Leveraging feedback is a skill!

As an engineer there are lots of opportunities to learn how to give feedback, but not so many places that help you understand how to leverage it! In this post we are going to go through some common opportunities you will have in your job and share some insight from a senior engineer's perspective that I wish I had earlier in my career. Hopefully, my hard learned lessons can benefit you in your career path.

Let's talk about receiving feedback!

As a software Engineer, quite a lot of your growth is going to come from self-driven learning—most of our growth is to some extent self-taught! However, some of our most intense growth comes directly from interactions with those around us. Sometimes this comes in the form of ad-hoc communications such as water cooler talk, sometimes it's more formal like a performance review or a Pull Request.

We regularly incorporate feedback into our methodology, i.e. learning a new process or tool. But sometimes we have the opportunity to get even more out of these interactions. What's interesting about this is we often get coaching on how to give feedback, but we rarely receive much coaching on how to receive feedback. Arguably, being able to receive feedback is a critical skill. Our ability to grow and improve is dependent upon our ability to learn from the world around us.

Definitions

There are 3 types of feedback discussed in this blog post. For clarity, I have defined them below.

Solicited feedback You asked for honest feedback. You're prepared to hear anything!
Unsolicited feedback You didn't ask, but they offered. You probably aren't prepared.
Critical feedback The feedback isn't entirely complimentary, i.e. there are some aspects where the person you're talking with is suggesting changes they believe would be an improvement.

What are the stumbling blocks for effectively receiving feedback?

Were you expecting feedback? In other words, was it solicited or part of a review process? Or was it unsolicited, or some other type of critical feedback? Learning how to interpret critical feedback effectively can be a challenge, but it's certainly a skill worth learning.

Can you cultivate a mindset that focuses on growth and being able to easily switch gears into 'listening mode'?

Many individuals find it hard to separate out the message from the medium. Some good questions to ask yourself include:

  • Is there a valid message in here?
  • Can I keep a dispassionate and objective mindset when interpreting this information?

If you find you're not in the right state of mind to have a good discussion it's often good practice to say something along the lines of: I really appreciate you taking the time to discuss this with me, but I'd like to postpone this conversation to a better time. Few people will begrudge you that, and you're telling your conversation partner you are interested in what they have to say and appreciate their willingness to be open about it.

Is the person giving you feedback someone you would value feedback from in context?

There are legitimately people from whom I don't generally value feedback. In some cases, I may hear something that isn't relevant to my career or life and I don't feel like this individual has the context or experience to give me meaningful feedback. This can be an interesting situation. When you're in this situation, I think the preferable avenue is to listen critically and evaluate. There may be value in what the person has to say. If so, you can decide to incorporate it otherwise you really haven't lost anything.

Are you looking for what's 'wrong' with the feedback?

This is a common human trait. The thought pattern goes: "If I can find one thing wrong with this feedback, then I don't need to deal with it." I strongly encourage you to try to not engage in this rationale. Almost all feedback you receive has some valuable element. Even if it's 90% incorrect, that other 10% may have value. Evaluate the feedback you receive, try to adopt a neutral mindset, and think critically: "Is there something in here I can use to improve myself?"

What we're describing above are "Triggered Reactions", we all have them to some extent. When we receive critical feedback, especially when we're unprepared, it can be very challenging to decouple the feedback from your personal sense of value. Always remember, professional feedback is almost always a sign that the person is attempting to you help you—even if they aren't skilled in their delivery.

Another critical aspect of incorporating feedback is that we need to separate our identity from the critical feedback being received. This can sometimes be a challenge, however experience shows the more we work towards this the easier it becomes. These situations could be thought of "How am I perceived?" instead of "Who I am?", which may help us interpret critical feedback in a neutral and thoughtful frame of mind.

The key to getting the most out of feedback!

Adopt an open mindset, whatever information you're being given should be viewed as an opportunity for self-improvement. You may need to apply some other strategies to get the most out of it but ultimately the key component is self-awareness and ensuring that your ego doesn't prevent you benefiting from these interactions.

Feedback as an engine for career growth!

Learning how to incorporate feedback into your routines can make a significant impact on your career. Being open to feedback is correlated with career growth, and it's easy to see why. As we work in our environments we are expected to perform certain actions, those folks who can most easily implement feedback in their environment will at the very least be perceived as learning more quickly and improving performance at a noticeably faster rate.

When this happens in semi-formal situations such as interpreting comments / requests for changes in Pull Requests in GitHub we can get a bit protective of our means and methods! When we get critical feedback on something it can be hard to not get a little defensive. However, reacting in this fashion often leads us to have poorer interactions with our colleagues and robs us of the opportunity to learn something. In more formal environments, like a performance review with our manager, being critical of feedback can come across as being immature, and can mark yourself as potentially being too immature to merit a promotion you may actually deserve.

A good strategy is to take time to reflect before reacting to feedback. In a formal review process, you can often get your feedback in written form before walking through it with your manager. Take this opportunity to carefully review the whole thing. If you feel yourself becoming overly engaged or reactive, then you know you'll need to think carefully about your response. In less formal contexts it can actually be a bit harder, as these things can occur unexpectedly. Ultimately, try to be curious but also feel comfortable not engaging or delaying discussion if you don't think you can adopt a neutral standpoint and evaluate what's being said effectively. You can employ simple phrases for getting out of an unexpected feedback situation. In these situations you should be comfortable using verbiage like: "Hi, thank you for that. I'm interested in anything you'd like to share, but this isn't the best time for me. Can we schedule another time to talk?"

One of the interesting observations I've made over my career is how the tactics and strategies I employed have changed over time in sync with my role. The methodologies that made me a good Junior Engineer weren't entirely what I needed as an intermediate and the skills that helped me make it to Senior Engineer weren't always what would help me into more senior roles. Part of this is the nature of the changing expectations of Engineering staff as they are promoted through the organization. We expect Junior Engineers to be able to execute on simpler directives such as 'fix this bug ticket', these technical expertise expectations will scale up through your career. Additionally, as your titles go above Senior Engineer will be an expectation that you are beginning to act as a 'force multiplier'. You should be especially keen to pay attention to feedback that comes in this vein. You'll be looking for anything that relates to: Written Communication, Leadership, and Cross org interactions.

Do you want to solicit feedback?

Something we often overlook is how to proactively gather feedback. I often want to know "how I'm doing" but I don't have an easy way to gather these insights. The sooner we can get information, the sooner we can incorporate it into our daily lives. First off, you're going to need to decide if you're open to this kind of discussion. If not, then you're done. It's possible you're happy with where you are in your career and are focusing on specific areas of improvement and this may not be one of them. That's fine. I do, however, recommend you re-evaluate your growth areas regularly over the course of your career. I believe this self-aware evaluation loop is a core component for successful careers!

Below are a few potential methods to gather actionable feedback:

  • Select people who exhibit the traits you would like to learn.
    • Ask those people: "If you could think of one aspect of my work to improve on, what would it be?"
  • Write a survey to collect anonymous feedback if you're looking for a safe postmortem on a project or initiative.
    • Ensure the questions are written to solicit honest feedback. For instance, "What's one thing that could have gone better?"

Close

I hope this post helps you understand and leverage feedback in your professional career! I wanted to close it out sharing a situation where I elected to accept feedback and it had a significant impact in my career.

When I was working as a Senior Engineer a few years back I was asked if I wanted to take on a leadership position in the engineering organization. I inquired what that meant, so we talked through the options between team leader and manager as well as the expectations of those roles. My manager had several insights for me:

  • Being an effective leader meant improving my listening skills .
  • My presentation and communication style was brusque enough that people who were inclined to like me did, but anyone who was inclined to not appreciate my style may have found it off-putting.

I had a challenging time with that feedback and I took it a bit personally at the time. I also wasn't sure what to change or how to begin to make changes. I did, however, maintain an open mind and gradually asked for additional feedback. The key takeaway for me was that I was sabotaging my own career prospects!

While I was working on these things I learned:

  • I really had to gauge my tone and communication styles for my audience.
    • This meant learning entirely new skills, I needed to be able to quickly gauge my audience—assessing how formal or informal I could be.
    • I also needed to adopt a more disciplined format for larger discussions and prepare ahead of time to ensure the information I wanted to share would be to be transmitted effectively. To speak to my audience, I learned, I needed to craft the message for maximum impact.
  • For listening skills I needed to talk less and listen more.
    • I found that I had a hard time purely listening as I would get easily distracted, I learned to counter this by disabling apps that might interrupt me and also focusing on listening and taking detailed notes. I found that detailed note-taking helped me pick up the context of what was being described and helped me focus on listening instead of formulating answers ahead of collecting input.
    • I would try to understand what I was hearing and practiced active listening such as: asking clarifying questions until I could comfortably paraphrase what I was hearing.

These are lifelong skills I'm still working on improving. However, as I was growing these skills, I was also executing on the work strategies we identified as our long-term organization strategies. Ultimately, I did get recognized for both my personal growth and my skills as an effective leader!

Further Reading

Latest from our blog

Automatic Customer Segmentation with Machine Learning

Making Your Auto-Segmentation Model Work For You

Testing Distributed Components of Storage Engine

Tackling challenges of testing of distributed components of Storage Engine with system tests

Leveraging feedback is a skill!

Tips for Engineers on how to interpret and incorporate feedback to further their career goals!