389: Review Season

Episode 389 · June 20th, 2023 · 33 mins 45 secs

About this Episode

Stephanie just got back from a smaller regional Ruby Conference, Blue Ridge Ruby, in Asheville, North Carolina. Joël started a new project at work.

Review season is upon us. Stephanie and Joël think about growth and goals and talk about reviews: how to do them, how to write them for yourself, and how to write them for others.


JOËL: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Joël Quenneville.

STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And, together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way.

JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world?

STEPHANIE: I just came back from a smaller regional Ruby Conference, Blue Ridge Ruby, in Asheville, North Carolina. And I had a really great time.

JOËL: Oooh, I'll bet this is a great time of year to be in Asheville. It's The Blue Ridge Mountains, right?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. It was perfect weather. It was in the 70s. And yeah, it was just so beautiful there, being surrounded by mountains. And I got to meet a lot of new and old Ruby friends. That was really fun, seeing some just conference folks that I don't normally get to see otherwise. And, yeah, this was my second regional conference, and I think I am really enjoying them. I'm considering prioritizing going to more regional conferences over the ones in some of the bigger cities that Ruby Central puts on moving forward. Just because I really like visiting smaller cities in the U.S., places that I otherwise wouldn't have as strong of a reason to go to.

JOËL: And you weren't just attending this conference; you were speaking.

STEPHANIE: I was, yeah. I gave a talk that I had given before about pair programming and nonviolent communication. And this was my first time giving a talk a second time, which was interesting. Is that something that you've done before?

JOËL: I have not, no. I've created, like, a new bespoke talk for every conference that I've been at, and that's a lot of work. So I love the idea of giving a talk you've given before somewhere else. It seems like, you know, anybody can watch it on the first time on YouTube, generally. But it's not the same as being in the room and getting a chance for someone to see you live and to give a talk, especially at something like a regional conference. It sounds like a great opportunity. What was your experience giving a talk for the second time?

STEPHANIE: Well, I was very excited not to do any more work [chuckles] and thinking that I could just show up [chuckles] and be totally prepared because I'd already done this thing before. And that was not necessarily the case. I still kind of came back to my talk after a few months of not looking at it for a while and had some fresh eyes, rewrote some of the things. I was able to apply a few things that I had learned since giving it the first time around, which was good, just having more perspective and insight into the things that I was talking about. Otherwise, the content didn't really change, just polished it further.

I think in the editing process, you could edit forever, really. So I imagine if I revisit it again, I'll find other things that I want to change. But this time around, I also memorized my slides because, last time, I was a little more dependent on my speaker notes. And part of what I wanted to do this time around, because I had a little more time in preparing, was trying to go from memory. And that went pretty well, I think.

JOËL: How did you feel about the delivery of it? Because now you had a chance to have a practice run in front of a real audience. And, as much as you practice at home in front of the mirror, it's not the same as actually giving a talk in front of an audience.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I was surprised by how the audience is also different, and the things that they'll react to is slightly different. There were some jokes that landed similarly and others that didn't land a little bit with this crowd, but maybe other parts, there was more of a reaction. So that was surprising. And I think I had to kind of adjust those expectations on the fly as I delivered whatever, you know, line I was kind of expecting some kind of reaction to.

And I also, other than memorizing my slides, you know, I think had the mental capacity to focus a little more on the delivery component that you're talking about because I wasn't, you know, up until the last minute still working on the content itself, and just being able to direct my mental energy to, I guess, the next level of performance when giving a presentation.

And, yeah, I would definitely give this talk again. I really liked that it was something that feels pretty evergreen, something I care a lot about. I don't think it will be a topic that I get kind of bored of anytime soon. So those were all some of the things I was thinking about in giving a talk a second time.

JOËL: When you write your speaker notes, do you give yourself directions for expected audience reactions, so something like a pause for laughter after a joke or something like that?

STEPHANIE: No. I think I am too nervous about presuming [laughs] how the audience will react to put something in and then have to be, like, super surprised and figure out what to do if they don't react the way that I think they will. So it ends up being that I just kind of go forth. And if I do get a reaction out of them, that's great. But not expecting it works for me because then, at least, I can control how I am presenting and how I'm showing [chuckles] up a little bit more.

JOËL: So you're really working with the energy in the room then.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think so.

JOËL: Was this talk recorded? So if people in the audience want to go and watch this talk.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. The first version that I gave of it is online if you search for the title "Empathetic Pair Programming with Nonviolent Communication." And this version was recorded as well. So, eventually, it'll also be up. And, I don't know, maybe I'll watch it back and [chuckles] see the difference in presentation. I would be very curious. I've never watched any one of my conference talks fully through the recording from start to end before. But I know that that's something that I could continue to improve on. So maybe one day I'll find the confidence.

My other highlight that I wanted to share about this regional conference is how well-organized it was. So it was mainly organized by Jeremy Smith, and I thought he did such an awesome job. He organized a bunch of activities in Asheville for the Saturday after the conference if folks wanted to stay a little longer and just check out the city. There was a group that went hiking, a group that did a brewery tour. And the activity I chose to do was to go tubing.

JOËL: Fun.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, it was my first time. So you're basically in an inner tube floating down a very calm river, just hanging out. You...we were on the group, and you could clip yourself to the rest of the group so you're all, you know, kind of floating down together. But some people would unclip themselves and just go free for a little while. And, yeah, when you get too hot, you can dip into the water to cool off. And I just had such a great time. [laughs] It was almost like being on a Disney ride but out in nature, which I just, like, is totally my jam.

JOËL: I tried tubing once in Texas. And the inner tubes are black, and in the Texas sun, they get really hot. So every, I don't know, 20 minutes or so, I had to get off the inner tube. It was too hot to sit on. And I had to flip it just because it absorbed so much heat.

STEPHANIE: Wow. Yeah, that does sound like it would get very hot. I think the funny thing that I wasn't expecting was how hard it would be to get back into the inner tube after you had gotten in the water, at least for me, because the inner tubes were quite large. And so I couldn't get enough leverage to pull myself [laughs] back up onto it, and ended up several times just, like, flopping belly first into the inner tube and then having to, like, flop over so that I could be on my back and be sitting in it again.

And other times that I had to wait a little while until the river got shallower so I could actually stand and just sit in it. So there were times that it was kind of a struggle, but 90% of it was very chill and fun.

So, Joël, what's new in your world?

JOËL: I started a new project at work. I'm working with a data warehouse, pulling data in from a variety of sources, getting it all into one kind of unified schema, doing some transformations on it. And then also setting up some sort of outgoing plugins to allow different sources to access that unified data. So this is not in a Rails app, but we do have a Rails app connecting to this data warehouse.

Data engineering is, at least in this style, is newer to me. So I think it's a really interesting world to get into. I don't know if, technically, this counts as big data. I don't think the term is cool anymore. But five or so years ago, everybody was all about the big data, and that was the hip term to toss around.

STEPHANIE: So, is this something pretty new to you? You haven't had too much experience doing this kind of data engineering work before?

JOËL: Yeah, at least not with, like, a data warehouse. I think a lot of the work around data transformations, or creating unified schemas, thinking in terms of data in different stages that are at different levels of correctness...I've done a fair amount of ETL, Extract, Transform, Load, or sometimes people shift it around and say, ELT, Extract, Load, Transform. I've done a fair amount of those because I've done a lot of integrations with third-party systems.

STEPHANIE: So I've always thought of data engineering as, in some ways, a separate role or a track. And I'm really curious about you having, you know, mostly been doing software development if that gives you an interesting lens to look at these problems.

JOËL: So, to get the full answer, you should probably ask me again in six months.

STEPHANIE: That's fair.

JOËL: Initial thoughts is that there's a shocking amount of overlap between some of these ideas, again, because I've done ETL-style projects a lot. You know, if you've got any kind of Rails app and you're integrating with a third-party API, you're often doing ETL at a very small level. To a certain extent, even if you're doing, let's say, some front-end code, and you're interacting with a back end, depending on how you want to deal with that transformation of getting data from your API, you might be doing something kind of like an ETL.

Designing types in something like a TypeScript or an Elm and thinking in terms of the data that you have, the transforms that you're doing has a lot of similarities to what you would do in a data warehouse. I think a lot of the general ideas apply.

I know I talked at the beginning of this year articles that were impactful for me. And one of those articles that was really impactful was Hillel Wayne's "Constructive Versus Predicative Data," which is all about structuring data and when you can enforce constraints via the data structure versus when you need to enforce it via code.

Similarly, a lot of the ideas from the article "Parse, Don't Validate" by Alexis King. The articles focused on designing types. But it also, I think, applies to when you're thinking of schemas because schemas and types are, in a sense, isomorphic to each other.

STEPHANIE: I like what you said there about as a software developer; you've probably done this at a much smaller scale. And, yeah, like you were saying, things that you had already learned about before or thought about before you're able to apply to this different set of problems or, like, different approach to programming. Is there anything that has been challenging for you?

JOËL: Yes, and it's a weird one. Because we're working with enterprise systems, navigating the websites for these enterprise systems and the documentation for them is not a pleasant experience, trying to get a feel for how the system is made to work. It's just so different when you're used to tools and documentation written by the open-source community.

Even third-party tutorials and things it's never, like, oh, here's a great article where you can scan and find the thing that you want. It's, hey, I'm a consultant guru on this thing. Sign up for my webinar, and you can have a 15-hour course on how to use this tool. And that's not what I want to do. I just want give me the five-paragraph blog post on how to do data imports, or how to set up a staging area for data, or something like that.

STEPHANIE: Right. You're basically being asked to develop skills in using the enterprise software rather than more general skills for the problem or task; it sounds like. Because apparently, there are people making a business out of teaching other people how to use or navigate the software.

JOËL: And I think that's fine. I love that people are making businesses of teaching these. But just the way things are structured, information is not generally as available for this large enterprise software as it is in the open-source world, and even when it is, it's just different patterns of access. So even you go to a particular technology's website, and it's all marketing copy. It's all sales funnel and not a lot of actually telling you really what the technology does. It's all, like, really vague, you know, business speak on, you know, empowering your team, and gathering insights, and all this stuff.

So you really do a lot of drilling down. And what you need to find is the developer site. That's where you get the actual tech documentation. Depending on the tech, it's more or less good. But yeah, the official website of the technologies is just...it's not aimed at me as a developer. It's speaking to a different audience.

STEPHANIE: That is interesting. I didn't realize that once you are, you know, working on a data warehouse, it is because you are consuming so many different external sources of data, and having to figure out how to work with each one is part of the process to get what you need.

JOËL: So there's the external services but the data warehouse itself that we're using is an enterprise product.


JOËL: So, just figuring out how this data warehouse works, it feels like it's a different culture, a different developer culture.

STEPHANIE: That's cool. I'll definitely ask you again in a few months, and I look forward to hearing what you report back.

So the other topic that I wanted to get into today is reviews, specifically self-reviews. To be honest, our review cycle is happening right now. And I have very much procrastinated [chuckles] on writing them until, you know, one or two days before. So I came into our conversation today, like, in that mind space of thinking about my growth, and my goals, and that kind of stuff.

And it got me thinking that I don't hear a lot of people talk about reviews, and how to do them, how to write them for yourself, how to write them for others, how people approach them. Though I would guess that the procrastination part is pretty common, [chuckles] just based on what I'm hearing from other folks on our team too, and what they're up to for the next couple of days before they do. Joël, have you written your review yet?

JOËL: So it's interesting because this review cycle has a few different components. You write a self-review. You write a review of your manager, and then you write a review of several of your peers who have nominated you to write a review. So I've done my own review. I've done my manager's review. I've not completed all of my peer reviews yet.

STEPHANIE: That's pretty good. That's better than me. I've only done my own. [laughs] So, yeah, the deadline is coming up. And I'll probably get back to it right after this.

I'm curious about your process, though, for writing a self-review. Do you come into it having thought about how you've been doing so far in the last six months or so? Or, when you sit down to write it, are you thinking about these things for the first time in a while?

JOËL: Combination. So I think I do come in without necessarily having, like, planned for the review cycle. That being said, throughout the year, I try to build a fair amount of, like, personal self-reflection, professional self-reflection at various points throughout the year. So I'm not coming into the review cycle being like, oh, I have not thought about professional growth at all. What have I done this year?

I think one thing I haven't done quite as well is when I'm doing these moments of self-reflection on my own throughout the year, writing down notes that I could then use to apply when the review cycle comes up. So I am having to rely on memory on, like, oh yeah, last month, when I kind of sat down and thought about areas that I want to improve in or areas that, like, what are my goals that I want to have? And I just commit that to memory. So, yeah, I think live in the moment; now that you've asked me this question, you've made me think that maybe I should be taking more regular notes about this.

STEPHANIE: One thing I've been really liking about the software that we're using for reviews and other professional growth things is...it's called 15Five. And you can give your co-workers shout-outs using this tool. And as I was writing my review, I could actually open all of the kudos and shout-outs that I received from my peers and just remember some of the things that I worked on or a lot of the things that other people noticed.

I tend to sometimes have a hard time remembering some of the smaller things that I've done that made an impact, but other people are usually better about pointing that out than I am. [chuckles] And that has been really helpful because it's, yeah, nice to see like, oh, like, you know, so and so really appreciated when I paired with them on, you know, debugging this thing. And maybe I can pull that into something that I'm writing about the kind of mentorship I've been doing in the last few months.

JOËL: How do you feel about the aspect where you have to then give feedback on colleagues?

STEPHANIE: I really value and enjoy this aspect because most of the time, I am just gassing my colleagues up [chuckles] and writing, you know, really encouraging things about all of the awesome work that they're doing. So, for me, it actually feels really good.

And I was thinking a little bit about my approach to reviewing my peers and review culture in general. I have worked at companies where we have had a very, like, healthy and positive review culture. So it happens often enough that it's become normalized. It's not a really scary thing. And I also like to think about feedback in two types, where you have feedback that you want to give someone so that they can change behavior in a way that helps you work with them better, and then feedback you have for someone for their growth.

And once I separated those two things, I realized that really, the former, if you're, you know, giving someone constructive feedback because you maybe would like them to be doing something different. That's not necessarily what you want to be writing in their annual review. Those things are usually better communicated in a more timely manner, like, right when you are noticing what you might want to be changed.

And so then when you are doing reviews, like, you've hopefully already kind of gotten all of that stuff out of the way. And you can just focus on areas of growth for them, which is the fun part, I think, in reviewing peers because, yeah, you can give some suggestions to further support them in, like, where they want to go.

JOËL: I like that distinction between just general growth, suggestions, and then interaction suggestions. And just to give an example, it sounds like interaction suggestions would be like, "Oh, when we pair, I would like it if you used this style of communication from, let's say, nonviolent communication. Here's a talk; go watch it."

STEPHANIE: [laughs] Yeah, I did talk on this; go watch it. There used to be a framework for reviews that I've done before that I actually don't quite like. It's the Stop, Start, Continue framework where you answer questions about, okay, what should this person stopped doing? What should they continue doing? And what should they start doing? And the things that you would put in stop, I think, are probably what you would want to have communicated in a more timely manner, like, not necessarily it happening, you know, really divorced from whatever behavior you might be asking.

And, in general, I think focusing on what you would like others to be doing instead is usually a better approach to handling that kind of feedback just because it avoids making someone feel bad about having done something wrong and, instead, kind of redirecting them into what you would like them to be doing.

JOËL: So you're saying if you have something in the stop category, let's say stop interrupting me all the time when we're in meetings, you're saying this is something you prefer not to bring up at all or something that you prefer to bring up one on one and not in the context of review?

STEPHANIE: Something to bring up one on one. Ideally, pretty soon after, that might have happened. It's a little more top of mind. And then you don't end up in that position of maybe misremembering or having the other person misremember and having to figure out, like, who was in the right or in the wrong in understanding how that interaction went. Especially if you're able to do it a little sooner after it happened, you can point out, like, hey, this happened. And instead of framing it as please stop interrupting me, you could say, "Could you please make some space for some folks who've been a little more quiet in the meetings to make sure that they've been able to share?"

Still, I think once you've made more space to give that kind of constructive feedback when you are writing reviews, you can then, like, focus on the growth aspect and not the redirection of how others are doing their work.

JOËL: That makes sense. So, what would be an example of the kind of feedback that you like to give to other people in the context of a review?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I think especially if I know what someone is wanting to focus on, right? If I'm working with someone, hopefully, we've kind of gotten to talk about what they like to work on, what they don't like to work on, what they are hoping to spend more time doing, or yeah, just their hopes and dreams for their professional [chuckles] development, being able to point out some things that they maybe haven't thought about trying it I really like to do.

I was thinking about a time when I gave a co-worker some feedback as a mentee of theirs where they had been really awesome at providing information to me about things that I was unfamiliar with. But one thing that I was really hoping for was more tools to figure things out on my own. So instead of sending me a link to some documentation, maybe helping me figure out how to search for the documentation that I'm looking for. And that was something that I could share with them because I knew that they wanted to work on their mentorship skills and an opportunity, I think, for them to take it to a level where it's closer to coaching and not just providing information.

JOËL: That makes a lot of sense. Maybe flipping it around, is there a point in time where you've received a review feedback that has been really valuable to you or really helped you hit the next level in your career?

STEPHANIE: I really appreciate feedback that encourages me when I'm maybe a little bit too timid to go seek the things out myself. So there were times when I received some feedback about how great of a leader I could be before I thought I was ready to be a leader. And they pointed out the qualities of leadership that I had demonstrated that led them to believe that I would be ready for a role like that. And that was really helpful because I don't think that was even necessarily a short-term goal of mine. And it took someone else saying, "I think you're ready," that made me feel a lot more confident about opening that door.

I guess this is all to say that I really love review season because of, you know, all of the support I get from my co-workers. And, yeah, just remembering that it's not just a journey I have to take all by myself, that the point of working with other people is for all of us to help each other grow.

JOËL: I think something that you mentioned earlier really connected with me, the idea of trying to give feedback in the...even, like, feedback that's about changing or improving, phrasing it in a more positive way, or at least framing it in a more positive way. So here's an opportunity for growth rather than here's the thing you're doing wrong. Because that reminds me of two pieces of review that I got when I was a fairly junior developer that have stuck with me ever since. And one of them was really a catalyst for growth, and the other one kind of haunted me.

So this first one I got, someone in a review just mentioned that they thought that I was just generally a slow developer, just not fast at writing code. Not a whole lot of context; just that's who I was. And, in a sense, it was almost like I'd been given this identity, like, oh, I am now Joël, the slow developer. And I didn't want that identity. So I'm kind of like, I want to refuse to accept it. But at the same time, there's always that self-doubt in the back. And now, anytime I'm on a project with someone else, I'm comparing, oh, am I shipping stories quite as fast as someone else? And if not, why? Is it because I'm a slow developer?

Or if I'm having a rough day and I'm not getting the ticket done that I was hoping to get done by the end of the day, you know, you just get that voice in the back of your head that's like, oh, it's because you're a slow developer. Someone called that out last year, and they were right. So, in a sense, it kind of haunted me.

On the flip side, I once got some feedback talking about an opportunity for growth. If I focused on working in more iterative, incremental chunks, it would help have a smoother workflow and probably help me work faster as well. And that was really kind of an exciting opportunity. It's also stuck with me for years but not in the sort of haunting sort of way or this, like, bring in self-doubt but more in terms of opportunity.

Because now I'm always like, oh, can I break this down into even smaller chunks? Would that help me move faster? Would that help me be less blocked on other people? Would that be easier for our QA team? Would this be easier for review for my colleagues? Just a lot of different opportunities for benefits with working in smaller iterative chunks.

And, for years, I've just been kind of honing that skill. And now, looking back over, you know, a decade of doing this, I think it's one of the best skills that I have. And so, in a sense, I feel like both of these people that left me that review, in a sense, they're trying to get me to maybe have a slightly higher velocity. But they're different approaches, radically different in terms of how it impacted me as a person.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I am really glad you brought that up. Because I definitely have also received, quote, unquote, "constructive feedback," but maybe wasn't phrased in the right way, that also haunted me. And it doesn't feel good. I think that that sucks. That person wasn't really able to frame it in a way that pushed you to progress in the positive way that you mentioned with learning to work incrementally.

And in fact, I almost think that the difference in those two phrasings is encapsulated by a framework for giving feedback that's actionable, specific, and kind. So suggesting you to work incrementally is all of those things, especially if they know that you do want to increase your velocity. But you're being supported in doing it in a way that is positive and growth-oriented as opposed to, like, out of fear that other people think that you are a slow developer. And, you know, that's certainly a way that people are motivated. But I would say that that's not the way that we want to be motivated. [laughs]

JOËL: I'm glad we're having this conversation because I think it just reinforces to me just the value of good communication skills for developers. And, you know, you can see that when developers have to write documentation, or even things like comments or commit messages. You see it when developers write blog posts. So it's really valuable to work on your communication skills in a lot of these technical areas.

But reviews are a very particular area where it's easy to maybe have not the impact that you wanted because you communicated a core idea that's probably right, but just the way it was communicated was not going to have the impact that you're hoping for. And so getting good at communicating specifically in the area of reviews, which I assume most of us in the software industry are doing on a semi-regular basis, is probably a good tool to have in your professional tool belt.

STEPHANIE: Absolutely.

JOËL: We recently hit a big milestone at thoughtbot, where thoughtbot turned 20 years old in early June. And so, throughout June, we've been doing a lot of fun internal things and some external things to celebrate turning 20. And one of those is we're hosting a live AMA with a variety of thoughtbot devs. That's going to be on Friday, June 23rd, so a couple of days after this podcast goes live.

So, to our listeners, if you're listening to this, in the first few days after it goes live, you get a chance to join in on the live AMA and ask your questions of our team as we celebrate 20 years. There's a blog post with all the details, and we'll link to that in the show notes.

STEPHANIE: One other thing that I think we're doing that's really cool for our 20th anniversary is we published a short ebook with a curated collection of 20 hits from our blog, the thoughtbot blog, over the course of its history, some of the more popular and impactful blog posts that we've ever published. So I highly recommend checking that out. You know, the thoughtbot blog is such an awesome resource. And I discovered a few things that I hadn't read before on the blog from this ebook. So that will also be linked in the show notes.

JOËL: I mentioned earlier how one of my opportunities for growth through review was getting better at working iteratively. And, a couple of years ago, I took a lot of the lessons that I'd learned over the years of getting better at working iteratively, and I put them in a blog post, and that blog post made it into that 20th Anniversary ebook. So we can probably link the blog post itself in the show notes. But also, if you're picking up that ebook, you'll get a chance to see that article on my lessons learned on how to work iteratively.

STEPHANIE: Awesome. On that note, shall we wrap up?

JOËL: Let's wrap up.

STEPHANIE: Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.

JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

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JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.

STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at hosts@bikeshed.fm via email.

JOËL: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.

ALL: Byeeeeeeee!!!!!!!

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