Working the Performance Review System as a Senior [Software] Engineer
I’m genuinely surprised by how often I hear very senior people lament the fact that they are evaluated yearly or half-yearly and that just isn’t enough time to get anything really important done to showcase their awesomeness.
I think this really is totally a problem for more senior engineers because the more junior people generally feel like if they just “produce” enough then they have no issues. Heads down, code, code some more, and then code, and did I mention the coding? Yeah… easy enough.
The bust-your-ass solution ultimately stops working, and then you feel like you are going to be compared to these amazeballs people and you’ll never get ahead, because your thing isn’t going to be done for 3 years or something.
So I have some advice…
1. Stop worrying so much already!
Nobody gets to be a senior engineer in one instant; it’s not like you were walking along minding your own business in college and all of a sudden out of the clear blue sky you had a senior engineering job. These things happen gradually. What you have been doing to date has obviously been working so keep doing it. Seriously, I’m very sure you didn’t suddenly become an idiot when you were promoted. Quoting basically every Disney movie, but especially Moana : “Remember who you are!”
2. Stop expecting every review to be your best ever!
There are no senior engineers who can say “this is the best half I have ever had” every half. It just doesn’t happen. You will have great halves, you will have ok halves, and you will have meh. This is totally normal! The fact is that if you’re completely consistent you probably are not taking enough risks to maximize your impact.
3. Stop expecting people to tell you what to do!
If you’ve made it this far there is a very real expectation that you understand your business. You’ve worked hard to earn that expectation.. Do not go back to your old ways of asking your boss what is important! While that’s still a part of what needs to be done, it can no longer be the only part.
You’re now in a position where you need to see what needs doing more clearly than most of the people around you, and you are likely to have more experience than your management, or soon will. Helping management to get to the right agenda while meeting the goals of your business, or better still enabling bigger and better business goals is now part of your job.
Important Corollary: Stop expecting people to tell you how to get promoted. It’s highly probably that the promotion criteria are now hella nebulous.
4. Trust what you know!
You did not get here by accident, and while you certainly still have a lot to learn (who doesn’t) you have wisdom in the bank. You may be put in new, challenging situations, in fact you almost certainly will be if you’re doing it right. When that happens, remember the sage words of Mr. Miyagi: “Trust the quality of what you know, not the quantity.”
You have solved many difficult problems before. You can do it again if you stay focused and apply your methods.
5. Impact those around you and be impacted!
One of the most important things I do is to try to keep a balance between Learning, Teaching, and Doing. These things are all very synergistic of course, but even though it seems obvious people frequently fall into the trap of not doing all three. In fact, like so many other things, you know you have the balance between these things about right when you feel like none of them is getting enough time…
6. Think about your output like you would a portfolio!
This next point is probably the most important of all. The surest way to get consistent results year after year (or half after half) is to have an assortment of projects on the go. Some will be fairly simple and can be delivered quickly, some will take a little longer and require help from a few people, and some should be much longer term and maybe be not even delivering soon enough to be recognized for whatever your upcoming review cycle is.
Structure your work with a mix of delivery times and then do not let the review cycle dictate when you start or end or hit whatever milestone. In fact, give the review cycle as little weight as you can stand and let the work land when it should. You’ll have some big things you started last time landing this time, you’ll have some medium things here and there, you’ll have lots of small things. You’ll have team impact from Teaching and you’ll be getting better, and finding new work that needs doing from Learning.
If your portfolio has only one big thing in it, you’re going to be constantly sweating it. And if it fails you’ll feel pretty bad.
A great metaphor here is a bond portfolio. Your bonds should have various levels of quality and risk/return levels and various maturity times. Some of them may not pay out. That’s ok. In fact, if all of them pay out, probably you did it wrong…
In any given review period, some bonds will come due. And if one is delayed, it won’t affect you very much.
7. Don’t sweat other people’s success!
Results vary widely and are situational. You will drive yourself crazy if you are worrying about the success of others. But if you keep investing in yourself and others… well it’s pretty hard to fail like that. You may feel like an imposter some days… but that’s ok. On other days you’ll be leading with dignity and poise. Helping others to be as great as they can be.
Actually, one of the best things you can do is to magnify, and showcase, good work and/or wise words, especially those coming from places in the organization that might otherwise be overlooked, or go unspoken. Sometimes even well intentioned “upper management” isn’t in a position to see, or doesn’t know, how awesome someone is, or how great their work was. You can fix that. Doubly if the person is in an under-represented group.
All of these things will make you a happier camper, and that’s going to build sustainable success.