is our industry not a meritocracy, but certain groups and cultures are inherently disadvantaged. Additionally, we don’t always recognize or work to correct this disadvantage and often even pretend that it doesn’t exist.
If we truly value meritocracy and diversity, we need to find ways to offset our under-the-table self-promotion culture. The first step is that we need to recognize that our industry is not a meritocracy and that self-promotion actually plays a huge role in careers and career growth. Once we recognize that, we can start to look for ways and places that we are biased and work to correct for that. We can encourage people who are less good at promoting themselves and their work and can even share their accomplishments on their behalf. We can share strategies for getting better at promoting work (look for a future post from me on this topic) and we can recognize that honing this skill is as important as honing many others. While I don’t love self-promotion and it often feels to me like shameless bragging, it is a vital part of success in today’s tech industry and we need to treat it as such.