Steve Grunwell

Open-source contributor, speaker, and coffee snob

An employee sitting across the table from two other people

Preparing for your Annual Review

The annual review can be a sink-or-swim moment for many employees, but I’ve seen far too many people – myself included – let a good opportunity to talk about growth and trajectory pass them by when review time finally comes. The review can and should be a time to reflect on your successes, reinforce learning from mistakes, and set goals for your future at the company.

Last week, a friend of mine reached out for help as she prepared for her first annual review with her company; she wanted to pick my brain, knowing that I’ve been on both sides of the review table, as both a production team member and a manager. “What are some things I can do to mentally prepare myself for my annual review,” she inquired, “and what things have you seen people do that just turned you off the whole conversation?”

Review preparation is key

The biggest piece of advice I can offer anyone – whether a bright-eyed junior or a battle-tested, senior employee – is to go into your annual review prepared to put your best foot forward. It may seem obvious, but the annual review is your time to sell yourself to your manager(s). Somehow, in my experience, anyway, many employees seem to come woefully under-prepared.

Start by making a list – not to share, just for yourself – with three headings:

1. My achievements

These are specific things you’ve accomplished since you’ve joined the company or your last review. Don’t just speak in generalities, but call out specific instances where you’ve kicked some major butt. For example, “I performed an audit and repaired a long-standing bug in the client’s caching implementation, vastly improving site stability and performance” sounds a hell of a lot more impressive than “I’m a hard worker and helped keep client sites up”.

Having specific examples prepared gives your superiors concrete examples of how you’ve brought value to the company; the value of these examples cannot be overstated when it comes time to discuss compensation, upcoming challenges, and career trajectory. Be proud of what you’ve achieved, and make sure your superiors are aware of the impact you have on the company.

2. My goals

These are the things you hope to accomplish before your next review. Again, be specific: “Implement React.js on a new client site” is way more measurable than “learn JavaScript frameworks like React.js”. The goals should be specific and achievable, but not necessarily “easy”.

Remember: these are goals you should be revisiting yourself regularly (and often), so by the time the next review comes around these can move from “My goals” to “My achievements”.

3. My opportunities

Don’t be fooled, “opportunities” is really management doublespeak for “failures,” but these are important to keep track of, too. The point of these items is not to drudge up bad memories, but to reinforce that in situations where things didn’t go smoothly, you learned something from it.

In a case near-and-dear to my heart, I was running a large site migration on a shared staging server, but there was a memory leak in my script that ended up taking the server offline. Naturally, there were other engineers in the company who were [justifiably] peeved, but that experience taught me about garbage collection in long-running CLI scripts. Now, whenever someone else is having issues with their scripts taking down the general staging server, they’re often referred to me for guidance in optimizing the performance of their scripts. My screw-up became an “opportunity” for me to become a resident expert of long-running script performance.

So, what will you say?

An annual review is your time to talk about your role within the company – make the most of it. Assemble your thoughts ahead of the meeting, and take your notes in with you. There’s no reason you should have to “wing-it” or feel on-the-spot during your review.

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