What if I told you that you could exponentially advance the trajectory of your career by applying one specific principle to how you approach projects at work? It sounds far-fetched, but it worked for me. In fact, the formula for achieving recognition at work is simple and repeatable.
Let’s cut right to the chase – the principle I’m talking about is called The Matthew Effect. The Matthew Effect states, “Those who already have status are often placed in situations where they gain more, while those that do not have status typically struggle to achieve more.” This phenomenon not only affects our social and financial status; it affects our professional lives as well. Once your work achievements are recognized, all of your future work is more likely to get recognized. Because of this, better opportunities start to present themselves to you more often.
You might witness this in your current workplace, like that one shining superstar that everyone seems to love. How do they get those opportunities? How did they achieve that status? I’ll teach you how to break into your own superstardom in this article, but first, it’s important to highlight all the ways I failed while chasing recognition.
All The Ways I Failed
The epiphany that changed my career occurred when I worked at Reddit. I was seeing some slow growth in my career despite my best efforts. I was the lead engineer on a couple of projects, I mentored hundreds of women, and I was a core contributor to the biggest project Reddit had ever seen: our global web redesign. Given all of this, I expected my career to grow in leaps and bounds, but my career wasn’t advancing any more quickly. I felt stuck.
I think it’s important to understand my mindset at the time, which was twofold: First, if I do good work, I will get recognized. Second, it’s my manager’s job to make sure I’m seen and rewarded for good work. Let’s get right to it: both of these mindsets are dead wrong, though I didn’t know that at the time. These mindsets are also extremely common, especially for women.
With this uninformed mindset, I decided to amp up my productivity. I was super fast to perform code reviews, I fixed a ton of small bugs in the backlog, and completed a couple of code refactors. The result? Nothing. I learned a painful lesson: Simply taking on more work does not always equate to career growth.
Why? Important bugs don’t sit in a backlog. Refactoring is nice, but not critical to the business. Being overly available for code review means you don’t have time to work on your own high-impact projects.
Disappointed, I tried taking on a bunch of flashy work instead. I built 4 new features that were very important for my team and began presenting them to my peers at our biweekly engineering meetings. Unfortunately, this didn’t work either.
Why? I was limited by the projects that were within the scope of my team, and presenting for my peers ultimately amounted to busywork with no higher-ups in the room. I was also at the mercy of product managers who could squash any project should our roadmap change.
Then, I got lucky
I felt elated with this success, but I didn’t like how it was based on luck. So, I wondered… is there a way I can make this “luck” reproducible? Turns out, the answer is yes. I developed a simple formula so anyone can “get lucky,” thereby creating their first Matthew Effect.
The framework is as follows:
- Identify a pain point for your organization as a whole.
- Find a Minimum Valuable Fix.
- Talk about it.
- Create a framework to allow others to jump in and help.
Let’s dig into it.
Step 1: Identify a Pain Point
You should be looking for things that are particularly annoying for your organization as a whole. When I was developing this framework, I identified that our error logs were flooded with useless garbage. This made it impossible to tell if bad code had been deployed, rollbacks were SUPER slow, and the high volume logs were causing our infra team to get pinged in the middle of the night due to log space running out. We were logging about 155 MILLION lines per day.
Step 2: Find your Minimum Valuable Fix (MVF)
In other words – what is the smallest amount of work that you can do to fix some of the problem? The word “minimum” is important. By reducing the project scope, you can create meaningful change quickly. It helps you find a starting point and prevents you from getting stuck or overwhelmed. I decided that at a minimum, I at least wanted to give our infrastructure team a break from getting pinged at 2am.
I audited the logs and found the one with the highest volume. It was a print statement that was logging every single garbage collection run for every server across our entire backend. With a simple 6 character change, I was able to remove the code, and reduced our errors by 72% (a reduction of 110 MILLION LINES PER DAY).
This was a major accomplishment with very minimal effort, and I want to acknowledge two things. First – the change I made was not difficult. Anyone could have discovered and made this change, but I was the one to actually put in the effort and did it. Secondly, despite a 72% reduction, we were still logging 45 million lines per day. That is still bad. But it’s much, much better than before, which is the entire point of finding an MVF.
Step 3: Talk About it
Once I successfully accomplished my MVF, I talked about it nonstop. I told my manager and my director; I posted about it in a bunch of Slack channels; I presented at All Hands for the entire company, and I even messaged our CTO to let him know. This gave my work visibility, and I was able to explain how my change had affected the entire engineering org. Infra could sleep easier at night, deploys were going more smoothly, and bugs were getting launched less frequently.
Shockingly, the ‘Talk About It’ step is the one I find most people have trouble with (especially women). I think that people get nervous, wondering “what should I even say?”, or “how do I talk about this without sounding arrogant?”. It’s pretty simple: put the work at front and center. For example, I posted this message in all of our engineering channels: “I removed a print flag [link to change], and now our error logs are reduced by 72%. Deploys should be much easier now”. Don’t focus on yourself as the hero, and you won’t look arrogant – focus on the outcome of your work.
It’s important to overcome the fear of elevating yourself. Remember, your career is your responsibility – no one else’s – so don’t be shy in talking about your successes.
Step 4: Build a Framework
My work got a lot of attention, but even better, I had created a framework so others could hop in and help me. When people see success, their natural instinct is to join you in that success. You want to make sure you’re not a bottleneck, so you must create a system that allows others to help you. For me, this was pretty simple – I created a bunch of tickets outlining our most common errors. When people asked to help, I gave them a detailed ticket outlining what task they could tackle. In the course of 2 weeks, we further reduced our logs by 96%.
And just like that, people paid attention.
And the best part is, they paid attention for the rest of my career at Reddit. I was invited to new important meetings, I was put in the “Top Performers” tier, I became a tech lead, then a manager of one team, then two. Maybe most importantly, my salary jumped by 30%.
I had so much success with this formula that I started a program at Reddit specifically geared towards teaching others this formula. My program saw 30 participants over the course of a year, 70% of which were able to leverage the program for a promotion or raise. You can read about that here.
I often get asked: when can I make time for this kind of project at work? The bad news is that for the first project, you’ll probably have to work overtime. I worked lunches, late hours, and spent a lot of my downtime on this project. But after the Matthew Effect took hold, I didn’t need to work overtime again. I was just assigned important work, or could accomplish that work during work hours. In my opinion, the initial sacrifice was worth it.
Where am I now?
I’m now the co-founder and CTO of DwellWell. I can tell you with absolute certainty that if I had not developed this framework, I would not have had the confidence or experience to found my own startup. I’ve raised millions of dollars, hired a team of 12, and spent 2 years building this business. It’s crazy to think I was frustrated with my career growth just 4 years ago.
I hope you’ll walk away from this article feeling empowered to take your career into your own hands. If nothing else, I hope you remember these four key points:
- Your career growth is your own responsibility
- Getting recognized early is a major advantage
- Be strategic about which projects you pursue
- Use the framework
If you choose to implement any (or all) of the above, I’d love to hear back from you in 6 months. I feel confident you will be shocked at the results.