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3 solid self-review tips for sysadmins

Self-reviews are tough. These three tips will help you to get credit for all those great solutions you implemented this year.
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Tips for your self-review

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At every job I’ve held, the general opinion about self-reviews tends to fall into one of two categories. Either employees view them as arduous and frustrating or they simply don’t care about them. However, I believe that a well-written self-review can help you accelerate your career, whether your goal is a raise, a promotion, or merely some well-deserved recognition for your efforts. In this article, I’ll discuss my approach to performance reviews. While there is no one-size-fits-all strategy, this approach has served me well through several organizations and positions.

Basics first

In my opinion, the primary goal of a self-review is to "sell yourself." If you have a deeply engineering-based mindset, as many sysadmins do, then the idea of selling might seem outside of your comfort zone. However, that’s really what you’re doing during your self-review: Making it as easy as possible for your management team to say, "Wow, you are an excellent employee."

Selling yourself on a self-review doesn’t mean cold calling or coming up with clever marketing slogans. Rather, you sell yourself by reminding your management team that you provide a great deal of objective value to the organization and that you deserve to be compensated accordingly. When I say compensation, I don’t just mean salary. Compensation means different things to different people: Maybe you really want more pay, extra vacation time, a promotion, or even a lateral move. A well-written self-review can help you achieve these goals, assuming they are available at your current employer.

Selling yourself

As a systems administrator, you probably adopt an evidence, data-driven approach to your work. When you begin configuring a new service for the first time, you want to see proven examples of proper configurations for your use case. When you evaluate a new application, you want to know how it will solve your specific problems. Your performance review should be no different.

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You should always use plenty of examples in your review. Never make vague statements, such as "developed a configuration management strategy." Instead, be specific: "Developed a configuration management strategy using Ansible to maintain full configuration state on our fleet of 200 servers." Your self-review should describe concrete examples of the actual work you have done throughout the year, and specific examples will illustrate the value you provide. The data doesn’t lie.

How do you come up with these examples, especially during that review season time crunch? Personally, I keep a weekly log of my major work accomplishments. I have a calendar reminder set to update this log each Friday with a few (five or fewer) bullet points about my major actions from that week. This might sound tedious, but it actually takes me less than five minutes every week, and it saves a massive amount of time when I need to complete my self-review. I simply open up this doc, skim through it, and I have hundreds of concrete examples to use. This approach is also useful in combating recency bias, which is our tendency to remember recent events more clearly. With a work log spanning the entire year, I can use various examples to show my impact on the organization.

Tie your accomplishments to business goals and values

Examples are the first step in a high-quality self-review, but they aren’t the only thing that you need to really make your value shine. It’s essential to show how the work you did actually impacted your organization in a meaningful way. Being able to tie the work you did to the needs of your organization is critical.

Consider the example from the previous section about deploying configuration management. That can easily be tied back to a concrete business improvement: "Developed a configuration management strategy using Ansible to maintain full configuration state on our fleet of 200 servers. We previously had no configuration management software, and building new servers (or restoring failed servers) could take several days. This can now be accomplished in less than an hour, as was seen during the recent restoral of our critical application server. User downtime prior to the existence of configuration management would have been several days, with a long tail of issue resolution as we fixed issues on a case-by-case basis. Our configuration management allowed us to restore this server in under an hour and get our users back to work."

It’s hard to argue that decreasing user downtime from days to hours isn’t a valuable contribution.

You might be tempted to think that this recommendation only applies to architects, managers, or higher-level engineers. However, this approach can be applied to your self-review no matter where you are in an organization. Suppose your daily job involves end-user technical support. In that case, a self-review statement like "Assisted in the resolution of over 250 tickets in a timely manner (average resolution time of four hours), allowing end-users to get back to their jobs quickly," will show that you care about your customers and understand how your work can have a positive impact on the business. Even if your organization is very small and doesn’t explicitly have annual goals or values, you can still discuss how your work made a positive impact.

Numerical ratings and room for improvement

Early in my career, a colleague gave me a piece of advice that I have always carried with me. They said, "Anthony, it’s not your job to say that you’re doing anything but excellent work. It’s your boss’s job." Now, it is certainly extreme to think that I’m perfect and have no room for improvement. That absolutely isn’t the case. However, it is true that you shouldn’t turn your self-review into a ritual of self-flagellation. When it’s time to give yourself a numerical score, err on the side of a higher score and use plenty of examples to bolster your case for a strong rating.

Most people find the "room for improvement" section of a self-review to be a challenge. On the one hand, you don’t want to make yourself look bad. On the other hand, you don’t want to use a cliche, such as "I work too hard."

I typically take one of two approaches to these questions. The first is literal: I select a skill, technology, or area of an environment that I am weak in, and I discuss how I would like to build my knowledge. I might discuss how I want to improve my understanding of Kubernetes as we begin to adopt a containerization strategy, or I might describe how my on-call effectiveness could be improved by deepening my knowledge of a particular legacy environment.

The second approach is to explain how I want to improve my impact on a certain project or the relationship that I have with a certain aspect of the business. For example, I might say that I want to improve my team’s relationship with the application developers to meet their needs more quickly. This also demonstrates that I’m not just interested in a specific technology, but I also see personal growth being tied with the need to benefit all parts of our organization.

This approach has served me well. It allows me to describe specific areas where I would like to improve, but it avoids speaking negatively about my current abilities. There’s nothing wrong with being weak in a particular technical area, especially if you have a plan to build your knowledge. Similarly, wanting to impact a different part of the organization is a positive area of improvement. Again, I strongly believe that if you are doing a poor job, then it is your manager’s duty, and not your job, to describe and work with you on those shortcomings during the review process. However, it’s still important to temper this with honest self-reflection.

[ Free cheat sheet: IT job interview tips

Wrapping up

Many of my friends and colleagues don’t look forward to review season. They find it distracting and difficult to write a self-review. Often, they don’t even know where to begin writing about their work from the previous year.

By using some of the tips discussed in this article, such as maintaining a work log and using plenty of examples that tie into real organizational value, you can impress your manager on your next self-review. Even more importantly, I find this process to be a good reminder of the work that I’ve completed and the impact that I’ve had over the course of a year. This feeling of satisfaction can help reframe the self-review process from a time-consuming annoyance to a genuinely rewarding experience.

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Anthony Critelli

Anthony Critelli is a Linux systems engineer with interests in automation, containerization, tracing, and performance. He started his professional career as a network engineer and eventually made the switch to the Linux systems side of IT. He holds a B.S. and an M.S. More about me

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