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Performance reviews and the hidden rules to get ahead in tech

Performance reviews are the gatekeeper to promotions, compensation and career growth in tech — learn the hacks the most senior people are using to get ahead.

  1. Understand how reviews work — and how to use the process to your advantage
  2. Running your own performance review — how to get 10x better feedback on your own
  3. How to game the company’s performance review — the insider tips nobody will tell you

Performance reviews exist to fire people. Secondarily, they exist to provide feedback, develop talent and help people get better.

If you’re interested in the later part, performance reviews are not the right tool. Follow this guide to take control of your performance and supercharge your career.

Understand how reviews work

At most big tech companies, performance is assessed every 6 months and culminates with a performance rating. This rating determines bonus (including an equity "refresher") and promotions.

Nearly every big tech companies follow a very similar process to set performance ratings:

  • Self-evaluation + peer reviews — you write a detailed “self-evaluation” of your achievements and areas for growth and nominate 3-5 peers to review your performance.
  • Initial rating — you manager assigns you an initial rating based on the self-evaluation and peer reviews.
  • Calibration — all managers get together for “calibration”, where they each presents a summary of their direct report’s performance and defend their rating.
  • Final rating — after some quorum of the calibration panel agrees on the rating, it becomes official.

This whole process happens recursively: all managers review ICs, their managers review them, and so on, all the way up to the top.

At the end of this process, your manager schedules a 1:1 session to share the rating along with their written feedback.

Performance reviews exist to protect the company

Big tech companies are an easy, visible and lucrative target for lawsuits, and because of that, companies work very hard to build a bullet-proof trail of documentation before firing someone.

The performance process is a political, CYA-driven process carefully controlled by HR: managers dread it just as much as you do. It can take 2-3 months to get you feedback — already half way through the next performance cycle.

There's a better way — read on to learn how to run your own performance review.

Don't base your personal growth on 3-month stale feedback twice a year — the company performance process is not enough to get ahead.

Download the Candor performance review toolkit to get ahead and get promoted

Running your own performance review

Feedback is critical to a rocketship career — quality feedback is a huge accumulating advantage. If you can increase the velocity of feedback you get, you’ll be unstoppable.

The performance review the company provides is not sufficient. It's the product of design-by-committee: sluggish, heavily filtered, and designed for the fragilest of egos.

If you want to really succeed, you need to run your own performance process. That means three things: asking for feedback directly, running your own peer reviews, and organizing project retrospectives.

Asking for feedback directly

Realize this: everyone you work with has an opinion on your performance — everybody has information that will make you better at your job, but they’re scared of telling you.

It's your job to help them tell you. You don't need your manager for that.

Every 1:1 you have with someone is an opportunity for a nugget of insight that will boost your career. Make it a habit to leave the last 5 minutes of 1:1s to ask for feedback:

Play
Anything I can be doing better to support you?
Hmm. Well... The way you dealt with the Infra team has really put me in a bind — they won't talk to me now.
I'm so sorry. What happened? Let's talk about how I can make it right.

You can ask for feedback along many dimensions:

  • General — "What can I do better to help support you?"
  • Project-specific — "What do you think I could do more to push this project further?"
  • Interaction-specific — "Do you think I could have done something differently in that meeting?"

It's easiest to start from the bottom: first ask people how you did dealing with a colleague, or in a meeting, or on a doc or code review and work your way up to asking for more general feedback.

Run down the list of the top 10 people you work with: if you haven't asked them how you're doing sometime in the last month, you're already falling behind.

Once you get comfortable with asking, the single biggest thing you can do to receive honest, high quality feedback is to immediately and visibly act on any feedback you’re given, no matter how small, insignificant or even if you disagree with the feedback.

This might be uncomfortable, but the payoff of getting more, long-term quality feedback is 100% worth it.

Your own peer review process

Our objective: there can't be anything that crops up on your formal performance review that you haven't heard directly from someone and had a chance to act on.

Asking for feedback in person is a good step in that direction, but there are still things that people will have trouble expressing in person.

Every few months, send the ~5 people you work most with a Google Forms survey that mirrors the formal company peer review. Here's the survey Candor members use:

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Feedback form

And send your closest collaborators the link:

Hi Sarah,

I’m gathering feedback from the people I work closest with — I would love your input. If you can find 5-10 minutes to answer these questions by Friday, I would truly appreciate it:

[Google Form link]

Please be honest and candid — that's what helps me the most. And, if there’s anything else you’d like to share, good or bad, I’d love to hear it.

Thank you! 🙌

Remember: people want to give you feedback. You need to provide as many opportunities as possible for them to do it in a way they feel comfortable.

Feedback is jet fuel for your career — don't wait on your manager to filter and spoon feed it to you.

Bonus points: we'll also use this survey to identify the people that have good things to say about you for the formal peer evaluation (more on that in Step 3).

Project retros

On every project you lead or have a significant involvement, insist on running a project retrospective after important milestones.

Put a 30 min meeting on everyone's calendar, open a shared Google Doc and go from person to person, filing two columns (What went well and What needs improvement) and noting any action items.

Don't judge or comment on anything that's said. Just note things and move on.

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Project retrospective

After the retro, followup religiously on the action items.

That's it. It's the best 30 min you'll spend.

Being good at your job is necessary, but not sufficient to doing well in performance reviews — you need to specifically and intentionally prepare for your review.

Download the Candor performance review toolkit to get ahead and get promoted

Gaming the company's performance review

Being good at your job is necessary, but not sufficient to doing well in performance reviews. Step 2 will help you be good at your job, but you still need to optimize the performance review process.

The main inputs to your performance review are:

  • Your opinion of yourself (self-evaluation)
  • Your peer’s opinion of you (peer reviews)
  • Your manager’s opinion of you
  • Your manager’s peers opinion of you

Let’s talk about how we’re going to address each separately.

Self-evaluation

The biggest mistake you can make it writing your self-evaluation is writing it the week before it's due. Throughout the year, keep a running document with the things you shipped and their impact.

In particular, keep track of the business impact of your achievements: not just "I reduced latency of the endpoint", but also "... and it improved conversion by Y and ultimately drove Z revenue."

Your manager knows surprisingly little of your achievements. It's your job to catalog them, connect it to business goals and present it to them in a way that gives them ammunition for calibration.

Second, you'll also be expected to cover areas of growth. Here, you want to be vulnerable, but just vulnerable enough. Be honest, kind and to the point about traits you're working to grow.

Focus on painting a picture of how large your ambitions are and the skills you'll need to get there. "My goal is to lead a world-changing team in the ecommerce space, and this half I'm working on my ability to communicate cross-functionally."

Peer reviews

At most big tech companies, you’ll be asked to select 3-5 people you work with it to write a peer review of your performance.

Peer reviews are critical — it’s hard to overstate their importance: a single lukewarm peer review can be enough to jeopardize a whole promotion.

This is the biggest area of leverage you have in controlling the inputs to the performance process.

If you've followed the advice from Step 2 and run your own peer review process, you know exactly what everybody has to say about you.

Only nominate peer reviewers that help paint the right picture of you and reinforce your self-evaluation.

You might think this is a little disingenuous — you're right. Remember: the company's performance process is not something that exists for your benefit, you run your own performance process for that.

Your manager

Managers will hold a weekly or biweekly 1:1 with you — the biggest mistake you can make with 1:1s is to treat them like a status update.

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One-on-one agenda

Find another venue for status updates (e.g. a weekly email) and keep the 1:1 focused on high-level topics: what you need help with, what your manager needs help with and how you're doing on the job.

Setup a running Google Doc agenda, ask for feedback frequently and directly and be meticulous about following up on action items.

If you catalog every single objection your manager has and you're able to communicate and show consistent progress — regardless of whether you "fix" the issue — you'll win the performance review game.

Your manager's peers

Everybody misses how critical your manager's peers are for performance reviews. Remember: they're the ones in calibration reviewing your performance, and they're the ones your manager has to defend their decision to.

You'll have a big leg up if they have a general positive opinion of you.

Every performance review cycle, you need to figure out how to have 2-3 positive interactions with each of the people on the calibration panel.

The easiest way to do that is to get involved in cross-org or cross-function efforts, like:

  • Hiring — help refine the hiring process for your team or function (very high leverage)
  • Diversity & inclusion — help champion causes that make your work environment more inclusive (also very high leverage)
  • Interns — help promote the company at universities, coordinate recruiting or manage interns on your team
  • Volunteer — help with e.g. Christmas volunteer activities, a blood drive, etc.
  • Social groups — help organize company sports teams or social groups
  • Work groups — organize a company group around a new techology, best practice or emerging idea and e.g. invite speakers onsite
  • Inter-team process — help your team work effectively with other teams in the org
  • Give praise — when you see a manager succeed publicly (e.g. give a talk), message them congratulations
  • Ask for advice — this is one of the most effective ways to endear yourself to someone: if you're struggling with a situation, ask a peer manager directly for advice

Throughout all this, the single most important thing to realize is that performance reviews requires continuous and intentional prep. Download the Candor performance review toolkit to get started and reach out to your Candor agent for a custom prep plan.

Download the Candor performance review toolkit

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Candor performance guide