Allison Kaptur

An occasional blog on programming

Two Kinds of Feedback

I often hear junior engineers or newcomers to a company say that they’re not getting enough feedback. It’s a common feeling, especially for people who are just leaving school and the predictable assignment->work->grade feedback loop that it creates.

There’s lots of good advice for managers, mentors, and senior engineers about giving specific, actionable feedback – but it’s important to know what kind of feedback someone needs. I’ve found that people asking for more feedback are generally looking for one of two very different things:

The first kind of feedback is strategic feedback. The engineer asking for strategic feedback means something like this: “I feel like my work is going okay, and I’m wondering if I can be more effective. Are there strategies I can change to be even better?” The person asking these questions probably feels open, secure, and calm. They’re eager to grow and want to know if there’s anything they’re missing. Ideally, this engineer is asking specific questions for the feedback they’re seeking, like “Did my architecture doc clearly explain our project? Was my last pull request the right size and scope? What are the most important problems that our team is facing?” Feedback for this person should certainly be specific and actionable.

The other kind of feedback is less often dicussed – belonging feedback. An engineer seeking belonging feedback might be asking “Do you have any feedback for me?” but means something like, “Are things going ok? Do people like me? Am I making dumb mistakes?” In this state, they probably feel vulnerable. They might not yet feel comfortable with their coworkers. They might even be worried they’re going to get fired.

As a feedback-seeker (whether you’re a new engineer or an experienced hand), the more clear you can be about what you’re looking for, the more likely you are to get it. I once sat down for a one-on-one with my manager to discuss an incident, and said, “My agenda for this meeting is how it happened, what our plan for remediation is, and my feelings.” For my manager and me, this worked great. Being clear about what you want also helps you determine whom to ask for it – different problems might go to your direct manager, a more senior engineer, someone who joined the company at the same time you did, or a friend outside of work.

As a manager, mentor, or senior colleague, the best thing you can do is understand what kind of feedback is being requested. You don’t want to tell someone seeking strategic feedback, “Don’t worry! Everything’s great!” Similarly, you don’t want to give a list of ten areas for improvement to someone who’s already being too hard on themselves. What kind of feedback is being sought isn’t always obvious, and probably requires some follow-up questions.

Differentiating between these two types of request allows everyone to have a more pleasant experience and get better feedback at the same time.