The Difficulty Anchor

Popeye flexing

Hey underrepresented folks in technical roles! Performance review season is upon us. I want to take a few moments to remind you about some practical tips that can help you be evaluated more fairly in this and future seasons.

This tip is called "The Difficulty Anchor." It can be a critical tool for you to be evaluated fairly. This works exactly the same for a new hire SWE, all the way up to Senior Director. Most of this is going to seem like common sense because, well, it is! You might know this tip under a different name.

Everyone can benefit from this, but it's especially important for underrepresented folks in tech. For URMs, first, the bad news: Most major studies done in this area show that you will leave your job frustrated with your rate of promotion (slow), or how you perceive that you are evaluated (unfairly). Some "helpful" people will tell you not to be overly concerned about your performance reviews, or getting promoted. That's like farm dogs telling the chickens not to be overly concerned about the gaping hole in the fox-proof fence. 🦊

More bad news: Human nature is largely consistent over time. Meaning the biases that we all have and hold, and that lead us here, won't magically disappear this review season (no matter how many bias busting classes we all take). More bad news: "Just do good work, and be recognized!" doesn't work as well for you, because your context is different.

People don't expect you to do the quality of work that you do. Your peers' incredulity is a drag on their perception of your value.

And the kicker: Your peers' incredulity, can cause this sequence:

  1. People think that you are not that good. 🤬

  2. You do good work, and accomplish something impressive! You showed them! 😃

  3. But peers retroactively downgrade the value of that accomplishment! 😮

If you do something awesome, your doubting peers may rationalize it by either:

This is where we run up against people "hating to be inconsistent with themselves." I mean, if you're "not that good" how could you do this really hard thing?

For your peer, the shortest mental path back to consistency is often to devalue your work. I see this post-fact devaluing happen a lot throughout our industry. It's not intentional. But it happens. And it affects your career.

🎶🐀Like the Pied Piper. Not the HBO show one. The nursery rhyme one.
Peers devalue in many ways.

  1. Credit shedding: "Very Smart Person(tm) also worked on this with Karen. I'm pretty sure that VSP really led it."

  2. Foregone conclusion: "Of course we would be good at [thing]! Our company rocks at [thing]. All Karen did was glue stuff together."

So, how can we counter this, without magically changing human nature? One technique that's worked for me is something I call The Difficulty Anchor.

There are 3 phases to The Difficulty Anchor: Before you work on a project, during, and after.

Before: #

I find a Very Smart Person(tm) that is known to be both a hard grader, and dispassionately objective. Yes, we're all smart. Here, have a cookie. 🍪

But by VSP, I mean someone with organizational credibility. That ain't you. Sorry.
Weird: This person is often someone that doesn't even see themselves as an advocate for D&I. They often don't even see themselves as friendly or approachable people.

Think busy Principals and Members of the Technical Staff that give no BS, actionable design review feedback.

This person with organizational credibility is my Anchor. ⚓

I ask them a ton of newbie questions before project setup, most of which I already know the answer to. Things like,

Anchors are pretty sharp, so they see what I'm doing very quickly. Some cut it short and just say, "Cut your sh*t Mekka. I get it. It's hard. So what's your plan?"

I explain the plan in great detail.

The Anchor and I come to an understanding of how complex this problem really is. Again, complexity of the problem, not complexity of the solution. I like simple solutions to complex problems.

This brings us to "During."

During: #

I make sure to keep detailed notes of my specific contributions.

For me, that entails a lot of non-conventional wisdom about massive scale Commerce systems, and finding the 1 or 2 things that really matter(tm), and intentionally ignoring the other 98 or 99 distractions.
It's important to have artifacts documenting my decisions and designs, separate from those of others.

Do not skip this step.

Pull request comments are not enough.

Do not skip this step!

Email threads are not enough.

Don't skip!!!

This is defense against credit shedding.
Then comes the most important part of During:
Do good work. No excuses. Do the damn thing.

Good work means collaborative and communicative.

It means adaptable to changing conditions.

It means Product Excellence. It means not hurting your friends in UX, TPM, SRE, or Eng Prod.
I keep my anchor informed of all progress, good, and bad. Transparency is key. Transparency is trust. Don't hide bad news.

You are starting from a trust deficit. Again, sorry. 🤷🏿‍♂️

After: #

After the launch, all the same things happen. Lots of celebrations at first, but then the attempts to devalue... 🙄

At this point, it would be impossible for me to make a case for my contributions...

I need an ally to "lend privilege."

And I have an ally! My Anchor! ⚓

The perceived difficulty or impact of the project can't move post-fact because it's anchored.👍🏿

I've never even had to ask an Anchor to make the case for why the work was complex or high value.

Going back to humans hating to be inconsistent with themselves...

The Anchor is on record saying that this work is complex and high impact, from before the project even kicked off. But now the peanut gallery says that it was easy…

The Anchor rationalizes this inconsistency by either:

a) Admitting that they were mistaken earlier about the difficulty, my contributions, or the impact.

b) Seeing that others are not being objective, and calling it out.
Choosing a) Is hard!

But that's why it's important to choose an Anchor known for being a hard grader, and being dispassionately objective.

Basically, someone whose ego isn't so big that they can't admit to being wrong.

Someone who demonstrates being publicly self-critical.

You want peers to know that the anchor feel free to choose a). But, the anchor won't choose a) If you've really done good work. 👍🏿

A well chosen anchor will choose b).

They usually come in unsolicited, flying over the top ropes to shut down any noise devaluing your work.

Yes, this is all a PITA. I used to wonder what I could possibly accomplish in Commerce, and where, to not have to pre-emptively head off devaluing of my work. 🤷🏿‍♂️

We're working on fixing this as an industry. But until then this is a workaround that I've found effective.

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