How to Find High-Impact Work and Make People Pay AttentionFeatured

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

As I was spinning my wheels, I got lucky. I found a javascript bug that was unexpectedly caching tons of data on our servers and causing a massive memory leak. My changes ended up reducing our server pool by half. Server space costs money, and it turns out, a business cares a lot about money!

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

The framework is as follows:

  1. Identify a pain point for your organization as a whole.
  2. Find a Minimum Valuable Fix.
  3. Talk about it.
  4. 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.

Common Questions

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.

Key Takeaways

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.

I love the use of a framework. People remember when you share the glory by allowing them to help out!
This is amazing! Why is it called the Matthew framework.
Wow, thank you for sharing this framework! I'm curious if you can expand on step #1. How might you get in the right mindset for identifying these pain points, especially ones with org-level impact? My initial thought is to network internally and learn about challenges other teams/departments are solving, but wondering if you have additional thoughts.
Very helpful actionable advice, thank you Samantha
Thanks for the framework, it's great.However, It's important that the Matthew effect not always works for women.There is actually the "Mathilda effect": "The Matilda effect is a bias against acknowledging the achievements of women scientists whose work is attributed to their male colleagues. This phenomenon was first described by suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage (1826–98) in her essay, "Woman as Inventor" (first published as a tract in 1870 and in the North American Review in 1883). The term "Matilda effect" was coined in 1993 by science historian Margaret W. Rossiter.[1][2]Rossiter provides several examples of this effect. Trotula (Trota of Salerno), a 12th-century Italian woman physician, wrote books which, after her death, were attributed to male authors. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century cases illustrating the Matilda effect include those of Nettie Stevens,[3] Lise Meitner, Marietta Blau, Rosalind Franklin, and Jocelyn Bell Burnell.The Matilda effect was compared to the Matthew effect, whereby an eminent scientist often gets more credit than a comparatively unknown researcher, even if their work is shared or similar.[4][5]"
Excellent point. Also, those who are aware of the Matthew Effect and have power should use their power to elevate people who are being left behind because of the Matthew and Matilda Effects.
Thanks for sharing Patricia - it's important to remember the role intersectionality can play in most workforce issues, especially when they are as political as recognition, attribution, etc. So many highly visible advances in STEM were incorrectly attributed to men, when they were actually championed by women. That being said, I think we should also be cautious to not put all the onus on others to do the right thing and recognize women and also focus on the things women in the workforce can do to multiply their impact.So it's about moving out of this "things happen to me" mindset and more into a "things happen for me" one that places you (the kickass leader) back in the protagonists seat!
I don't see it as a matter of "either/or" but rather "yes/and".There is the Matthew effect and also the Mathilda effect. Both co-exist and influence women's careers. It's important to be aware of both.
Thanks for this. A lot of it seems like it has happened to me! Hoping to put this framework in practice soon!
Thank you Samantha for this great framework. It comes at a perfect time to remind me to keep promoting myself in larger groups, and not only rely on my manager. Though I do have question about "talk about it". I know that you must have put great effort to find this pain point and actually built the MVF, but you also mentioned this fix is "a simple 6 character change"... When you talked about your solution, were you worried that people may judge this solution is overly too simple, probably not enough technical complexity or other judgements?
I love your emphasis on both MVP and repeatable, reproduceable frameworks - this ensures your efforts will scale beyond your individual scope. Well done on an inspiring method that others can use, even outside dev! :)
What a great write-up! I loved your example to illustrate the framework's application. Started following you here and on LinkedIn. :) Any suggestions on other blogs or platforms where I can find similar write-ups on learnings - particularly by women in tech?