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Why We Should All Care More About Our Performance Reviews

It was 10pm on a Sunday night. My performance “self review” was due to my manager in 2 hours. I hadn’t written a single line. A voice inside me said “you messed up…again”, but another voice (the one I liked a lot more) said “you’ll be fineeee”. Which of these two voices do you think ended up being right?

If you are a developer in any kind of corporate hierarchy, you’re no stranger to performance reviews. We all do them a bit differently, but they all boil down to the same pieces:

  1. Try and remember at least half of the things you accomplished over the past x months.
  2. Do your best to shoe-horn those accomplishments into some provided framework of what success looks like at your position.
  3. Cross your fingers and hit submit, hoping it’s enough to get that raise or promotion (or at the very least, keep your position).

Reviews are never a surprise. We generally know when they will start. We know what they will ask. We know we should spend more time on them. Yet we hit the same wall every time they show up.

Let’s talk about why this should change.

Companies aren’t designed to throw money at you

This isn’t an anti corporate-America headline, it’s a fact. Companies, at least publicly traded ones, have a fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders to operate on the leanest budget possible. Most aren’t actively trying to screw you or anything like that, but they definitely aren’t in the business of throwing money at people that don’t take the time to sell themselves.

They will reward the high performers that do a great job of framing their accomplishments within the paradigms of the company’s competencies. They will keep the status quo for the rest.

Managers aren’t in a position to care more about you than you

I’ve had the great blessing of an excellent manager that cares about my career growth for more than 3 years now. Even with such a blessing, my manager can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat. With my best interest at heart, he still needs me to deliver enough source material in my reviews to fight for money and promotions on my behalf.

Sure, you may be in the rare and privileged position of being so good that your manager fights for you no matter what you put in that performance review. This isn’t likely. For the most part, they’re holding on for dear life to get through reviews with their x+1 direct reports and need you to to do 95% of the work so they can polish it with that last 5%.

The power of compounding interest

“Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.” - Albert Einstein

It seems obvious that we should want more money. Many of us are content to wait for it though. We don’t spend enough time writing our reviews because we are too busy, or life is too stressful. We don’t track our achievements throughout the cycle because it’s too much of a time investment. Next thing you know, because of that lack of effort, you lose an entire cycle. That may be 6 months or it may be a year.

Every dime you miss out on compounds over that time. Not literally (unless you invest, in which case nice work!) but figuratively. The earlier in your career you can garner wage increases, the more you are worth at each subsequent review interval. A 3% raise at the 6 month mark, followed by another 3% raise at the 1.5 year mark is significantly more money than one 3% raise at the year mark. On a $50,000 salary, thats the difference of more than 1.5K.

Fight for your money early and often and Albert Einstein will think you’re a total smartypants.

Growth is hard-wired in our DNA

In his seminal work on human need, “What Matters Most” Hyrum Smith outlines four basic needs:

  1. The need for survival,
  2. The need for love,
  3. The need for significance,
  4. The need for variety.

If you are a software engineer, you are likely meeting your need for survival so I’ll set that one aside. Similarly, the need for love is a little outside of the purview of this blog, so out the window that one goes.

But the need for significance and variety? Now we are getting somewhere.

Through the review mechanism we get a chance to raise our hand and say we want to take on an expanded role. In that expanded role we can satisfy our need for significance as our problem scope increases along with our influence over the solutions to those problems.

Significance is also a finite and dwindling resource. When we first step into a larger role, significance runs high. We feel empowered by our larger mandates and responsibilities. Maybe we have more visibility which satisfies that need as well. But over time these fade. It’s on us to continue to push for expansion to continue to satisfy this need.

I think this also leads to more variety - but that is company and role dependent. It’s not guaranteed that an expanded role will bring you more variety. Similarly, it’s not guaranteed leaving the company will either. I tend to see a lot engineers leave companies to find new challenges and variety. For the most part, I think this is a missed opportunity. At least in larger companies, you only unlock access to the biggest, scariest, and weirdest problems when you have 2-4 years of company experience under your belt. At this point you have both the clout and the ability to reach. If you can, reach for bigger problems and you’ll find variety.

Finally, Self-respect is a muscle

People aren’t born with self-respect. It’s not a character trait you do or don’t have. Self-respect is the result of a consistent, positive inner monologue. Self-respect is the result of being proud of what you do and how you do it. It’s a skill, and it takes practice. Self-reviews are an extension of that and an opportunity to train that muscle. I think you deserve respect. I think we all do. I think self-reviews are a heck of place to show that to yourself and others.

Writing a strong review says to anyone who reads it (yourself included) that you are a strong and worthwhile contributor. You have something to give and you are worth every penny…and maybe a few more. It says “I’m ready to take on more”.

At the end of the day, this is what we should want for ourselves. More.