Getting More Feedback

So, you want more feedback from the people you work with.
 
It’s critical to know what things you should be working on and how you’re progressing toward those goals. Our high-level goals are often well defined: write the login functionality for an app, sell 5 new contracts this month, etc. But how we do these things depends on the people around us and how well we work with them. If you’re part of a team, you need to know what they want from you to do your work best together.
 
The first challenge, of course, is getting any feedback at all. People are busy and have a hard time scavenging a few minutes to think about that sort of thing, much less figuring out good ways to communicate it.
 
The second challenge is getting honest feedback. Many of us want to be “nice” and to avoid saying things that are uncomfortable whenever we can. (If I’m honest, for me that usually has as much to do with cowardice and conflict-avoidance than with kindness.) So it’s important to think about how to make the process both as easy as possible and as safe and comfortable as it can be.
 
Here are a few approaches I’ve found that work well:
 
  1. Ask a specific question out loud: “Hey, I want to be doing great work here. How do you feel I’m doing, and what’s one thing I could improve?” By asking verbally, we keep it quick; answering only requires a minute or two of someone’s time. By asking for a single thing to improve, we can also remove much of the concern that our colleagues have about coming across as mean or critical.

    When we ask for something specific, we allow others to offer an improvement as a favor rather than a criticism. Doing this verbally means that there’s no written record of what they say, which helps ease the pressure as well.

  2. Ask the same questions in Email, Slack, or another written format: This takes longer, both for you and for the people from whom you’re asking for input. Colleagues will be less candid, as they might have concerns that their comments are “on the record,” and you’ll get fewer responses.

    On the upside, you will get more thoughtful feedback as your respondents take more time to reflect on their answers. You will also have a record to which you can refer as you’re working to figure out how to improve your work.

  3. Use an anonymous feedback tool: There are several that help you gather feedback while assuring your respondents that you won’t know from whom it originates. (I’ve used http://www.get3sixty.com/ and like it pretty well.) Anonymity helps your colleagues express themselves freely without putting a strain on your relationship. This results in more candid feedback.

    Include more questions if you want a richer picture of others’ perceptions of you and your work. If you keep the questions consistent over time, you can use the answers to track your own progress. But remember, the more information you ask for, the fewer people will likely respond. Keep the time needed to respond under a minute to get the most results.

  4. Ask your manager: Why do I list this last? Because of the telephone game. You’ve played it as a kid. A line of people passes a message, whispering it from one to another. By the time it gets to the end, what emerges often has hilariously little to do with the original meaning. Likewise, the fewer people between the source of feedback and its recipient, the clearer the message you receive will be.

    Having your manager gather feedback for you is useful for performance appraisals, other situations where you need an official record, or when you’re having a tough time getting candid feedback on your own. But the closer you can get to the source, the better the feedback you will receive will be.

If you’d like more guidance and feedback from your team, give one of these approaches a try and see how it works. Try soliciting feedback from your teammates every two months or so, though your individual cadence may vary depending on your situation. If there’s a specific area you’re trying to improve, you might check in more often to see how you’re progressing. With a well-established team, you may need less frequent feedback . But if you want to improve, getting regular feedback and coaching from the people closest to you is one of the best ways to do it.

Engaged

Thursday afternoon, Kris Spilker and I got engaged.

I am, of course, delighted. It’s hard for me to articulate what I appreciate about this woman without sounding like a Jane Austen novel. She is kind, true, steadfast, and lovely. She embodies hospitality both in her home and in her conversation. The trust I have placed in her has been validated many times over; when she says she’ll do something, she follows through. She takes seriously and lives out the great commands of Jesus: “The first in importance is, ‘Listen, Israel: The Lord your God is one; so love the Lord God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence and energy.’ And here is the second: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ There is no other commandment that ranks with these.” And we have a fantastic time making music together.

For those curious about the details: I took Thursday afternoon off work and took her to Wimberley where we had lunch at The Leaning Pear, a beautiful spot on Cypress Creek with marvelous food. We then climbed up a nearby hill (known variously as Old Baldy or Prayer Mountain) that affords beautiful views of the surrounding Texas Hill Country. When we reached the top, there was a drunk man and a tattooed woman doing yoga up there; not quite the cast I had envisioned for the occasion, but arguably the quintessential Texas Hill Country experience. We found a shady spot not too far from the yogi, pulled out the guitar I’d hauled up, and sang songs together for a while, drinking in the beauty of the place and laughing at ourselves as we stumbled over lyrics only half-remembered.

If John Hughes has taught us teens of the 80’s anything, it’s that Peter Gabriel songs are the proper way to profess one’s affections. Accordingly, I played and sang “The Book of Love,” which ends with the line “You ought to give me wedding rings.” (Note for pedants: yes, I know this wasn’t originally a Peter Gabriel song, but the John Hughes joke doesn’t work otherwise; just play along, OK?) I then pulled the ring from my guitar case and presented it to Kris, saying some inarticulate things that I mercifully do not remember. Fortunately, the prop carried the day, and she said yes.

Thus begins a new chapter of our lives. I very much look forward to continuing to better know and love each other’s families, kids, and other dear people, to further adventures in art, music, food, dancing, play, exploring the world, reverent silences, much laughter, and to serving the people around us and each other for many, many years to come.

Reflections on the Gains and Losses of Maturing Children

I found this on my hard drive this morning: a piece I’d written a first draft of almost exactly four years ago, but never got around to publishing. While it’s outdated in several ways now, I still thought it worth sharing belatedly.

Last month, I walked one of our kids to school for what will be the last time.

The occasion is not catastrophic. I have no fatal illness. Our kids have not been thrown out of school. We’ve not decided that public education is irredeemably flawed, nor are we starting out own magnet school for gifted children with our own surname. The cause, in this case, is the same one we all face: the march of time.

Maggie, our youngest, has just finished up her 5th grade year at Crockett Elementary. The school she will be attending next year is Miller, a Middle School which lacks Crockett’s one-block proximity to our home. Though we still have many years before we face the challenges of an empty nest, this melancholy-tinged march was a foretaste of things to come.

Already I have marked with sadness milestones along the way. Loose teeth are far less frequent around our house than once they were. I’m reminded of one exceptional day when Liam loudly announced that he’d lost a tooth, proudly displayed it for all to see, and then went back to jumping on the trampoline, only to announce 30 minutes later that he had lost another one.

I often see activities coming up on the library’s calendar and get excited about taking the kids, only to realize belatedly that our kids are all past the age where they would hold any interest. “Ooh, hey, a puppet show! The Billy Goats Gruff! Great Story! Oh, wait…my youngest child is now eleven, and billy goats now lack their former charm.”

Saddest for me is the fact that having an adventure becomes progressively more difficult. When a child is young, merely being in the world is a grand, continuous process of discovery. The bar is then raised a bit, but is still easy to clear: a simple walk through the neighborhood yields deer sightings, fascinating clouds, nests of insects. Later, once the neighborhood has become familiar, going to the park or down to the river is necessary to renew that sense of wonder and excitement. And, of course, it’s natural that doing something with one’s parents moves from a consistent delight to something less wonderful. (We have been singularly fortunate in that regard, as even our teenagers seem to still enjoy our company.)

But with these miniature tragedies also come a variety of joys. Each of our young people has such a rich, distinct personality that discovering them is a constant, unfolding delight, like watching a tree bloom and mature over the course of years. One develops an interest in music, and does great in band. Another has a sly sense of humor that continuously surprises and delights me. This one does amazing art; that one takes up theater.

And while adventures become more difficult to come by, they also become bigger and more exciting. We get to go SCUBA diving together. We play open mics together. We design and produce computer and card games. We build (and blow up) a huge variety of things in lumber and lego. We travel and explore the world around us. We explore other worlds that we have invented, tell each other stories that get more engaging with each passing year, and challenge and spur each other on to richer and deeper relationships with those around us.

With each swing of the sun across the sky, I have fractionally less of a child, and a tiny bit more of a friend. And that’s a trade that, while it comes with a bit of sadness for opportunities lost, is well worth making.

Mexican Chocolate Creme Brûlée

For this past year’s annual pre-Thanksgiving Creme Brûlée day, I improvised a Mexican Chocolate recipe. It was a new favorite, so I’ve experimented some more and pinned down the ingredients to share with the world. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

Custard:

  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 3 large egg yolks
  • 1/2 quart heavy cream
  • 2 tsp natural vanilla
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tbsp cocoa powder

Topping:

  • additional sugar

Directions:

Preheat over to 375°

Whisk together sugar and egg yolks until they’re homogenous and lighten a bit in color. Add vanilla, cinnamon, and cocoa powder, and gradually add cream while continuing to whisk all ingredients together.

Pour mixture into ramekins. (Size doesn’t matter much, though I like shallower ones, as it maximizes the topping/custard ratio.) Put ramkeins in a roasting pan and pour enough hot water around the ramekins in the pan to cover the bottom half of the ramkeins. (Too little water and your custards will dry out. Too much and you’ll probably spill the water into the custard as you move it.) Bake for 45 minutes.

Refrigerate the custards for at least 2 hours, but not more than a few days. When you’re ready to serve, pull ramekins from the fridge and sprinkle a thin layer of sugar across the top of the custard. Then us a kitchen blowtorch or an over broiler to melt the sugar and form a layer of sugar glass across the top of the custard. (I prefer the torch, as I’ve had a hard time controlling the process with a broiler.) Allow creme brulee to sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Piña de Gallo

Here’s a new recipe that I created for Mutual Mobile‘s annual Cinco de Queso competition. I’ve taken a couple of stabs at recipes that use pineapple for the sweetness before, but this is my favorite. (It’s also pretty much the easiest salsa recipe I’ve come up with to date.) Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • 2 20 oz cans crushed pineapple
  • 2 7.5 oz cans chipotle peppers in adobo
  • 1 bunch cilantro (discard stems)
  • 3 limes

Preparation:

Put the pineapple and cilantro in a blender or food processor. Juice the limes into the mix. Pick the peppers out of the adobo sauce and add them.

Now determine how much of the adobo sauce to add — the more, the saltier. The sauce from one of the cans tastes right to me, but you can add more or less depending on what you like.

Blend until smooth.

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On the Care and Feeding of a Depressed Friend

I recently wrote an email to the woman I’ve been spending time with lately. I was feeling depression creeping in around the edges of my mind, and wanted to warn her that it was coming, what to expect from it, and give her a good idea of what I would need during the time I’d be dealing with it. After I sent the message, it occurred to me that this might be a helpful window for other folks who have people they care about who deal with this malady as well, so have lightly edited it to share here. I hope it’s valuable for someone out there.

This morning sometime, I started to feel the Black Dog of Depression nipping at me. It’s not severe yet, and I hope to head it off before it gets there. But, since you haven’t gotten to put up with me during a bout of depression yet, I thought I’d provide a bit of a primer.

Things to know:

  • It’s not about you. It’s not about us. It’s not really about anything in my life. It’s mostly about brain chemistry. Sometimes an event will trigger it, but that’s only the domino that happens to start the chain reaction.
  • I’ll function fairly normally, though I may seem a bit listless and sigh a lot like some 19th century Byronic ninny.
  • Sometimes while a bout is active, it will recede for a bit, but then come back. Usually my depression lasts between a couple of days and a couple of weeks (shorter is more common), and ranges in intensity from “a little bummed out” to “emo band lead singer and songwriter.”
  • I should not be trusted to make any decisions of import during times when my depression is active. It poisons my thinking. Most (but not all) of the time I’m aware of this effect at work and deliberately avoid doing anything important until my head is clearer.
  • Again: it’s not about you.

Things to do:

  • Be sympathetic. Feel free to ask how I’m feeling and about the depression specifically.
  • Gently check on how I’m doing with exercise, sleep, nutrition, and spiritual disciplines. These are the things that seem to help, though at the speed of a cruise ship changing direction. (Playing music is also often cathartic for me.)
  • Perhaps encourage me to get off the phone in time to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep. 🙂
  • Be patient.
  • Offer me delicious food. This is a pretty benign indulgence I will treat myself to.
  • When we’re together, give me hugs, hold my hand, be with me.

Things not to do:

  • Feel obliged to try to fix it for me. I’ve got a pretty good grasp on how it works and runs its course at this point.
  • Take it personally if I act a bit grouchy or withdrawn.
  • Avoid being around me.
  • Expect me to be terribly motivated toward big life goals. Or even little ones.
  • Offer me alcohol. I don’t drink when I’m depressed. (See the “can’t be trusted to make rational decisions” item above.)
  • Be concerned if I disappear into books, naps, movies, or video games for a bit. (More benign indulgences.)

Hope that’s a helpful user guide.

A Few Articles from Mutual Mobile

Over the past year, I’ve written a few articles for Mutual Mobile that I’ve never gotten around to posting here. They’re all more or less technical, so may not be interesting if you visit for personal and family stories. If you’d like to see any of these, they’re linked here.

Love’s Lonely Offices

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

– Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays” (via Bob Fischer)

My father and I had a contentious relationship during my growing-up years. He and my mother divorced when I was six, and weekends with him devolved over the years from fun to difficult to dreadful.

There were some good times: discovering Doctor Who together. Going down to Brackenridge Park where he showed my brother and me how to trigger the crossings for the miniature trains, slowing baffled motorists. Building small wooden boats out of scrap and chasing them down the gutters during a rainstorm. Eating imprudent amounts of Taco Bell after church. Afternoons at Lake McQueeney with my step-mother and her family.

But those good times were too often overshadowed by conflict. When I was young, the stakes were fairly small and our battles correspondingly benign. My refusal to try three bites of everything on my plate resulted in long hours at the dinner table (and late night surreptitious runs, often intercepted, to the kitchen for crackers and tuna). My reluctance to help around the house brought loss of Star Trek privileges. And my arguments with my step-mother over the utility and value of dish soap caused difficulty for him as he tried to support his wife while attempting to keep a straight face.

When I graduated to my teenage years, things got tougher. Though he didn’t impose a curfew, I thought it absurd and unreasonable that he would require me to call to let him know where I was. I balked with a mule’s stubbornness at lending any kind of help with household chores. I was loudly exasperated and petulant whenever he planned something for the family that interfered with what I wanted to do.

These bigger battles resulted in more substantial casualties. For a period of time, I got into a shouting match with my dad nearly every weekend my brother and I went to visit. When those arguments escalated enough, I would stalk out of the house, walking miles to stay with friends, dodging behind dumpsters to keep my dad from spotting me as he scoured the neighborhood in his blue pickup truck. One memorable time, my dad pinned me to the floor with enough vigor that my retainer popped out of my mouth and sat on me until my defiance was temporarily exhausted. Even when quiet descended on the house, it was a Cold War, with the threat of explosion hanging heavy over us all.

At the time, the only way I knew how to interpret my dad’s actions were as a tyrannical dictator, only interested in keeping his power unchallenged. (And with the zeal of a misguided freedom fighter, I rose to challenge it at every opportunity.) But as time has passed and I’ve had kids of my own, I’ve gained some perspective on those difficult times. While his approach wasn’t always optimal, I now understand how much of what he did during that span was motivated by love; not a sentimental sort, but a hard-edged, steely desire for my ultimate goodness and well-being. As C.S. Lewis said, “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.”

With that additional perspective, I want to thank my dad for arguing with me when I was wrong. For making me sit at the table for eight hours until I finished my zucchini. For having my brother and I over every other weekend when I gave him every reason not to. For disabusing me of the notion that I was the most important and smartest person in the world. For miles driven in that blue pickup looking for me (again). For disconnecting the TV when I was being an ingrate (also again). For sticking around when there must have been no small temptation to disappear across the country. For never giving up on me even when it would have been the far easier course. For being more interested in giving me what I needed than what I wanted. And for all the other lonely offices of love that I still, to this day, haven’t recognized.

Thanks, in short, for being a father, and for teaching me something of how to do the same.

A Belated Mother’s Day Reflection

I think it was seventh grade when I told my mom that I wasn’t very fond of classical music because I felt like it was too repetitious and predictable. This was the same year that I spent hours in the car on the way to or from school repeatedly listening to Toni Basil’s “Hey Mickey”.

The fact that I lived to eighth grade is ample evidence of my mom’s character and restraint.

iBeacons Lessons Learned

I recently published an article covering our experiences with iBeacons at Mutual Mobile on the Mutual Mobile Engineering Blog. I was excited to see this morning that it was picked up by iOS Dev Weekly. Thanks for the enthusiasm and the link, Dave!