Getting feedback for real improvement

After a couple of years working in engineering, I’ve noticed a constant when it comes to feedback. No one wants to say what you’re doing wrong. This is generally because negative feedback might come across harsh and most people want to be liked and avoid conflict. So what do you?

Photographer: Steve Johnson

I’ve only ever had one or two managers who gave real feedback and helped in my growth. The rest were shallow and in reviews gave the canned “You’re doing a great job!” or “ You’re a great coder!” comments. We know this kind of feedback leads to no growth in either party.

Let’s start cutting through the bullshit and start giving real feedback. This isn’t the same as being mean or harsh with other people, this means caring about the other and telling the truth. Because you want to see the other person grow and do better.

Allow me to expand on this with an example. Kim is a good engineer who has amazing technical knowledge but sucks at communication. Whenever there’s a meeting, Kim cannot communicate her ideas well enough. Regardless of that, in every 1-on-1, Sam (her manager) gives her the classic: “You’re an amazing coder, keep it up!” line.

Look, Sam, I understand you; you want to keep your engineer happy. She does the job and you’re afraid that she might leave if you give her honest feedback. But Kim is smart, and if she gets always the same old “You are amazing buddy!”, she’ll eventually realize you’re being disingenuous, and after some time she might feel that she’s not progressing enough and would look for some other place where she can grow.

If you often get the same feedback as Kim, either find a system for improving by yourself or change to a company that has these systems in place. If you’re in Sam’s position, start giving some real feedback to help Kim improve.

How to get better

Yes, it might be true that you’re doing a great job, and you’re a great coder, but there’s always room for improvement. Setting metrics for yourself can help, and it’s even better if you do this with your manager.

If you’re an engineer you can pick the technologies you use and a handful of soft skills and asses them (KSA in the house baby!). Identify the gaps in the areas you noted and select a handful of them to improve upon.

KSA stands for Knowledge, Skills, and Attitudes. Knowledge is being aware of facts or concepts; it relates mostly to technical skills. Skills are abilities based on performance and precision; this translates to soft skills and time management. Attitudes are your values – towards others and yourself.

KSA’s in use

Let’s look at another example. Jim is a junior engineer. He has a good attitude and knows how to express his thoughts, but lacks technical knowledge. Charlie, his manager, proposed finding the gaps using the KSA’s system. The result was the following:

Knowledge

  • Java — Medium gap
  • Database — Big gap

Skills

  • Communication — Small gap
  • Problem-solving — Medium gap

Attitudes

  • Continuous improvement — Small gap
  • Embraces failure — Medium gap

Jim and Charlie noticed that there was a big gap in database knowledge and that some upskilling would be useful. So, together, they implemented a training plan where Jim took an SQL course and read supporting material. They also agreed to re-assess the gaps that Jim has in three months, and improve over that again.

Photographer: Jess Watters

In the long run, Jim will be able to close the gaps in the knowledge that he has. Besides that, he will also have learned a system for learning consistently and constantly.

Closing thoughts

The KSA’s that you define will always depend on the position and what the priorities are. Always focus on the areas that you want to improve upon. You will always have areas which are more relevant or that have bigger gaps. Pick those main areas and focus on getting the gap smaller till you’re happy with it. Repeat, repeat and repeat.

From my experience, having a system like KSA’s was a great relief. It gave me the ability to identify where my gaps of knowledge lie.


Getting feedback for real improvement was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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