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Wed, 07 Jun 2017

Annual self-evaluation time, woo-hoo!

It's annual performance evaluation time at my employer, ZipRecruiter, and as part of that I have to write a self-evaluation. I know many people dread these, and I used to dread them, but these days I like doing it. Instead of being a torture or even a chore, for the last couple of years I have come out of it feeling much better about my job and my performance than I went in.

I think that is about 20% because my company does it in a good way, 30% because it suits my personality, and 50% because I have learned how to handle it well. The first half of that might not help you much, but if you're an evaluation loather, you might be able to transfer some of the second half and make it a little less horrible for yourself.

How ZipRecruiter does self-evaluations

I will get this out of the way because it's quick. ZipRecruiter does these evaluations in a way that works well for me. They do not pester me with a million questions. They ask only four, which are roughly:

  1. What were your main accomplishments this year?
  2. Describe areas you feel require improvement.
  3. What do you hope to accomplish in the coming year?
  4. How can your manager help you?

I very much appreciate this minimalist approach. It gets right to the point, covers all the important issues and nothing more. None of these questions feels to me like a meaningless bureaucratism or a waste of time.

Answering the questions thoroughly takes (only) two or three hours, but would take less if I didn't write such detailed answers; I'm sure I could write an acceptable report in an hour. I can see going in that it will be a finite process.

Why this suits my personality well

If you have followed this blog for a while, you may have noticed that I like writing essays, particularly essays about things I have been working on or thinking about. ZipRecruiter's self-evaluation process invites me to write a blog post about my year's work. This is not everyone's cup of tea, but it is right up my alley. Tea alley. Hee hee.

My brain has problems

My big problems with writing a self-evaluation are first, that I have a very poor memory, and second, that I think of myself as a lazy slacker who spends a lot of time goofing off and who accomplishes very little. These combine badly at evaluation time.

In the past, I would try to remember what work I did in the previous year so I could write it up. My memory is poor, so I wouldn't remember most of what I had done, and then it was easy to come to the conclusion that I had not done very much, probably because I was a lazy slacker whose spent a lot of time goofing off. I would go through several iterations of this, until, tormented by guilt and self-hatred, I would write that into the self-evaluation. This is not a practice I would recommend.

If there were two projects, A and B, and I promptly finished A but B dragged on and was running late, which one would I be more likely to remember when the time came to write the self-evaluation report? B, of course. It was still on my mind because I spent so long thinking about it and because it was still in progress. But I had forgotten about A immediately after putting it to rest. Since I could remember only the unfinished projects, I would conclude that I was a lazy slacker who never finished anything, and write that into the self-evaluation. This is also a a practice I recommend you avoid.

The ticketing system is my bionic brain

The way I have been able to escape this horrible trap is by tracking every piece of work I do, every piece, as a ticket in our ticketing system. People often come to me and ask me to do stuff for them, and I either write up a ticket or I say “sure, write me a ticket”. If they ask why I insist on the ticket (they usually don't), I say it's because when self-evaluation time comes around I want to be able to take credit for working on their problem. Everyone seems to find this reasonable.

Then, when it's time to write the self-evaluation, the first thing I do is visit the ticket website, select all my tickets from the past year, and sort them into chronological order. I look over the list of ticket titles and make a list of stuff that might be worth mentioning on the evaluation. I will have forgotten about three-fourths of it. If I didn't have the list in the ticketing system, I would only remember the most recent one-fourth and conclude that I spent three-fourths of my time goofing off because I am a lazy slacker. Instead, there is this long list of the year's accomplishments, too many to actually include in the report.

Well, this is not rocket science. One is called upon to describe the year's accomplishments. Even people with better memory than me surely cannot remember all this without keeping records, can they? Anyway I surely cannot, so I must keep records and then consult them when the time comes. Put that way, it seems obvious. Why did it take so long to figure out? But there are a lot of happy little details that were not so obvious.

  • Instead of thinking “Why didn't I finish big project X? I must have been goofing off. What a lazy slacker I am” I think “holy cow, I resolved 67 tickets related to big project X! That is great progress! No wonder I got hardly anything else done last fall” and also “holy cow, X has 78 resolved tickets and 23 still open. It is huge! No wonder it is not finished yet.”

    Writing “I completed 67 tickets related to X” is a lot more concrete than “I worked hard on X”. If you are neurotic in the way I am, and concerned that you might be a lazy slacker, it feels much more persuasive. I have an idea that it sounds better to my boss also, particularly if he were to be called upon to discuss it with his manager. (“Under my leadership, Mark completed 67 tickets related to X!”) Andy Lester says that your job is to make your boss happy, and that means making it easy for him to do his job, which is to make his boss happy. So this is no small thing.

  • Instead of thinking “Gee, the CTO declared top priority initiative Y, and while everyone else was working hard on it I mostly ignored it because I am a lazy slacker” I might see that I have tagged 9 tickets “top priority initiative Y”. Then on the report, I proudly boast “I completed 9 tickets in support of the CTO's mandate, including (most important one) and (most impressive one).” This also comes under the heading of “make it easy for your boss to do his job”.

  • Instead of completely forgetting that I did project Z, I see the tickets and can put it in my report.

  • Instead of remembering awful project W, which dragged on for months, and thinking what a lazy slacker I was because I couldn't get it done, I have a progress record in the ticket and the details might suggest a different interpretation: Project W sucked, but I nevertheless pursued it doggedly to completion, even though it took months.

  • I might remember that I once helped Jones, but what did I help him with? Did I really spend much time on him? Without looking at the ticket list, I might not realize that I helped Jones every few weeks all year long. This sort of pattern is often apparent only in the retrospective summary. With the ticket system, instead of “oh, Jones sometimes asks me questions, I guess” I can see that supporting Jones was an ongoing thing and he kept coming back. This goes into the report: “I provided ongoing support to Jones, including (some cherry-picked example that makes me look especially good).”

  • One question (#2) on the report form is “Describe areas you feel require improvement”. If I wrote in last year's report that I would like to improve at doing X, I can look in the ticket system for specific evidence that I might have improved, even if I wasn't consciously trying to improve X at the time. Probably there is something somewhere that can at least be spun as an attempt to improve at X. And if it didn't actually improve X, I can still ask myself why it didn't and what might work instead, and put that in the report as something to try next time, which is question #3.

    Hey, look at that, I am evaluating my prior performance and making informed corrections. That might be a useful practice. Wouldn't it be great if I took time every so often to do that? Some sort of periodic self-evaluation perhaps?

  • Another question (#3) is “What would you like to do in the coming year?” If I wrote in last year's report said “I would like to do more of X” I can look for evidence that I did do that, and then write it into this year's report: “Last year I said I would try to do more of X, and I did.”

  • Even if I were having a bad year and got very little done—and this has happened—having a list of the stuff I did get done leaves me in a much better position to write the report than not having such a list.

None of this good stuff would be possible without an actual record of what I did. If there weren't a ticketing system, I would have to invent one or maybe tattoo it on my chest like the guy in Memento. Even aside from its use in writing annual self-evaluations, keeping a work diary is crucial for me, because without it I can't remember day-to-day what I am working on and what needs to happen next. And even for people with better memory than me, are they really going to remember all 317 things they did for work this year, or that 67 of them pertained to big project X? If they can that's great but I doubt it.

Keeping a work record is part of my job

I think it is important to maintain the correct attitude to this. It would be easy to imagine ticket management as unproductive time that I wasted instead of accomplishing something useful. This is wrong. The correct attitude is to consider ticket updates to be part of my work product: I produce code. I produce bug fixes. I produce documentation, reports, and support interactions. And I also produce ticket updates. This is part of my job and while I am doing it I am not goofing off, I am not procrastinating, I am doing my job and earning my salary. If I spent the whole day doing nothing but updating tickets, that would be a day well-spent.

Compare “I produce ticket updates” with “I produce unit tests”. The attitude for ticket updates is the same as for testing. When something happens in a project, I update the ticket, because keeping the tickets updated is part of the project, just like writing tests is. An organization that fails to support ticket updates is broken in the same way as one that fails to support test development.

My boss gets email every time I update a ticket. I don't know if he reads these, but he has the option to, and I don't need to worry as much that maybe he thinks I am a lazy slacker who is goofing off, because he is getting a stream of automatic notifications about what I am up to. I'm not my boss but if I were I would appreciate this very much.

Maybe some of this can help you?

There might be some use in this even for people who aren't already in the habit of writing self-absorbed blog posts.

If doing the annual self-evaluation makes you suffer, maybe it would help to practice writing some blog posts. You don't have to publish them or show anyone. Next time you finish a project, set aside thirty or sixty minutes to try to write up a little project report: What worked, what didn't, what are you pleased about, what was surprising, what was fun, what was annoying? I'm not certain this will help but it seems like this is a skill that might get easier with practice, and then when you have to write your annual self-evaluation it might be easier because you have more practice doing it. Also, you would have a little file of material to draw on and would not have to start from zero.

If your employer's process requires you to fill in some giant questionnaire, it might be easier to do if you go into it with answers to the four basic questions prepared ahead of time. (I imagine that it's even possible that if you address the four big questions and ignore everything on the giant questionnaire that doesn't pertain to them, everyone will be perfectly satisfied and nobody will notice the omissions.)

And keep a work diary! Tattoo it on your chest if you have to. If it seems daunting, realize that you don't have to do it all at once. Keeping a work diary of some sort is forgiving in the same way as writing unit tests:

  • It's not all-or-nothing, you don't have to test every piece of code to get any benefit from testing. If you write tests for 1% of the code, you get about 1% of the benefit, and you can ramp up.

  • If you break your test-writing streak you don't have to start over from zero. If you didn't write any tests for the code you wrote last week, that's a shame, but it doesn't affect the benefit you can get from writing a unit test for whatever you're working on today.

The work diary is similar. When time comes to write your evaluation, a small and incomplete record is better than no record at all. If you forget to write in the diary for a month, that's a shame, but it doesn't affect the benefit you can get from writing down today what you did today.

Our ticketing system

This isn't important, but I expect someone will want to know: At work we use FogBugz. Some of my co-workers dislike it but I have no major complaints. If you want to try it on your own, they have a seven-day free trial offer, after which you can sign up for a permanent free account that supports up to two users. I am experimenting with using a free tier account to manage my personal to-do list.

Coming soon

I wrote another 2,000 words about my specific practices for managing tickets. I hope it'll be along in a few days.


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