Asking coworkers to decide my career

How I asked my coworkers to give me anonymous career advice.

I have spent more than 3 years at Kensho. The company has grown from fewer than 10 people all sitting in a single cold room to more than 70 awesome colleagues in two large offices in New York and Boston. Yet recently I have found myself floundering and less than happy and productive.

During these three years I have accomplished different tasks and played various roles. From front-end to testing, from training to team lead. The company itself went through the organizational growing pains as it expanded. Suddenly I found myself without control over what I was working on or overall sense of purpose.

Unusual situations require unusual decisions. Thus I have decided to do one thing that I always wanted, yet have never been given an opportunity to do:

Ask my fellow coworkers to anonymously give me their honest advice

Usually, my immediate manager would decide what I should work on (with my input of course). Yet, I often find organizational hierarchies arbitrary and random. This time I wanted people who worked closely with me to answer a question I came up with.

The questions

The question I posted to my colleagues was along the lines

You know me very well; I have completed such and such things, and today would like your help to decide what I should work on next. Please rate the following scenarios as you think necessary

Then I gave a list of answers, each on the scale from 1 - strongly disagree to 5 - strongly agree. The last question was not a scale, but a text area to write a free form answer. Some of the answers I provided are reproduced below. This are abridged sentences, the real form includes company-specific details.

  1. Go to a conference and never come back
  2. Continue working as a tools / mentor / OSS advocate
  3. Work on the front end team full time
  4. Work on the testing team full time
  5. Work on performance profiling and optimization
  6. ...

The list continues in the similar vein, presenting different tasks within the company I could do.

I promised to take the responses seriously, and push for adapting my position within the company according to the majority's decision. I have enough pull and seniority within Kensho to actually mold my own destiny (I believe). The answers from my fellow engineers would prevent my own bias when making the decision.

The responses

I have sent this form to about 40 people within the company, and about 1/3 of them responded. I am a little surprised by the relatively low response rate; I expected at least half of people to respond. Primarily because it is so unusual - who here is asked regularly by other colleagues what they should do? No one! I would certainly find it very unusual and would have filled the form.

Still, I am very grateful to the people who took time to fill the form. I am especially thankful to people who wrote detailed feedback paragraphs in the free-form text area field. Some people have signed with their names, even knowing the form was anonymous - inviting my to talk to them personally and have one on one discussion.

The opinions were divided, yet there were some common trends. No one wanted me to go to a conference and never come back (which was a tongue in cheek way of saying "I should find another job") - except for one responder, who actually gave me a surprising and valid explanation why he has thought so.

Majority of people wanted me to continue working on forward-looking tools, and improve the quality of our products. Many people praised my past accomplishments and valued my role in training and inspiring others at the company. A significant number wished I worked more on raising Kensho's public profile and helped others do the same (train to speak publicly about technology at local meetups and conferences).

The final thoughts

Overall, the responses were warm, constructive and valuable. I am very glad I send this questionnaire; this was an unusual approach and felt a little scary even. I half-seriously expected someone from management to call me quickly after the form has been sent to reprimand me for this "weird" step. Yet, there was only positive and constructive feedback.

I would highly recommend everyone to ask colleagues for feedback after a few years at the company. It feels weird, yet gives room for honest evaluation of one's role at the company. This evaluation is outside the regular peer review (which often has a negative connotation and consequences).

Try asking your coworkers, the idea is just crazy enough that it might work!