Software Engineer’s path to the best annual performance review

How the annual review scores are formed in the eyes of managers always fascinated me. I have five years of experience with annual reviews myself, and I was always able to do well on them.

As a tech lead I got to give recommendations and participate in some discussions with managers. I formed a pretty firm and possibly naive point of view on them now.

The process

The way the process went in my last company, and I suspect in most big companies, is like this: At year’s end the employee is asked to fill out a long form about his achievements and goals. The manager fills out a similar form about the employee and then they have “The talk”.

In this talk the manager and the employee will discuss the year past and the year to come. This might translate to a numeric “score”  with values like:

  • 1- Doesn’t meet expectations in any aspect
    (Translation: You might be fired soon)
  • 2 – Doesn’t meet expectations in some aspects
    (Management is not happy with you)
  • 3 – Meets expectations
    (Translation: You’re OK)
  • 4 – Exceeds expectations in some aspects
    (Translation: Management is happy with you)
  • 5 – Exceeds expectations in all aspects
    (Translation: You’re a rock star, ask for a raise!)

Why do annual reviews matter?

Do you want more money? Sometimes the performance review directly affects your yearly bonus if you have those. At my last company, a low score meant no bonus at all. And a high score meant twice as much money.

If you want a raise or a higher salary, yearly reviews matter. Probably the thing that matters most since higher management knows you only by that review.

The ways to get a promotion is not exactly the same as to get a good yearly review, but they are similar. Getting a good yearly review will definitely help in getting a promotion.

Do you want to be appreciated and valued as a good professional in your company? I’m sure you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading a technical blog in your free time. A good yearly review means you are appreciated. So working towards being valued and appreciated is the same as working towards getting a good yearly review.

The Secret to getting a good review

The secret is actually becoming a truly good professional.

What do I mean by that? Well, solving a lot of bugs and developing the most features is not the most important thing. And although it certainly helps to be super talented, you can get a great review with average or below average “talent”.

My first tip is: Taking the yearly review form seriously. It shows you both care about your own performance and that you care to be valued by the company.

All my following advice is about work throughout the year. I have very little advice as to conducting the actual end of year talk with your manager. In fact, I think it matters little and the results are already predetermined by the work your did during the past year.

Here’s 8 aspects that affect most on the annual review.

1. Taking responsibility

Taking responsibility is the first part and maybe the most important.

When you are given charge of a task, you are the manager of that task. It’s your responsibility to deal with it in the best possible way. Here are some examples:

  • If the specification isn’t good enough, it’s your responsibility to go to the stakeholders and work with them to define it better.
 By stakeholders I mean product manager, project manager, your immediate manager, QA and whoever else related to the task.
  • If you foresee problems with the current task, talk to the stakeholders and tell them about it. Suggest ways to handle it.
  • If you are not able to finish the task within the given deadline, you should inform the stakeholders. Do not go home on the day of the deadline of that task without telling anyone.
  • Whenever talking to the stakeholders, make sure they receive and understand the message. If you send an email and don’t receive a reply, talk to the person and make sure he or she got the message and are handling it.
  • When you are dependent on someone else, possibly from a different team, it’s your responsibility to get them to finish their part. This doesn’t mean in no way to be aggressive. Just make sure they know you wait for them and ask when it will be ready. If they aren’t willing to do their part in time, go to your manager or their manager and report the problem. Make sure it’s known the other team is currently the bottleneck.

2. Show engagement

Showing engagement is really easy to do and will give you tons of value with management. Simply show them that you truly care about the job. This is really easy if you do care. And why wouldn’t you? You get a good salary, a coffee machine, insurance is paid…
How to show you care? Here are some ideas:

  • Send a few emails from home after work hours
  • Volunteer for things
  • Argue for stuff you think should be different
  • Follow through with things you volunteered or argued for. If you convinced your manager something should change and he said “OK, change it if you want to, I don’t mind it” – Go ahead and change it. Don’t leave it at that.
  • Talk about work, show that work is on your mind

3. Communication skills

Communications skills are important. I think the bigger the company the more it counts. That and politics.
You can be a genius coder, but if you are impossible to work with, you are more likely to get fired than promoted.

Recognize that communications is very important and recognize if you have a problem in that department. If you do, this can set you way back. I think the quickest way to find out is simply to ask your manager or co worker that you trust if you are easy to work with.

If you aren’t the easiest person to work with, find out why and work on yourself. It’s a shame to do a lot of great work but keep failing due to something that you can probably easily fix. Like being more patient with stakeholders or being more helpful to your team members.

4. Show Initiative

Showing initiative, any initiative, is a statement. It says you care about the company, that you are thinking outside the box, that you spend thought and time on improving your workplace. In certain cases it says that your are a leader and management material.

Here are some initiative examples:

  • Code refactoring / redesigns.
  • Suggest new features.
  • Suggest integrating a new technology.
  • Give a lecture to your team / group / company on something.
  • Start a unit test project / system test if you don’t have it yet.
  • Organize team fun day.

Suggesting a new initiative is like a sales pitch. Your managers needs to be convinced it will bring more value than the time spent on it.

If your manager likes your idea, be prepared to follow through. You will be the one to work on it and integrate it.

5. Good coding

I don’t think anyone can deny that being a good coder is important for your reviews. This is what we are paid to do after all.

Let’s consider what we are being reviewed on.

  • We need to be able to finish features and solve bugs quickly.
  • Our works needs to be as bug free as possible.
  • Our code should be readable and maintainable. I would argue here not to over design and to follow the KISS_principle.
  • We need to do quality work even if it can’t be measured by direct bugs. This includes good performance and lack of memory leaks.

To master those is a developer’s lifetime work and I can’t give advice in just a few words.

I will argue that for a medium to a big company, quality is more important than speed. I’m a big proponent that a developer should be doing his own QA before handing it over to the actual QA team.

6. Take credit for your own work

You might be awesome at what you do, but your manager might not be aware of that. Managers forget and tend to live in the moment. They have a thousand different meetings and they might not notice that you developed a huge feature with almost no bugs. It’s your job to remind them.

Knowing how to take credit for your work is an art more than science I think. Mostly simply mentioning and reporting something is good enough. A little reminder in the right place.

7. Talk about your ambitions

Talking with your manager on your ambitions in the company will do nothing but good for you. For one thing, it will help you to achieve your ambitions! But other than that, it shows that you are serious about this job. It implies that you are willing to work to achieve those ambitions.

Managers tend to reward ambitious workers. When you tell your manager once in a while how much you want to become a feature leader or to learn a new technology, he will not feel comfortable giving you a bad score in the yearly review.

Ambitions don’t have to be climbing up the management ladder. They can be very technical, especially in software development. For example my ambitions were to learn WPF better and to integrate system tests in our application.

8. Ask what you can do more

I think asking for criticism from your manager is a great way to get a good yearly review. Especially if your manager isn’t talking about it himself. For one thing, you will get a feel for what you can do to get that score higher. But besides that, it shows that you are serious about your job and that you are willing to improve yourself.

Politics

I completely steered away from politics here, assuming that your manager’s ethics is impeccable and you will always get credit for your good work.

Unfortunately (or fortunately for some), this isn’t always the case. There’s always some politics involved, especially in big companies. Your boss might be intimidated by you, afraid you will replace him. He or she might take credit for your work or promote someone else for personal reasons.

In the end, I think that if we do a good job, everyone around us knows it. People are smart that way.

Summary

Trying to get a better “score” might seem unappealing, but I encourage you to take a different point of view.
A high score means you are valued and appreciated in your company.
Striving towards a better score will help you achieve whatever ambitions you might have in your company.
When leaving, you will be remembered as an awesome developer. That means great recommendations and a good feeling on top of that.

Every manager / team leader is different. Some are more technical and will judge you almost entirely on your code quality. Others are with a macro point of view, and will see your engagement and initiative. Find out and choose your strategy. But even if your manager isn’t technical, you owe it to yourself to be an awesome coder anyway.

I recommend everyone to watch this video by uncle Bob talking about professionalism.

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