Month: June 2015

Great Expectations

‘Tis the season here at My Big Software Company, where we rate ourselves and rate our peers and rate our managers in a method that doesn’t actually impart A Number, you see, but is still used to determine those numbers which are most important to working folks: how much you get paid, either in one shot (bonus), in the future (stock), or over time (raise). In other words, it is review season, and it sucks.

I don’t care how careful HR is and how well prepared they are. I don’t care what the template and tools are you are given to follow. The fact of the matter is that at least once a year and, ostensibly, four to six times a year, you are sat down and are told to quantify, in a variety of ways, the working worth of the people around you. And they are told to do the same about you. It sucks.

It’s horrifying and necessary. This process is meant to weed out the freeloaders, the bad seeds, Those Who Do Not Fit for a better word. As a manager I dreaded reviews (because as much as everyone says they want to lead a team of rock stars, guess what happens when you actually do? Now you have to rate rock stars. Which means only a few rock stars can be the rock stars of rock stars. Talk about splitting hairs.) As an employee I dread reviews (because as hot shit as I can think I am — and sometimes I really am — like any teenager staring in the mirror there are a load more times where I wasn’t even a lukewarm fart).

That more companies are moving to a system where this is not technically quantified in numbers — e.g., as a manager I would not say “Jane” is a “3” on a scale of 1-5 (for, you see, historically Janes and Jons were appalled at being reduced to a number)–means that this gets harder, not easier. How do I tell you that you are doing “pretty good” but not “really good” and so you only get a mediocre raise? How do I tell you I had to compare you to the guy who came in under-leveled — in some cases by 3 levels — because of someone ELSE’s hiring error, that has nothing to do with you? I don’t. I just tell you where you fell on the curve.

One of my favorite memes is the one that is attributed to Kurt Vonnegut but wasn’t — and was later imparted by Baz Luhrman on “Wear Sunscreen” — tells you that the race is long, and in the end, it’s only against yourself. If there were some way to measure one’s improvement against oneself, and then weight that within reasonableness (because frankly, I can have a deliberately shit year and then bust my ass for an easy “improvement” rank), that would be better.

Interesting point of fact though: we hold our kids to numbers.

My kid is in 6th grade — almost 7th  (2! weeks! to go!) — and is held to the standard 1(D), 2 (C), 3(B), 4(A) scale that I grew up with. Every assignment is reduced to numbers and faithfully reported and published (to the point where I often know his score before he does). This number — and numbers in standardized testing, either within the school or external to the school (Washington state is on its 4th or 5th “standardized’ test in the last 10 years — none of which equate to one another, so it’s a constantly shifting field)– will determine what classes he can take, which math path he is on, if he can participate in extracurricular activities, etc.  And he’s 12. Whereas his mother is 30 years his senior and doesn’t have the “advantage” of a number.

As a society we constantly worry about preparing our kids for the future, to be competitive within the global sphere. They are learning things 2 years earlier than they did at my age — both by math formulae and science concepts. They are expected to perform and they are connected in a way we never were — the kids are handed laptops as a required tool for school. The internet was this totally shady side thing when I was in school and generally not talked about. Now it’s a project to tell him about how plagiarism works and that Wikipedia is informative but cannot be your data source. We grade them and numericize them and then let them take and retake tests as needed to make sure the number fits. In short we are preparing our kids very, very well in one way, and very, very poorly in another.

In the working world, you are held to a numeric standard but it is never actually communicated to you. In the working world there are damned few test retakes and there is little extra credit. It’s this world full of meetings and 1-on-1’s and phraseology without hard-core definition. In the student world it’s the opposite: little individual time and little talk, all strict grading and numeric application. In college this gets less personal and more regimented. We train our kids to know things, but not apply them.

This mad scramble that results, inevitably, in a new testing method every two years or so means that we are trying to hit a moving target with a bow and arrow while on the back of a truck in the middle of an earthquake. Instead of sticking with one test– however suboptimal– we change the test in hopes of finding some “perfect test” that will make everything sane. Instead of gearing curriculae towards the Real World, we chase some phantom metric that is meant to make us feel better about being twenty-somethingth — or is it thirty-somethingth, now?– in the world on education. When we were, at one time, first.

We are two weeks out from the final grades that will numerically identify how “well” my kid did in school this year. We are two months from the longer, more complicated, not-numerically-driven conversation with my boss about how “well” I did at work this year.

In neither case can we state with confidence that the analysis was foolproof, regardless of the outcome.