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How can you remove the dread from a self-review?

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An engineer’s self-review guide

Self-reviews or performance self-reflections are a normal part of many companies’ performance review cycles. It’s an opportunity for employees to respond to a few prompts, capture their accomplishments over a time period (quarter, half, year, etc.), reflect on how they could have improved, and consider what they’d like to try for the upcoming time period.

Self-reviews might be one of the most dreaded parts of the performance review cycle. If you’re like me, you might spend more time thinking about working on them than actually working on them. It’s so hard to remember what happened, much less summarize it within a reasonable amount of time.

I often feel compelled to do way more than is necessary for any given task, and self-reviews are no different. When this kind of thing happens, I make myself a guide to take me through the activity. So without further ado, here’s what I created for myself: my self-review guide. Feel free to take the pieces you like and use them as a guide to help you in your next performance reflection period. If you follow the time suggestions, this whole activity will take you approximately an hour.

The following exercises build on one another, and the pièce de résistance is Chapter 4 — The Manager Conversation. (Seriously, don't skip that one.)

Chapter 1 – The brain dump

Give yourself 30 minutes to complete this part of the exercise. 

Part 1 – The emptying of the brain

Before any major piece of self-review, give yourself a timebox of ten minutes to empty your brain. Write down everything you can possibly remember that happened over the relevant time period (for me, the time period is six months). To avoid getting overwhelmed (or the temptation to go down rabbit holes digging through files and looking for links), sometimes I’ll type in a basic notes app with my monitor off.

Part 2 – The goals of past you

Every half-year or quarter, you’ll likely establish goals for yourself, sometimes involving your manager. In order to ground yourself in your search for what you’ve accomplished, take about five minutes to write down the goals you had set in the last time period, especially if you had set them with your manager. Put them front and center, and then use Part 3 to find evidence of how you’ve chosen to accomplish those goals! This should take around five minutes.

Part 3 – The research

Now, take about 15 minutes and start looking for evidence in the pockets that you might have forgotten about. (I try to keep this task to 15 minutes.) Here are some things I’ve done to remind myself of what I have missed in the emptying of my brain:

  • Search authored pull requests, issues, and discussions
  • Search file systems (e.g. Google Drive) for docs I’m the owner of
  • Search company and team posts I’ve authored or been mentioned in
  • Look at your company’s or team’s changelog or blog for features I’ve participated in or worked on
  • Search company chat history (e.g. Slack) for mentions of me
  • Find calendar events I’ve initiated that aren’t recurring
  • Dig up the ‘nice things people have said about me’ folder (I call it my ‘rainy day’ folder) where I have screenshots of feedback I didn’t want to forget
  • Look up company’s ‘thank you’ bots (we call ours the sparkle bot) to see what my mentions were
  • Look up past feedback recorded in company’s feedback app (if applicable)
  • Review 1:1 docs with my manager

There is no way anyone can get through this list in 15 minutes so my advice is to use the time as wisely as possible, prioritizing the options above with a focus on covering your blindspots. Two or three bullets might be enough. 

Pro tip

You’ll thank yourself later if you hyperlink sources to support your accomplishments as you go (e.g. articles, posts, discussions, pull requests, code snippets, conversations)! Even though it might not matter for a self-review, this will be handy when it’s time to put together promotion packets or reward justifications.

Chapter 2 – Level Review

Give yourself ten minutes to complete this part of the exercise.

When was the last time you looked at your company’s career matrix, level guide, or any documentation specifying the expectations for your role and the role above you? (Note: not every company has one of these; if you aren’t aware of whether your company has one, this is a great question for your manager! Even if there isn’t a formal one, there might be something else to point to, like the job description of your role).

I will confess that I only glance at these when I do a self-review. While a career matrix might not fully capture the expectations of a role, it does help to structure your review and prompt you to add noteworthy examples of things you’ve done that you might have forgotten. 

Part 1 – Grouping your examples

Now that you have a lofty list of things you’ve done, you can leverage the different sections of your career matrix or expectations to create headings and organize your brain dump. Honestly, I think it’s just much easier to copy someone else’s framing than to create my own.

Part 2 – Notes to your manager

Every time I go through the career matrix, I realize there are parts I don’t understand, and parts I’m not sure if I’m actively being measured against. (For example, am I being measured on coordinating with sales? What if the project I’m on doesn’t involve that?) These are excellent questions for your next conversation with your manager! Start collecting these notes so you can use them in Chapter 4 – The Manager Conversation, below.

Chapter 3 – Principles Review

Give yourself ten minutes to complete this part of the exercise.

There might be a set of principles or values (both behavioral and technical) that your team and/or company uses as a guide when making decisions. Many companies, including mine, have a separate section in the self-review that asks how your behaviors have contributed to supporting your company’s culture.

So for this part of my guide, I suggest you find the principles, and figure out which three were the ones you exemplified most strongly this past half and write out one or two stories supporting them (links are great, too!).

As a manager, my behaviors influence a lot of how I spend my time and so I tend to list five or six stories about how I pushed myself in new ways, accomplished my goals, and exemplified the behaviors I was hoping to work on, which I’ve unearthed from ‘The goals of past you’ in Chapter 1, above.

Chapter 4 – The Manager Conversation

Give yourself ten minutes to complete this part of the exercise.

Believe it or not, the most important part of a self-review isn’t in the documentation that you submit or the words you type for your review; it’s the conversation you have with your manager about your performance. This should be an ongoing conversation and the conversations you have are the most impactful when it comes to your performance review. Do not skip this part.

As a manager, nothing surprising should come up in a performance review; with regular conversations about performance, expectations, and feedback, everything should be vaguely familiar. So for this chapter, let’s flip the control around in a ‘managing up’ fashion. For your next conversation with your manager, what do you want to talk about so that you can minimize any possible surprises about your review? What’s something you aren’t sure your manager knows that you do?

Here are my recommended questions to ask:

  • What’s something you’re looking to see evidence of in my self-review in order to have enough information to rate me or calibrate me against other folks on the team?
  • What do others’ self-reviews typically look like for someone of my level? How much do they typically write? What format is easiest for you to scan through?
  • Can you show me an anonymized example of a really helpful self-review you read in the last year?
  • (Any questions that came up during your level review or principles review from Chapters 2 and 3, above)

If you’re comfortable, you can share a rough draft of your writeup in advance of your meeting with them and tell your manager that you plan on asking them if they see any immediate surprises or gaps in your self-review.  If they haven’t had a chance to read it ahead of the meeting, you can always reserve the first five minutes for them to read and then ask them the same question. (This also works great for any mentors you have or peers you look up to.)

Even though it might sound like ‘cheating’ to talk about your accomplishments and what you’re writing for your self-review, it actually makes sense to get your manager’s advice on it! At the end of the day, your manager is your resource and one of your many guides in your career. Part of that responsibility is to guide you in writing great self-reviews, also. To make it easier for your manager to focus on what you need, you can highlight the parts you’d like them to provide their opinions on.

Extra credit: trade with a friend

By now, you probably have the semblance of a story of what you’ve done over the last half. As someone who learns a lot by pairing with others and thinking out loud, this works for me with self-reviews, too.  Sometimes I’ll ping a peer after they’ve finished their brain dump to see if we can schedule 30 minutes (spending 15 minutes each) to go through what we wrote, remind each other of things we might have forgotten, or just cheer each other on.

The most valuable part of my 15-minute portion of these video calls is that I get a better understanding of my story. When I share my screen, I can see how the other person reacts to the color I add to my document when I explain which of the things I felt I did okay, well, and above and beyond my role or title. I get to hear their clarifying questions and see if it makes sense to embed additional details in my self-review, in case my manager has similar questions. I also get to calibrate with someone else to understand what’s ‘normal’ on my team or at the company, versus what’s ‘unique’. This all helps me determine what to highlight in my self-review.

To be honest, the first time I share my brain dump, it is always awkward and confusing for me. Sometimes it takes me two rounds: a round with two separate people, before I have a story that makes sense to me.

Completing the review

Now that you have all the raw material, the last step is to put everything together, which I have no advice for; everyone is different and there is no right or wrong way to tell your story. I will, however, leave you with these final notes.

The primary purpose of a self-review is to give you permission to pause on your work and reflect on what you’ve accomplished over the last half. It’s a chance to consider what could have gone better. Don’t skip your reflection just to get something submitted. This is a time to be real with yourself and decide which are the best parts to record in your company’s review system, which parts are best to discuss with your manager, and which parts are best for yourself. I’d rather keep two versions of my self-review, one for myself and one for my manager, over only writing one for the self-review period.

There’s no way you can summarize everything that happened and no one expects you to either. A self-review allows you to provide great placeholders for a later conversation with your peers, manager, or yourself. In that sense, you only need to leave enough pieces to reconstruct the story! I help drive this home for myself by keeping my self-review to bullet points, one-line summaries, and a link.

I hope this was helpful, and I’m wishing you an efficient, thoughtful, and fruitful next self-review!