Data Driven Promotions: How DBAs and Developers Should Ask for a Raise

The Women in Technology lunch and panel discussion at the PASS Summit last week had a great topic: negotiation. When it came time to Q & A, I knew exactly what topic I wanted to introduce.

How Should You Prepare to Ask for a Raise?

It’s funny this was my question, because I don’t need to ask for a raise. As a co-founder and co-owner of a business I am no longer salaried. Instead of asking for raises, I negotiate contracts and use the principle of least regret.

But I wanted to talk specifics about this topic. Why?

Over the years I learned the hard way about asking for a raise. First, it took me a long time to learn simply that I should ask. I’m not alone: according to this study men are nine times more likely to ask for more money than women. If you’re a woman, or are close to a woman professional, this is worth some conversations. When is the last time you asked for additional compensation? How did you do it? When do you think is the right time to ask again?

Once I started asking it took me a long time to learn techniques to support my request. Through trial and error I discovered there are relatively easy things you can do daily to show the value you bring to your company. This is important— for DBAs and developers, I find we need to outline a methodology before we get moving. Once we have a plan, we can move forward.

Today, I will share tips from panelists at the WIT lunch and introduce additional tips which have been key to my own success.

Use Your Performance Reviews

Karen Lopez ( blog|twitter ) emphasized using your performance reviews to your advantage. I agree with this strongly— and if you are one of the few people who don’t have a formal annual performance review, I think you should (gasp!) ask for one.

We all tend to dread performance reviews. We think of one thing: paperwork.

Here’s how to look at your performance review differently. Think of it as being about data. Your performance review is a chance to show data about the value you provide to your company. This is, in a sense, an annual resume. Your resume is better when it highlights facts about how you perform well on the job.

Here’s the type of data to include in your performance review:

  • I reduced the speed of processing daily ROI for PandaBears by 20%, ensuring that data is delivered to customers well within SLAs;
  • I identified ten customer impacting bugs and drove 8 to resolution;
  • I implemented monitoring for application availability across 100 production SQL Server instances;
  • I wrote and presented three brownbag training sessions for developers across departments on optimizing transact SQL.

Karen emphasized that you should describe not only how much work you did, but also quantify the impact of your work. If you identified bugs and drove them to resolution, how much time did this save customers? If you consolidated databases on SQL Server instances, how much money did this save the company over the next five years?

This requires a bit of research, but it has a silver lining. To discover the impact of your changes, you’ll need other people to help you. What would hosting and maintenance cost for those servers you decommissioned? Ask the team who manages your datacenter. How did resolving those bugs impact customers’ daily lives? Ask their account managers. Did anyone learn something in those brownbags you gave that they used in production code? Ask a sampling of people who attended and include explicit examples about how it was useful.

By asking these questions you will build stronger relationships with your coworkers. By talking about how you’ve made things better together you’re increasing the likelihood that you’ll be helpful to each other in the future.

Yanni Robel ( blog | twitter ) shared that she proactively keeps a weekly list of threes: the top three things she did, the top three things that weren’t done due to other priorities, and the three things she plans to address the next week. She shares this list with her management and uses it to track her own progress. This is a way in which she creates data she can review over time for her own performance.

To Do: Today, write down a list of three things you’ve improved in the last three months. Create a weekly half hour calendar appointment for yourself to expand on this list by adding items, adding facts, and adding impact statements. Each week, work to introduce more facts and think about ways you can measure your impact on the company and incorporate the data into your performance review and conversations about advancing your career.

Perform Health Checks

One of my favorite things about working on a SQL Server Health Check with clients is training them how to use the Health Check process to advance their careers.

SQL Server Health Check Champion

When we perform a health check with a client, our chief objective is to identify the client’s pain points and design targeted, realistic solutions. We step you through a top-to-tails approach to your SQL Server environment and train you on the process: how to take the pulse of your system, how to interpret the results. As part of this process we baseline the system together.

This process is fully repeatable by you after the health check is over. The health check doesn’t just give you solutions, it gives you the tools you need to make things better and show the improvement with data.

Performing repeat health checks and baselining your system is an extremely powerful method you can use to connect with your management chain— and this goes for both DBAs and developers. This is data that your management team can use to show the value of your team and raise your profile in the organization.

By focussing on the data and providing metrics about improved performance, you become increasingly valuable and visible. This will lead you to great career opportunities, many of which have increased compensation.

Negotiate Your Rewards

There are times when a raise isn’t in the cards, and you should always be ready to ask for more than money. Think ahead of time about what may be useful to you. You can score in multiple areas, and you may win more than you expect.

What does promotion mean in your organization? In some organizations, promotions aren’t directly tied to huge raises, but may increase other benefits and lead to larger bonuses.

What training opportunities are available? What skills would you like to advance by being assigned to a particular project? Do you have an idea for a way to improve your system that you would like to have time to test in a lab? What improvements might that make?

There are many types of rewards you can use to advance your career in addition to direct monetary compensation. When you’re in a spot where monetary compensation is truly limited, you want to maximize the rest of these areas so your experience grows and your career continues to move forward.

When negotiating training and project work, keep a close eye on your time commitments. While you take on additional responsibilities you must also account for time to transition some of your older tasks to other people, or to automate those tasks so they don’t require daily work. Put this in a positive light and think in terms of creating a successful proposal for making good use of your time.

Takeaways to Take Home More

The key here is to remember a few things:

  • It’s important to ask for a raise or promotion. By doing this you are explicitly stating “I actively want to advance my career.” Don’t assume your management knows this about you.
  • Ask in a way that shows your strengths. Even if your request isn’t granted this time, take this opportunity to talk about your successes and strengths in a way that can open doors later on.
  • Know that “no” is not a final answer. As long as you’re taking action to increase your knowledge and advance your career, you’re moving in the right direction.
  • Value your time, and value time you can devote to learning.
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27 Comments. Leave new

  • I agree with Karen re: quantifying your results. Mgmt loves tangibles. It’s funny, I read this shortly after reading Christian Buckley’s takedown of the performance review as being rendered ineffective by the granularity of its measurements. I do agree with that, but I suppose if the employee provides the measurements, they can keep them tied to the big picture.

    • Hi Claire! Always love your comments.

      This reminds me of my first performance review at a very large corporation. My entire team was given an extremely metric-laden set of goals to measure ourself against. I had been there almost 7 months, and as I read the goals I realized I had no idea what they meant– they were almost entirely made up of acronyms! They were also based on very high level measurements of ticketing data and customer satisfaction which I had no way to track in my daily life, and much of which I didn’t even have a way to influence.

      I think the sociologist in me saved the situation, because I was more fascinated than frustrated. What a strange set of numbers to live by! It taught me a lot of interesting things about the culture. At least we all loved metrics, even if I didn’t really agree with theirs.

      I ended up being very successful by figuring out what few things I could do to contribute to the success of the “group” metrics and doing that well. I also conceptualized projects that were much like the health check to create reports on the health of our environment and its availability and performance. These were interesting enough that I became known for them and it helped me stand out.

      If I needed to write a performance review this year, I’d be working an infographic for it. After all, why not be on trend?

      Maybe the infographic wouldn’t look quite like this one, though:

  • Brent – How do you know my appraisal is due in a week time ? Let me put your suggestions in pratise.

    Thanks for the useful article.

  • Unfortunately sometimes performance reviews, are just that, reviews. I have been told straight that our performance reviews are NOT tied to our salary, period. Good review != raise; Bad review != cut, but may affect whether you get chosen for layoff or not

    I am all for 6 months or 12 months reviews, if they meant something or lead to somewhere. Often I write the same goals (e.g. training), they of course say “of course we value our people”, but the result is usually “we don’t have budget”

    I wish salary raise would be peer-voted, then we DBA would get popular votes as we do solve problems fast here and people love us.

    I enjoyed the good tips mentioned, I will start doing the 3-3-3 rule by Yanni

    • Hi Jerry,

      I have heard that about some companies and managers keeping reviews “isolated”. It’s weird, isn’t it– because it still feels like they MUST be related!

      If your review isn’t linked to salary raises or promotions, that implies there are separate discussions or a separate process for salary or promotions. I would be interested to discover what that process is and how it works (how many times a year it happens, etc).

      I would still include lots of fact based data in your review and work at having it be as positive as possible– because that can’t ever hurt you. But if it’s designed to be separate process (or at least appear separate), I would definitely time discussions about advancing your career into a separate set of conversations. Getting the 411 on how the promotion process works will help you with your timing.

      In some companies the promotion and raise process is very transparent and managers freely share the information with their direct reports. In some companies I have found that HR is very willing to share the information, when managers aren’t as open about it. I would ask the question in a very positive light and NOT at the same time I’m asking about my own career– and I would explain it in context like “When I worked at Super-Happy-Fun-Ball, raises and promotions were awarded twice a year and all the managers in the company met to compare rankings to decide it. How do they work here?”

      • Honestly, my favorite review system was from a company where it was completely not linked to my salary. We both (the boss and the underling) filled out a form with a series of questions with a 1-5 rating and a comment space. The review was sitting in a room and comparing ratings. I found this really effective at understanding expectations. For example, with my first boss their (when I was doing shift work on the help desk) I gave myself a 5 for attendance/punctuality and he gave me a three because “that’s what your supposed to do.” I knew from that point forward I’d only ever get a three, because it wasn’t the kind of job where I could stay late. Fast forward to me being a unix admin their and I gave myself a 3 because I would stroll in at 10 or 11. However, my boss gave me a 5 since I dragged myself away from my desk after 7pm usually, and when I was on duty I’d have few “phone malfunctions.”

        Now, all this had little to do with salary, and because of that I think the reviews were more honest. I say this because I think linking reviews and raises closely means the review is tailored to the raise and not visa-versa. If the company I am describing decided to link salaries to reviews, then it probably would have meant my boss would have to show his boss my review sheet before I had it, and my boss would simply be forced to adjust his review based on the raise my bosses boss wanted to give me.

        • In terms of making stronger teams, I think the best thing a performance review can do is create open communication between people. When that actually works, that’s the sign of a healthy company. That kind of communication also means that when you do ask for a raise or go after a promotion, you have good reason to know what your management really thinks of your performance.

          • I guess for the structure in that environment, I’d want two reviews, one from my immediate boss and another from “the brass.” My boss had say in my day to day quality of life. The brass determined salaries. A military analogy was my boss was the NCO in charge and the brass were the line officers (CO, XO, etc).

            In theory my boss could (and in practice he would try) go to bat for me for career/salary issues. However, it was the brass that would determine that sort of thing. Maybe now that I’m older and more aware of interoffice politics I would see more shades of grey if I went back to this company, but I saw a pretty strict line back then.

  • Twisting this around another way, what if you specifically don’t want a promotion?

    A few jobs ago I was at a bar with two of the companies C-Levels and one was asking me about career stuff. I basically described my self as wanting a promotion as long as it wasn’t in project management. I said I wanted an architectural role, that was product focused and not customer focused. His response was, “sounds like you want to become a project manager.”

    Now I was already looking at that point (and made a few moves since then), and I might have turned down a proverbial suitcase full of cash to stay, so I didn’t push the issue. However, if I stayed the offer would have been inevitable, and I’d probably have to fight pretty hard to tell them no. So how do you say no to a promotion when the boss doesn’t want to hear no?

    • Justin – you describe something that has been part of my career “discussions” for as long as I can remember.

      As an IT contributor/subject matter expert/whatever, there is usually one or two steps (Jr.-Sr. or something like that) and then you top out as a “DBA” or whatever your title is….then to get promoted (and oftentimes to get raises) you have to change fields and become a “manager” of some stripe – personnel manager, project manager, and so on.

      My answer to this is to continue doing my DBA work but in a different way – I am currently leaving my “regular” job as SR. DBA at a company to become a Technical Consultant at a Database consulting company, which will afford me more opportunities for interesting work, money, etc. (but with the necessary evils of some travel, etc. as well)

      It would be nice if it were possible to stay as a DBA forever and continue to advance, but most companies can’t seem to handle the fact that many technical people don’t want to “advance” to management.

      • So the answer is to keep jumping ship until you either find your way into a consulting house where you can remain technical and move up, or decide that management is something you’re ok with?

        I’m actually ok with that, I just with that companies accepted and encouraged a Craveth like “Up or Out” system because what ends up happening is the best people are the ones that leave.

        • Oh, I don’t think the only answer for most people is to keep moving or become a consultant. I know a lot of DBAs and database developers who have only worked at one or two companies, have become increasingly technical, and have earned promotions. Most of them don’t want to deal with the travel or constant change of consulting and they enjoy enlarging their expertise with their current applications.

          When you’re working your way up, I think there’s a huge amount to be said for maximizing your resources within your current company and staying with a team. That way you’re really building experience– and there’s a ton of opportunities to learn about everything from performance tuning to hardware bottlenecks within the database world. When I was in that position I really didn’t understand well how to build my career and ask for a raise.

          It’s when you get into the situation that you have a specific dream, and your company doesn’t have the type of position you’re dreaming of that you have to figure out if you want to try to get them to create the position, or see if it exists somewhere else.

          • When you’re working your way up, I think there’s a huge amount to be said for maximizing your resources within your current company and staying with a team. That way you’re really building experience . . .

            I’ve always sought breadth, not depth, so my experience has been opposite. I could only grow by jumping ship. I can write T-SQL, C#, PHP, PowerShell, well enough to any full time with the title and salary of a “Senior Developer/Engineer”. I could be a full time html/javascript/css guy in a pinch (if you really want ugly web pages). Also, I could make a better defacto DBA, windows admin, or unix admin in a shop without a proper operations department then some people that specialize in any of those professions. My current goal is to bone up on java, and I’m going to fight any pressure for me to specialize tooth an nail.

      • Hi Andy,

        Jeremiah and I were just talking about the same phenomena in some companies with software developers. It happens to a lot of technical people.

        I do think you can outgrow the challenges and a payscale at a given company– sometimes. At that point you have the difficult task of figuring out if you want the potential greater hours (and things like travel) that bigger challenges and bigger pay may have to offer. That’s not a bad spot to be in, however– at that point you can decide whether there’s something that could change about your current job to keep it worth doing.

        That’s a good time to think about what projects might be really satisfying, or what technology you’d really like to introduce that could save money and make things work better long term. An honest conversation with your management might yield getting cool new things to work with that makes you excited about work again. (Seriously, I’ve known people who’ve gotten this!)

        Management means different things at different companies. I’ve always enjoyed mentoring people, and I actually enjoy meetings, but I also like getting to look at different systems and see how they work. When management jobs are all meetings and little nerdery, I know they won’t satisfy me. As long as you know where that line is with yourself, you know what jobs aren’t for you.

        • Kendra – management at my previous (current) company has never been very encouraging of the type of growth you describe – I originally worked in an environment (at a University) that *did* encourage that type of growth, and I progressed from Help Desk Technician to Senior SQL DBA over seven years due to this type of support; the last few years have not been kind to management support for this type of experience (at least not at the two companies (financial and healthcare) I have been at). The consulting company I am about to join is much more supportive of this type of intellectual/technical growth, and I will be expanding my knowledge into new areas such as VMWare.

          Thanks for your insights – I very much enjoy the blogs/webcasts/etc. that Brent Ozat PLF creates!

    • This is a really interesting question, Justin. You can be pushed into promotions on a track that doesn’t fit with your passions and your long term goals.

      I think the easiest way to turn down an offer really is when you can say, “That’s a great offer, but my passion is …” and then tell the story of where you want to be in five years. It sounds like you did that, but they didn’t really understand the story. In some companies I have found that if you can outline the description of a new type of position in detail and really make them understand it, they’ll be willing to take a gamble on it. You then have a pretty tough task to make it work, because usually you need to get people to support you and work with you. But I’ve seen people make that work and create hugely successful new teams that fill a gap the company didn’t even know they had.

      But whenever a promotion offer is taking you away from where you want to go, and you know that for sure, the only right answer is, “That sounds like a great opportunity, but it doesn’t fit my career path. I’d love to help you find the right person for that– if you send me the job description, I’ll share it with my network.” When you start trying to help them recruit people, you’re keeping communication open with them and still helping out.

      • That’s a really interesting idea. I’ve never tried anything like that before. Then again I must confess I only asked for a review (with the implication that a raise would be involved) once. I got a lot to think about.

  • Steve LaRochelle
    October 20, 2011 1:55 pm

    Great article, one I’m sure I’ll be re-reading soon. Thanks for the occasional general professional postings. The SQL stuff is always great, but it is a nice change of pace once in a while to read about something we all deal with that is not SQL.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I never used to take advantage of professional development activities, myself, and have changed that in recent years. I’m finding that it helps me use my technical knowledge and connect with people in ways I hadn’t expected.

  • Nice post, Kendra, and I agree. One thing I’ve tried to emphasize in my branding talks is that you ought to be documenting your work through out the year (or blogging about it) and use that for your performance review.

    A short note I had on it:

  • An excellent post.


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