PIE and the Meritocracy

I’m a Systems Engineer by day, which comes with a certain degree of practicality and pragmatism in outlook. And as a Systems Engineer, I’m part of the larger tech community. There’s a widespread belief in that community, of the idea of merit and the meritocracy. That is to say, that people get ahead based on their skills and talents, that we honor people with enhanced status and position due to the merit of what they can do. It’s certainly an attractive idea… it sounds like a good, sensible way to do things. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really hold up that well in practice.

The idea of meritocracy leaves out the idea of luck entirely. It also fails to take into account how things actually work. I worked at AT&T for many years (~11) and for a while was in one of their mentorship programs. Once, a group of us in the program were on a call with the Executive Director for our organization. He was telling us how he got to that level and shared a concept that I found problematic. The concept was PIE, aka Performance-Impact-Exposure. NOTE: I just looked up PIE and the vast majority of articles have changed Impact to Image (I think that may be even worse than how this concept was explained to me).

In a nutshell, that your success is driven by these 3 factors, but that the weight of each factor was different. The ED explained that engineers always think that the majority of the weight goes to Performance (in other words, exactly what we mean when talking about meritocracy). And right away, he said that’s wrong. In fact only about 10% of your success is dependent on the actual performance of a given project or task. The clear deciding factor is Exposure, which rates about 60%. That is how many people know about what you’re doing, understand it, and understand your contribution to making this happen. The remaining 30% is the impact of that work, although apparently that’s become the Image that people have of you as a worker.

As an engineer, I had a pretty visceral reaction to this idea. What do you mean it matters the most what other people think of what I did? And yet, this is in fact how a lot of companies operate. Well, the more I thought about this concept, the more it explained a lot. And not in a good way, when you consider how much the average person understands about technology. And when you run this through the idea of a hierarchy, where the opinions of those at the top carry greater and greater weight… let’s just say it made a lot of things crystal-clear.

Granted, sometimes there are key reasons that tech people, or engineers, don’t see. The fabled big picture. And I suppose you could accuse me of using this concept to make myself feel better about not making it farther than I have in my own career (i.e. the excuse “if performance mattered more, I’d be further ahead”). Could be… I’m probably not the best judge of my own ability, at least some of the time. And I’m not claiming that I am the best ever at pretty much anything by writing this. No, really what I’m getting at is just how “not as good as they think they are” the people in higher positions are. And we still haven’t even gotten into the role of luck, plus the larger impact of your social network and connections, education, and family background on the opportunities available to you.

My main point in writing about this is mostly to think through it myself, and hopefully hear from some other folks that have heard this concept and that have thoughts on it. Or that totally disagree with me. I guess I struggle with the idea that it’s more important what other people think than what is actually done. That breaks the entire concept of meritocracy for me, and that idea just looks like apologism for cronyism, classism, and ultimately bad management. I just think we can do better.

Also, I’m not saying that what other people think shouldn’t matter at all… it’s just I would have completely swapped those %s as far as how it should be (60% Performance, 30% Exposure, and 10% Image — I’m still just amazed that “Image” is a thing, although I guess it’s not really the worst thing ever).

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