Giving feedback

Working as a consultant, I’m used to providing suggestions and identifying bottlenecks in businesses. It’s part of the job. I command the rates I do because these clients have seen the results I’ve delivered, understand I very much care about their business, and want them to be as successful as possible.

They have problems or goals for their business and they want me to use my skills and experience to tackle those problems. Since they are paying for my time and trust that I will help make them successful, my opinions and suggestions are taken seriously. They may not always agree with these suggestions, but that’s good because it moves us forward and allows us to further test and analyze these ideas, quantitatively.

However, being used to this kind of process makes things very different in other areas of my life. I regularly visit developer communities online to see what’s going on and seek out interesting questions people have. And after all this time, I’ve found most of the people who go online looking for “suggestions/advice” really aren’t looking for suggestions.

They are looking for their views to be accepted and validated; most of them are not willing to accept differing views and will continue to ask and amass a ton of opinions until they find one that matches their own. Of course there are people who are genuinely looking for someone else’s perspective and take it into heart. Only, on the internet, there is no insight into whether or not someone has really gone back and followed through with your advice.

It’s a world vastly different from what I’m used to as a consultant, and one that frustrates me greatly. It doesn’t frustrate me because random strangers on the internet aren’t listening to me, it frustrates me because as an introvert, I listen far far more than I speak. And it becomes very clear that many people do not know how to truly “listen”.

A couple years ago, when I was in the middle of my last co-op term, my co-op instructor from BCIT visited me at SAP. He brought up that my co-op report was one of the most well written he’d seen (probably because no one who writes these reports actually cares about them), asked me if I ever considered becoming an instructor, and that he thought I would do well as an instructor. I didn’t really give him an answer because he was an instructor himself, but the answer is pretty much no; I did not ever consider becoming an instructor and I don’t think I have a desire to become one. Regardless, we were chatting happily, and he asked if I was returning to school after my co-op term. I said no because I decided to put school on hold as I had a couple full-time offers.

He then asked me if I had any suggestions for the department’s co-op program. I said not really, but he insisted, so I thought, “why not?” and told him my biggest issue with the co-op program at BCIT (as nicely as I could). I suggested that maybe, just maybe, it would be nice if we had more job postings in general, and with more reputable companies (as opposed to mostly small local shops). The fact was places like UBC and SFU had job postings in the hundreds, ranging from large corporations to small shops, while BCIT had less than 30, with half of the postings littered by EA (Electronic Arts), which was known for not hiring from BCIT. He instantly flared up and went off about how he’s been putting in so much effort to get postings for students and how I’m ungrateful for the awesome opportunities provided to me.

This came somewhat as a shock to me. I’d expected him to be upset because it was in a way, questioning his competence; but not to this extent, and it was certainly not my intent. After all, he insisted that I give him suggestions. It became apparent to me that he probably wasn’t really asking for suggestions, he simply wanted acknowledgment that he was doing a great job. Bit of a round-about way of asking for validation if I might say so myself.

This experience, along with a couple others, is the reason why when I ask for feedback, I ask for 1 thing the person likes about my work, and 2~3 things they don’t. It’s also the reason I will hesitate when being asked for feedback. Most people are conditioned and prepared to give positive feedback. It’s quite simple logic that if you have nothing to gain, there’s no point in saying something that may cause someone to be upset with you. Encouraging and acknowledging the possibility that you do not, in fact, know best gives people more room to present to you their raw, unfiltered perception of your product/work. Limiting the feedback to a small list allows you to identify the most important points and areas you need to work on.

I know a few companies where this is baked directly into their recruiting process. They will ask a candidate to try their product, and come up with areas where the product could improve. While I think this is a great idea, it doesn’t happen nearly enough. If all you want to hear is boilerplate “courtesy feedback”, don’t waste anyone’s time at all. Clients pay consultants to find inefficiencies, areas to improve on, and markets to expand to. So if you’re lucky enough to have someone willing to give you feedback, take the time and put them at ease. Make them feel comfortable enough to point out flaws. Embrace contention. And if they really only have positive feedback, don’t settle for “it’s awesome!”/”it’s great!”/”I love it!”. Be ready to ask why. Ask what makes this this piece of work awesome/great. Ask to be challenged.