When I first joined big tech, I was overwhelmed with the feedback system. I had been used to the traditional system of getting annual feedback from my boss. Like most things, tech culture took this to the next level. Tech is obsessed with feedback, probably to a fault. If you don’t understand it, you can easily get burned by it, even if you are a stellar employee. In this article, I’ll arm you with the details of how the feedback system works and how to leverage it as a strength.
Most tech companies do some version of “360 feedback”. At regular intervals, usually every 3 months, each person provides feedback to their boss, and 4-5 peers, and receives feedback from the same. There is usually also a “self review” where you provide an assessment of your own performance. Most of this is formally written up. For this article, I’ll focus on the peer feedback, because these are the most challenging.
Why is peer feedback important?
Peer feedback is important because they give multiple perspectives of your work performance across several projects. Combined, they usually offer a very good snapshot of your overall performance. Think of it almost like judges at the Olympics: One bad rating won’t make a difference, but one good rating won’t be enough to overcome a pattern of bad performance. Peer feedback typically comes from people you directly work with as opposed to your boss who is more overseeing the work. Generally your manager will use the peer feedback to build an overall performance rating. Peer feedback is the evidence to support a conclusion.
So how do you get great feedback? By asking the right people the right questions.
Who to ask for peer feedback?
Take time to carefully consider who to ask. Essentially, you only want to ask people that you KNOW will give you good feedback. If you aren’t sure what someone might say, you probably shouldn’t ask them. It should almost be obvious what they will say.
You want to ask people that are invested in you. These are people that respect you, respect your work, and want to see you succeed. But this won’t just happen – you need to build these relationships by showing mutual respect. And it will take time, so figure this out long before it comes time for asking for feedback.
Here’s a few tips for finding people. Find people that worked closely with you on a successful project. It’s very hard to get negative feedback if the overall project was successful. Go out of your way to support people. Helping someone out, even in a small way, can make a difference in their perception of you. A good strategy is to reverse engineer this thing: Choose 4 people at the start of a cycle that you plan to ask for feedback and engage with them throughout the cycle.
Equally important is avoiding people that like to give negative feedback. Yes, there are people that view their role as pointing out your faults to “help you improve”. Once you discover someone that operates like this, avoid them at all costs. I can promise you that nothing you do will be enough to get positive feedback from them.
Finally, get feedback from senior employees. Generally speaking, the more senior an employee, the more weight their feedback carries. This is not merely because of their seniority, but because it shows your impact is seen at a higher level, and hence, larger scope.
How to ask for peer feedback?
Once you’ve found your peers, you typically write a note to them requesting feedback. This is where many people miss a huge opportunity. They write something like:
“Hey John, can you provide me feedback on working together last half”
Here’s the problem: John is a busy guy. He might remember working with you, but he might not remember what you did exactly. John is writing up 5 other peer reviews and he’s going to respond with the same energy. Instead, make it easy on John:
“Hey John, would you mind providing feedback on our successful launch of the group discussion feature that was adopted by over 100k users in under 90 days, beating our goals for last half?”
By asking this way, you remind John of the successful project you two worked on together, pointing out its impact and timeliness, which forms a basis for positive feedback. Also, be specific about your involvement. You could add:
“I led the solution design and execution, collaborating with marketing to ensure adoption.”
Help John remember your contribution. Provide as much detail about your efforts as possible. If you did something well, run with it! Showcase your achievements. This doesn’t mean painting an inaccurate picture—be honest and strategic.
At this point, it’s nearly impossible for John to provide negative feedback!
How to give peer feedback
When I first started writing peer feedback, it was all over the place. I was never really sure what to say. Should I just be nice and say some positive things? Should I focus on constructive criticism to help them improve? Maybe do a feedback sandwich of a little of both? I quickly learned a few rules that have served me very well.
- Never say anything negative about someone
Negatively goes around faster than anything. Telling someone about their failures will break relationships quickly and they will feel on edge in any future work you do together. They most likely will not change their behavior or learn something because of what you wrote. We’re all human and mistakes are ok. It’s much better to address the mistake right after it happens than bringing it up during review time. Instead, if there are some gaps, frame them as opportunities.
“Bill brought down the production system because he didn’t properly test his code”
“If Bill were given more testing resources, he could ensure a more stable production deployment”
Notice how much better that sounds. Bill is much more likely to understand where he needs to improve, but I didn’t call out any failures directly.
The only exception to this rule is the rare instance where someone is continuously negligent and failing the team. You don’t want these people around and it is best to directly call this out. But you better have multiple peer reviews that match yours.
- Feedback says more about you than them
Game changing mentality. What you write about your peers shows how you think about them. Do you take a positive outlook of others or do you like to find faults and complain? That doesn’t mean you can’t discuss improvement opportunities (see point #1), but everything should come from a place of wanting the person to succeed. It’s all about the tone of your feedback. Think about what feedback you would want to receive. If you are constantly giving only critical feedback, you will become known as a negative person, and people will stop asking you for feedback. Trust me, when managers read peer feedback, they remember how you spoke about someone. If there’s a big disconnect between what you say and what others say, the problem is probably you. Be known as the encourager and supporter.
- Provide evidence
Good feedback should be specific, relevant, and based on concrete evidence. Vague, general statements don’t help anyone. Instead of saying, “You did a good job”, you could say, “Your research on customer preferences led to an increase in our conversion rate by 25%”. By providing concrete examples, you’re acknowledging their specific contributions and illustrating the impact of their actions. Even better, link to the evidence so if there’s any questions, the reader can go right to the source.
It’s actually not that hard
Giving and receiving peer feedback is not that hard, but you need to have a plan and strategy in place. Choose who you are going to ask early on, and be gracious in giving feedback to others. This is not a time to lay out a list of failures. It’s a time to give credit for others work and gently suggest opportunities to keep the moving to the next level. What you hand out will come back around.
One more important note: These strategies may seem like I’m just gaming the system, but that is not the intent at all. These strategies assume you are a good performer and will help you get the feedback that matches that performance. I’ve seen too many people with good performance being held back because their peer feedback wasn’t great. If you are actually a poor performer, this strategy will not work. It’s not about building up a dishonest picture of your work, it’s the exact opposite – making sure the picture is accurate and getting the credit you deserve. Playing a great game and expecting the score to take care of itself doesn’t work as well in tech. Make sure the score is right.