How Engineers Should Think About Performance Reviews and Promotions

With the right preparation and framing, your performance review will help you learn, grow and achieve your career goals.

Written by Mark Kinsella
Published on Feb. 09, 2022
How Engineers Should Think About Performance Reviews and Promotions
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All around the workforce, HR emails are landing in inboxes with a familiar thud: It’s time for performance reviews. They can be tough, uncomfortable and tricky to navigate. But when done correctly, they can also be informative and provide a clear sense of how to achieve your career goals. 

Performance reviews are an opportunity to reflect on your accomplishments from the previous year and a chance to strategize about how you can grow your career. With the right tools and preparation you’ll know exactly what to expect. 

Here are three things to think about when going into the next performance review.

Note: This is the second article in a three-part series on career development for software engineers. Catch the first installment here: How to Make Career Pathways Work for Your Engineering Org


Failing to Prepare Is Preparing to Fail

I can’t overstate this enough: prepare, prepare, prepare. It starts with how you and your manager will assess your work over the last six months to a year. Most engineering teams (and many tech companies overall) have adopted a 360-degree review process. This process consists of a self-review, peer feedback and manager evaluation. It’s pretty standard nowadays but highly effective. 

In my last article, I talked about career pathways and why it’s important to outline clear roles and responsibilities from the beginning. The performance review is one very good reason why. When starting your self-assessment, I advise my direct reports to revisit their career pathway. The roles and responsibilities outlined in the pathways are what you’re being evaluated against. Did you do what was asked of you? Did you go above and beyond or make a business impact? What are the areas for growth? 

Part of preparing is being proactive about your wins and successes all year. Instead of waiting until the review, create and maintain a list throughout the year of all your successes, adding to it every week or month. What did you launch, learn or influence? Write it all down. That way you won’t be scrambling or forgetting key wins from the past year. Preparing is about knowing exactly where you met or fell short of your responsibilities and goals. It’s about being honest with yourself so that when you go into the evaluation phase, there are no surprises. Performance reviews should never contain surprises—that’s something I’m extremely adamant about. And if there are, it’s a failing on the manager. 

Once you’ve completed your self-assessment and your manager has collected the peer reviews, they will develop your written review. I recommend asking your manager to share your written review ahead of the evaluation meeting. Again, no surprises! You shouldn’t go into the evaluation phase stressed or worried. You should know exactly what your review will say.

Get More Engineering Career Advice From Mark KinsellaWhy You Should Strive to Be an Entrepreneurial Engineer


Objectivity Is Key

Performance reviews are — and should always be — centered around objectivity. They are about the person’s work, not about the person. That’s a very important distinction. Too many engineers, especially those who are just starting out, believe a tough review rating is the equivalent to them failing as a person. Frankly, it’s something I still struggle with at times. 

During the evaluation process, you should never be compared to anyone else on your team. Your performance should be compared to your work. And you should be evaluated on the period of time you worked, not penalized for time off or changes to how you’ve worked over the last year. 

Performance reviews need to celebrate successes and be objectively critical of the work that could use improvement. Be prepared for constructive feedback and a discussion about what you can be doing better. Pushing back on or debating objective criticism is something I call “failure mode”: It’s turning yourself away from learning and growing, and that gets you nowhere. Instead, listen, absorb the information and ask clarifying questions.

Browse More Software Engineering PerspectivesWant a High Performing Dev Team? Improve Your Time to Productivity.


Promotions vs. Transitions

I correct anybody who says, “I got promoted from an individual Contributor to an engineering manager.” Instead, I encourage my engineers to think about this change in career path as a transition between two equal pathways that have different roles and responsibilities. 

For promotions within the same career path, there are two things to keep in mind: craft and scope. 

How Craft and Scope Determine the Progress of Your Engineering Career

  • Craft is how well you perform the work that is expected at your level in the career pathway. 
  • Scope is the breadth and complexity of your work and how it affects other teams.
  • As your craft improves and your scope increases, you get promoted to the next level.

Lastly, it’s important to consider what you value in an organization. While this varies from company to company, I believe that who you promote sets the culture and values you want to emphasize. So ask yourself, “Do I embody the values my company cares about most?” And if so, how have you demonstrated that?

These are the tools for a successful performance review and ways to rethink your approach to them. No longer do they need to be feared or avoided. With the right preparation and framing, your performance review will help you learn, grow and, ultimately, achieve your career goals.

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