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.

The secret to my success

Let’s quickly define each of the four attributes of your work.

  1. Level-appropriate. Work that’s commensurate with peers at your level. Is your work of equivalent scope, complexity, and independence? (Remember, you are judged relative to your division peers.) As you grow, what’s considered level-appropriate work changes. That’s why you don’t get the same review for the same work after a promotion.
  2. High quality. Work that meets the expectations of your leadership team. Quality is not an absolute. Ask. Observe. Adjust. Don’t let pride in perfection prevent your progress. And remember, quality is not just about your outcomes—it’s also about how you achieve them (efficiently, collaboratively).
  3. Plentiful. Work that showcases three to five memorable accomplishments. More than that may cause you to lose focus, delivering mediocre instead of memorable results. Less than that shows a less complete and consistent effort. You want the five minutes that your management focuses on you during calibration meetings to be compelling—three to five big contributions, backed by lots of little day-to-day stuff. What’s critical is the nature of those three to five big accomplishments, which leads us to the last and most significant attribute.
  4. Important. What qualifies work as important? Ay, there’s the rub.

Eric Aside

For more on those five minutes in calibration, read Out of calibration.

Who moved my cheese?

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.

Eric Aside

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.

Just the two of us

There are two buckets of substantial work: work that’s critical to the business and self-indulgent “pet” projects.

  • Work that’s critical to the business is what your division’s leadership talks about at group meetings and describes in vision documents and planning memos. Work that’s directly derived from the disseminated direction for your division is clearly important. No one doubts its importance to the division since everyone got the same message. This work includes core systems like build, deployment, and setup—the pieces necessary to deliver the goods (not sexy, but essential).
  • The substantial work that’s left over is made up of pet projects (including pet features). The pet projects could be your own, your manager’s, your friend’s, your director’s, or even something requested by your division president. The key difference between pet projects and work in support of broadly stated business direction is that pet projects aren’t acknowledged as being business critical. In other words, different people may view their importance quite differently.

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.

Eric Aside

For more on managing email, read Your World. Easier.

You can go with this or you can go with that

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?

  • Read the vision documents and planning memos. Attend the big group meetings where executives talk about direction and priorities. Understand what leadership thinks is important.
  • Keep a critical eye open. Sometimes people masquerade pet projects as being business critical. Ask questions about how the work relates to the vision document or planning memo. You might still choose to do the project, but you should do so knowingly.
  • Consider your current career situation and how much risk it can bear. For example, if you just got promoted, you can take more risk. If you’re pining for a promotion, you can’t afford as much risk. Business-critical projects are less risky.
  • Honestly evaluate who’d be happy if you did a pet project. If it’s the president’s pet project and you think you can pull it off, why not go for it? If it’s your own pet project, perhaps you should hedge with a few business critical projects as well. If it’s somewhere in between, consider the risk and reward and act accordingly.
  • Don’t rely solely on pet projects or features. They often get cut or canceled.
  • If you’re ever in a pinch and need some business-critical projects to balance your risk, you can always grab some needed core-system work (build, deployment, or setup). Most folks hate that work, yet those improvements are force multipliers with broad and critical impact to the business.

Eric Aside

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.

  • People don’t typically work on core systems unless an improvement is vital. So, measure the current state before you start (if builds are taking too long, measure the build time), perform the improvement, measure the improved state (the shorter build time), then send mail to everyone announcing the improvement and its impact.
  • Widen your perspective and make improvements to core systems that surprise people. Office 2013 did this recently with its dramatically shortened setup time. Nothing tells a better story than taking something folks think is mundane and shocking them with its newfound sexiness.

Doing it well

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.