We’re getting into the midyear career discussion period at Microsoft. People do appreciate a career discussion with their manager, but most folks have another topic on their mind—how am I doing? Look, it’s not a mystery—you should already know. If you don’t know, you’re clueless about more than just your performance. Six months from now, that could be a problem.
“Hey, that’s not fair!” say the clueless. “My reviews are truly random. I work hard all year, every year, yet my review score is like a slot machine.” Oh please—wake up! How you’re evaluated isn’t complicated or random, but understanding your review score does require you to occasionally unglue your eyes from your screen, take a step back, and evaluate your actual situation.
How do you (and your manager) evaluate your efforts? By considering four attributes of your work: is it level-appropriate, high quality, plentiful, and important? The trick is to understand how those attributes are defined at your current career stage and within your current team. Don’t know? I’ll define them for you, with special attention paid to the one that’s most important.
Let’s quickly define each of the four attributes of your work.
For more on those five minutes in calibration, read Out of calibration.
Definitions of the first three attributes that characterize your work are clear to most people if they are honest with themselves and notice how their co-workers behave. It’s the fourth attribute that people struggle to understand—what work is important?
Clearly, the customer and the business are what’s important. However, most engineers think about customers and business concerns at a fairly concrete and detailed level. When you’re talking about just three to five big things for a whole year, you need to understand importance at a much higher level of abstraction.
It’s easy to tell what’s not important. Canceled projects and cut features aren’t as important. Bragging about your great work that never shipped doesn’t get you very far. You want to distinguish importance before your project or feature is cut.
Who cancels projects? Who cuts features? Management does. Individual contributors influence those decisions and often make the recommendations, but it’s typically people in the management chain that make the final call. Thus, your management chain determines what’s important. Unfortunately, management often provides confusing and even contradictory messages, and its priorities often change. To determine what’s important, you must understand the two buckets of work.
If you are in the principal or partner band, being part of a canceled project is a real concern. After all, you were probably accountable for that entire project. If you are in the senior band or below, it’s not as much of a concern since your work relates to parts of the larger whole. If those parts were done well and were important pieces, then the only impact of the cancellation on you may be having to join a new team.
There are two buckets of substantial work: work that’s critical to the business and self-indulgent “pet” projects.
Sure, there’s also day-to-day busy work, mostly consisting of email and small requests, but you don’t want that work overwhelming your more substantial work.
For more on managing email, read Your World. Easier.
It might seem obvious to focus your work on three to five big projects from the first bucket. After all, wouldn’t you want them all to be business critical? However, it’s easy to be fooled, you do want to keep your management (and yourself) happy, and sometimes real game changers come from pet projects.
How do you find the right balance of work?
How do you get appropriate visibility and credit for doing mundane, yet essential, core-system work (build, deployment, or setup)? There are two ways—either one works.
How are you doing? Well, if you are working on projects with the same scope and complexity as your level peers, and you’re meeting your team’s expectations of quality work (both what and how), and you complete at least three to five big tasks that are important to the business, then you are doing very well!
Just don’t kid yourself about what’s actually level-appropriate, what’s actually expected in terms of quality, and what’s actually important to the business. And don’t think that you can make up for undervalued work by doing it in larger quantities. Take the work you’re given (or better yet, the work you propose or select), and focus on doing a few business- critical tasks well with high quality.
It’s still worth regularly asking your manager for feedback on your performance, but her answer shouldn’t surprise you. People, even managers, think in stories. The story of your performance should be clear, concise, and compelling. It should illuminate the dramatic difference you are making for our business and our customers. It should be a story you, and your manager, are proud to tell.