Software developer performance review

Software Engineer Performance Review: The Best Process and Metrics

Performance reviews are often a turning point in the employer-developer relationship. Managers and developers usually prepare for it thoroughly: collect data on KPIs, create a presentation or a report with the most significant achievements, and think about future plans.

This article will discuss how a culture of frequent feedback helps to make reviews easier, what metrics can negatively affect a developer’s productivity, and also provide a step-by-step plan for developer performance evaluation. The guide applies to in-house employees and full-time contractors because it’s critical to monitor the progress of any developer you work with on a long-term basis and track their engagement and productivity.

Why Are Software Developer Performance Reviews Important?

  • Performance reviews help to track a project’s progress

Reviews help track project progress and ensure that developers are meeting deadlines. If the team leader notices that the team’s performance is declining and the result of the software development effort leaves much to be desired, a meaningful one-on-one with each member can identify and fix any hidden problem.

  • They increase developer productivity and reduce misunderstandings

During performance reviews, it is important to establish a dialogue, or to be more precise, two-way feedback. The team leader listens to the challenges the engineer has encountered, and they work together to solve them. The leader also gives constructive feedback to the developer so that the employee better understands what is expected of them.

It helps to define the engineer’s roles and goals clearly so that they understand how they align with the company’s skill gaps and advanced training strategy. In the long term, it helps the programmer build stronger client and employer relationships, as they will remain up to date on the latest in code quality, system design, testing, and debugging.

  • They help build stronger team relationships

Performance reviews build trust and improve the quality of communication between the team leader and their members. They develop the ability to relate to others and show that the team leader is not only interested in the engineer’s work, but also in their professional growth and well-being.

  • They address a developer’s emotional well-being

Performance reviews may also be the best way to track programmers’ mental and emotional well-being. Burnout disproportionately affects the highest-achieving, most motivated employees. If a team leader notices the signs of burnout during an evaluation interview, they may let the engineer go on vacation or attend a team-building event. If burnout is caused by the employee’s personal stressors, the manager can offer them a budget for expenses that help them do their best work, such as childcare services, Wi-Fi bills, gym memberships, and other benefits that support mental health. Unlike in-house employees, contractors usually do not have access to such perks, but employers may invite them to join online mental health therapy sessions and other remote events.

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How Does the Culture of Frequent Feedback Affect Performance Reviews?

Before we move on to criticize some metrics in the next section, let’s discuss the impact of a feedback culture. Suppose an employer doesn’t give weekly/monthly feedback but suddenly shows appreciation at the annual performance review or, conversely, turns it into an opportunity to unload a book of complaints. It can be confusing and unsettling for a developer to be in the dark about whether they are doing a good job for an entire year. Instead, it’s better to let employees know how they’re progressing, as close to the event as possible. When employers adopt a culture of weekly meetings and status reports, then performance reviews do not come as a surprise to both the developer and the employer.

Feedback culture also allows employers to anticipate a developer’s misunderstanding of company expectations earlier. Often, a software engineer’s low performance is related to poor communication — they do not understand management’s expectations.

This applies especially to the onboarding period when the developer is figuring out company processes. During this period, management should clearly formulate goals and deadlines, and make sure that the developer understands the company’s mission and their area of ​​responsibility.

Why Tracking KPIs May Actually Hurt a Developer’s Performance

Employers may think that measuring velocity, the number of bugs, or the number of lines of code reveals the best (and the worst) performing developers. We think that openly judging them using these metrics may hurt team relationships, demoralize engineers, and slow down delivering valuable software to customers. Here are some examples:

First, all the estimates in Agile development are based on incomplete information. Imagine that a developer discovers something as they’re programming and ends up spending more time working on a particular story than expected. Despite doing an outstanding job, they might be, nonetheless, reprimanded by a Jira-obsessed team leader because of low velocity.

Second, measuring a developer’s performance by the number of bugs may invoke arguments about whether bugs are caused by development or by poor quality analysis. It also may slow down engineers, because no code means no bugs, or it may lead to a lack of collaboration within an engineering team, as someone helping others to detect a bug will not get credit for that.

Finally, the number of lines of code may be the worst way to evaluate and reward developers. If companies use this metric, then code will be produced in large volumes, but often not of good quality.

On the other hand, there are benefits of measuring velocity, because it helps teams estimate how much work they can complete during the next sprint. Meanwhile, measuring the number of bugs may reveal which programmer should focus on making code more suitable for testing. The key is not to blame the software engineer using these metrics but to focus on the areas that need improvement and evaluate them based on their progress.

Below we’ve listed four different types of performance assessments and offered a step-by-step plan with suggestions on what to pay attention to when evaluating a developer’s work.

Types of Software Engineer Performance Reviews

Employers use different feedback sources to evaluate an employee’s performance — direct manager feedback, peer review, or self-appraisal.

Management Review

In most cases, the performance assessment is conducted by the developer’s direct manager, because they are most familiar with the programmer’s role and their current work. Managers can prepare a standard template for evaluating developers (read about it at the end of the article) and add individual questions for each person.

Peer Review

The developer’s performance can also be evaluated by colleagues working on the same project. However, even if team members have a good understanding of the capabilities of a particular engineer, their assessments can be biased.

Biases can be positive, as people tend to rate peers with similar interests, skills, and backgrounds higher. On the other hand, negative bias can be caused by personal conflicts or rivalries among team members. Also, sometimes colleagues simply do not have enough time to thoroughly understand the challenges of other members, and that is why peer reviews can be superficial.

Self-Appraisal

If the company prefers not to follow a standard review template for each developer, it asks them to write a self-assessment, which can include priorities, accomplishments, and future plans to see how they align with the team’s goals and strategy. The team leader can also develop additional questions they want answered in the self-review.

How to Conduct a Software Engineer Performance Review

1. Decide on the Type of Review

We believe that the manager’s review is the most suitable option for startups and small and medium-sized enterprises. However, if a company wants to be sure that the team leader is not biased, it can choose a combination of different review types to get more complete information about a developer’s output.

2. Choose the Right Metrics to Measure the Developer’s Performance

For this step, we’ll break down possible metrics to include in the review, such as code readability, communication skills, and proactivity, as well as velocity and number of bugs.

As we said at the beginning of the article, companies should be careful with metrics like the number of bugs and velocity. If possible, these KPIs should not be the main focus during the review as they may demoralize the developer, create a culture of defensive programming, and prompt a lack of collaboration between team members. Managers are better off focusing on what can be improved, rather than blaming an employee if they are less productive than others. (Even if the company decides to dismiss an employee based on the review results, the manager should offer advice on how to boost the developer’s current skills and productivity levels.)

  • Code design and readability

Development teams need to make sure that the code is maintainable, reusable, and easier to test, and that the system runs without failure. In addition, when code is well-designed and simple to understand, code review will become an effortless task.

Since code reviews are usually performed by a peer engineer and software architect, code quality can be a perfect metric for peer reviews.

  • Velocity

Velocity represents the number of story points or Product Backlog items completed during a specific interval, usually a sprint. This metric was designed to help teams estimate how much work they can complete during a sprint based on how quickly similar work was previously done. In addition, the company can compare a particular developer’s productivity with how much time other colleagues spend on similar tasks.

However, these estimates are difficult to measure without a thorough understanding of the task complexity and software architecture.

  • Communication skills

These are the most in-demand soft skills, according to a recent study by ZipRecruiter. Indeed, working in a team of developers with different backgrounds and technical skill sets can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a software engineer.

The team leader or the CTO should observe how willingly a developer shares information, asks questions, actively listens, and whether they attack the problem — not the individual. How carefully they choose words when writing code reviews is also telling.

  • Proactivity

Successful ideas and plans for their implementation do not emerge from nothing. Proactive developers have the confidence and courage to speak their mind about how to improve a product or the development process. Managers should appreciate such aspirations and never confront them, because if a developer simply follows orders, they can be replaced by a machine.

  • Number of bugs

Tech companies can measure the number of errors found in production and compare them to the number of errors found in testing. While such metrics can help determine a developer’s areas for improvement, employers should not allow these numbers to encourage heroism or a blame culture rather than teamwork.

Talking explicitly about the number of bugs sometimes leads to arguments about which engineers caused which bugs, and creates a lack of cooperation between developers. It can also damage relationships between teams. Developers and testers usually don’t get along, and the hostility will only intensify if every bug a tester finds actually hurts a developer’s performance review. That’s why companies should only pay attention to how many critical bugs were found.

Performance review

3. List the Completed Projects From the Review Period

Managers can ask developers to keep a record of accomplishments throughout the review period. If they write down each project, its scope and completion time on a spreadsheet or in a project management platform such as Asana or Trello, they will be better prepared for the assessment.

Additionally, managers should ask developers the following questions related to each completed project: 

  • Which new skills have you acquired?
  • What challenges have you encountered?
  • How did you solve these problems?
  • Which contributed to those situations?

4. Acknowledge Achievements

With a list of completed projects and KPI scores, the team leader or engineering manager can analyze which were most significant in achieving the product goal and improving user satisfaction. It is equally valuable to hear about accomplishments from the developer’s perspective as well.

The team leader should also notice what new skills the developer has learned to demonstrate growth and readiness for new responsibilities and observe if they have been open to experimenting, trying new things, and finding out what works well. Developers who are constantly upgrading their skills should be rewarded. If a company cannot find specialists in the job market, it will close skill gaps with internal talent willing to learn new technologies.

5. Identify Areas for Improvement and Discuss a Developer’s Career Ambitions

Sometimes a programmer already knows where they need to improve. And if they don’t, the team leader can analyze the developer’s KPIs and offer them options for further development, such as:

  • deepening knowledge of a programming language or learning a new one
  • improving communication skills and problem-solving
  • becoming an expert in system design
  • taking on more management and leadership roles

When a programmer acquires new skills, they also develop new interests that may affect their overall career trajectory. That’s why managers should listen to the developer’s ambitions, combine them with the company’s overall strategy, and adjust their future training or reskilling. Tech talent may stay with companies longer if employers not only point out areas of improvement that benefit the company but also invest in their careers.

6. Ask About Work-Life Balance

Asking how developers feel about their work-life balance may reveal their personal stressors. If they are struggling to work at home because of loud neighbors or because of kids in the house, the manager can offer them a budget for any expenses that help them do their best work, such as subsidizing or reimbursing for childcare services or for renting a coworking space.

7. Track the Progress

During or after a performance review is the point at which programmers should become motivated, not just to get a promotion or additional perks, but to improve before their next evaluation. What the developer and their supervisor agreed on during the review should not be forgotten the next day. And we’re back to where we started — the company needs to implement a culture of feedback and revisit assessment results regularly to track progress in areas that need improvement and to make sure the developer and the employer understand each other’s expectations.

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Software Engineer Performance Review Template

Now that we have figured out the metrics and sections that should be included in a performance review, we can make a template for it:

List of completed projects

Details of each project:

  • Technologies and approaches used in the project
  • Areas of responsibility and tasks performed
  • Project specifics (What is the scope of the work? Is it a public or internal project? Was the project successfully launched?)
  • Сompletion time and velocity
  • Problems encountered and resolved

Code design and readability

Insert the results of code reviews to see if the code is well-designed and simple to understand

Communication skills

Review how willing the developer is to ask questions, actively listen, and share information among team members.

Proactivity

Describe how willing they are to express their opinion on improving the product or the development process.

Achievements

Analyze which projects or tasks were most significant in achieving the product goal and improving user satisfaction. Observe if the developer has been open to experimenting, trying new things, and finding out what works well.

Areas for improvement

Analyze the developer’s KPIs and describe options for further development.

Developer’s career goals

List the developer’s competencies and ambitions, combine them with the company’s overall strategy, and adjust their future training or reskilling.

Final thoughts

Underline the most important outcomes and add anything else you want to mention.

While evaluating a software developer’s performance without bias can be challenging, we hope that this step-by-step guide will help you turn performance reviews into a fruitful discussion.

Learn more about KPIs for software developers and tips on how to avoid micromanagement on our blog.

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Written by
Artem Vasin

Artem Vasin is a content writer at YouTeam. Having a background in mathematics, he writes about business research, technology, and hiring.

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