Issue #12: the levels of purgatory

when your pay doesn't match your pay grade

Dear Tech Support,

I went from one big tech company to another last year in pursuit of more opportunity because it felt impossible to move up in my old team. Well, I got it. A few months ago, my brand-new manager left unexpectedly (#2020) and I was tapped to do their job (and grew my direct reports 4x in the process). It’s gone pretty well so far, but my compensation and level haven’t been adjusted to my new scope. Ironically, I’m still the same level I was at my old company (where I had no reports at all). I’ve stated this clearly to my department head, but been told I basically need to chill and prove myself. Meanwhile, I’m in the process of hiring several people at practically my level or above, which feels pretty ridiculous considering I’ll be their boss. At all these companies where underleveling is the #1 complaint, isn't it ironic that the expectation is “outperform your level for at least a year”?


Chasing literal and figurative equity 

Dear Level-Head,

Your workaday angst is refreshing, friend. It’s optimistic. I’m usually blithely looking forward to the future–Christmas, the spring, breakfast tomorrow–but after the week we’ve had (the orange sky event–the day that we had to all face facts that yes, ecological collapse is imminent–was only a WEEK AGO) on the back of the six months we’ve had…thinking of what awaits us ~as a society~ on/after November 3 makes me want to thrust my leaden figure against the hands of time. I’ve been doing snow angels on the rug in a t-shirt that says VOTE! I bought on instagram recently in a fugue state as a kind of dark joke (it’s unclear to me who needs to be convinced to vote against the doom nightmare option on the ballot in November, much less what would sway them, but I’m guessing the fact of this shirt on my body in a liberal stronghold isn’t….it…..and anyway I didn’t leave the house that day #solipsism #symbolism) and mainlining David Graeber lectures (what DID happen to the future?). That said, last night, as I plunged into ever sulkier despair, I watched the entirety of AOC’s address to her nation of 6M instagram followers and felt oddly completely moved/motivated/galvanized/committed to shelving my gnawing fatalism because I do very much believe “the people” deserve a better future than what’s playing out. *in a thin quaver* we got this, fam.

But ah, yes, *leans back in chair, puffs invisible cig* you wanted to talk about corporate leveling. The eternal question: hierarchy, is it good or no good?? I’m not sure if the Google levels correspond exactly elsewhere in Big Tech, but I worked with many levels of people there and here’s my quick breakdown. Level 4/5: seems pretty arbitrary who comes in at level 4 vs. 5, probably just favoring those who know how to negotiate (have you met MEN?). Level 6: OK, witnessed a wild range of IQ and skill levels there. 7s, 8s, now the Really Good people emerge from the pack, as well as the Gifted Gameplayers (and when both typologies are housed in one person that’s the elusive, rare Good Manager). And so on. A more recent big company phenomenon adding some spice to the mixture is the Shiny Object type, coming in at director level and immediately revealing that their main skill is self-marketing or Being Friends with Person who Runs the Department. Of course there is actual inequity, too (at Google they at some point confessed black women were on average at least 1-2 levels below white peers with comparable educational background and years of experience).

Hiring someone under their rightful level by some objective measure is kind of the original sin, because it’s not like the system is set up to correct these issues, and in fact often exacerbates them. Promotion takes forever and is another subjective, biased process. There are perverse incentives for advocating for yourself and trying to get fairly leveled–I never really saw that work out, tbh. I did see a lot of people get labeled entitled/abrasive/ungrateful of the increeeeeeedible opportunity they’d been afforded at Fortune Magazine’s Best Democracy Destroyers to Work For® 2020, though! I assume it’s different in engineering where there’s, like, lines of code to quantity output or impact, some clear case to be made that you’re operating at level X+1, but in a Bullshit Jobs ground zero such as I was in @ marketing at Google...*shrugs so limply it’s practically imperceptible*. I will gently interlude here that YouTube has 40 employees (+ agencies!!) managing a handful of social media feeds that increasingly read like full-on spambot automation. Some of those 40 will get promoted to the next level this year and let me tell you it won’t be due to anything they “accomplished for the business in this unprecedented societal moment,” it will be because they were slightly better at playing the politics via Zoom than their peers. #goalsssssssssss!

*wipes brow* All that said, I think your plight is distinct from all that. I consulted my most intimate tech executive friend on this one and, like a fat harbor seal between rocks, I’ve drifted over to his take, which basically aligns with the advice you got from the faceless superior. Put the level thing out of your mind–like getting pregnant or finding love, it’s going to take/feel a lot longer if you obsess. In the short term, you’re underleveled, but in the long term, the system has GOT YOU, girl (or boy!! *brings index finger to lips*). You’ve been shoulder-tapped for Management and I’m guessing you’re like 2-4 years from the tipping point of what I understand is an absolutely exponential pay scale in Tech. Do a good job, hit the right cheery, borderline obsequious notes in your 1:1s, ask a lot of questions about how you’re doing and what you could do better. Talk less, smile more, and whatever the rest of that Hamilton lyric is (“oh sure, sir!”? that’s literally the vibe). If that’s too passive or patient for you, you could try some manifestation exercises/light sorcery, but actually, the more you sit with the object of your desire–a promotion–the more you risk your own existential exposure. David Graeber has a line about how you get paid commensurate to power, ie the ability to do harm to others, which is why hedge funders get paid millions and nurses and cleaners and moms get bupkis. Don’t dwell on that, I guess! In the immortal words of Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana, “It ain’t about what’s waiting on the other siiiiide, it’s the cliiiiiiimb.” So enjoy it!!!!

Additional troubleshooting:

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Coming up in the next edition, I’m “bringing to market” an interview with Jessica Powell, Google’s lightly apostatic former head of Comms. We compare experiences/perspectives/unifying theories of Big Tech-induced ennui and talk some shit. I assume I’ll move a notch closer to the center on the current Google comms dartboard as a result and it’ll be worth it!!!