I'm speaking at TDC 2019

In my talk at 14:10 South Center Career Track, Career Tips from Someone Who Knows a Lot of Rockstar Programmers, I will share some of the lessons I learned from the people I interviewed for the Secrets of the Rockstar Programmers book, and also include some tips of my own. Though I don’t claim to be a rockstar programmer myself (or the newer term: “10x programmer”), I can honestly say I know plenty of people that who are.

Working for big companies such as IBM, SGI, Sun, and Oracle, I’ve had the chance to sample many useful corporate trainings. Even the most mundane of these, such as “Insider Trading”, offer at least one nugget of novelty. The corporate training I want to talk about here is one I took at Sun at least twelve years ago. It was called “Communicating Your Value Add” and it was all about how to articulate your contribution to your company at performance review time. The class included a handout, “Behavior/Performance-Based Questions” whose complete text I reproduce below. For discussion and reference, let’s call this perf_handout.

Here’s the basic idea.

  1. Get in the habit of producing written weekly status reports as simple text files.

  2. Annnotate some of the things you’ve done with perf_handout.N Where N is the number of the corresponding list item below.

  3. When performance review time comes around, you can grep through your status reports for perf_handout and your performance review practically writes itself.

For example, if I successfully introduced a new code review process, my weekly status report would have a line like this:

perf_handout.6: Designed and implemented a new code review process.

Once you do this for a month or so, you’ll notice some areas you are missing. Try to fill those in, or if you can’t try to partner with someone who you observe is able to do those things and learn from them.

Here now is the complete perf_handout content.

Behavior/Performance-Based Questions

   A sampling of the types of questions that might be used to explore
   your level of accomplishment for specific skills are listed below.
   These questions provide a platform for *communcating your
   achievements* in skill areas such as leadership, decision-making,
   persuasiveness, coping, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity,
   organizational savvy, technical knowledge, and influencing.
   1. Describe a time when voicing your opinion was uncomfortable or
   could have had serious consequences, but you did it because you
   believed so strongly in the value of your perspective.
   2. What was the most creative idea you introduced on the job?  How
   did you persuade your superior?.
   3. Give me an example of the most complex project/assignment you have
   had, including your role and the outcome.
   4. Describe a situation at work when you had to make a decision and
   were uncertain about the outcome.
   5. What do you when you are communicating with someone and it becomes
   apparent that they don't understand what you are saying or vice
   6. Describe a situation in which you developed a group into a strong
   working team?
   7. Communication and leadership go hand in hand.  Tell me about a
   time when your communication skills enabled you to influence the way
   others thought or acted, even in a very difficult situation.
   8. What important goals have you set in the past, and how were you
   able to work towards accomplishing them successfully?
   9. Describe how you delegate responsibility in your current job.
   10. Have you ever had to take over a leadership role unexpectedly?
   How did it work out?
   11. Sometimes it is important to disagree with others, particularly
   your boss, in order to prevent a mistake from being made.  Tell me
   about a time when you were willing to disagree with another person in
   order to build a positive outcome.
   12. Describe a time when you had to sell an idea to your boss or
   another authority figure.
   13. Give me an example taken from your experiences in report writing,
   preparation of memos, or general correspondence which illustrates
   the extent of your written communication skills.
   14. Building rapport can be a very challenging thing to do.  Give an
   example of a time when you were able to build rapport with an
   individual or group at work, even when the situation was difficult
   and the odds were against you.
   15. Solving problems requires more than good plans, it means taking
   action.  Give me an example of a time when you were able to take
   meaningful action in resolving a problem.
   16. In many problem situations, it is often tempting to jump to a
   conclusion to build a solution quickly.  Tell me about at time when
   you resisted this temptation and obtained all the facts about the
   problem before coming to a decision.
   17. Sometimes it is necessary to work in unsettled or rapidly
   changing circumstances.  When have you found yourself in this
   position?  Tell me exactly whay you did.
   18. Solving a problem often necessitates evalutation of alternative
   solutions. Give me an example of a time when you actively defined
   several solutions to a single problem using any tools such as
   research, brainstorming, or mathematics.
   19. Just about anybody can give a routine, standard answer to common
   problems; however, the payoff is often in the development of unique
   solutions to common problems.  Give me an example of one of your
   unique problem solutions.
   20. Describe an assigmnent that represented a unique challenge to
   21. Tell me about a time when you had to cope with strict deadlines
   or time demands.

Performance Review Questions

The pre-discussion forms include the questions below which are listed under the following categories: Results, Quality, Reliability, Leadership, Decision Making, Functional/Technical Skills & Knowledge, Communication and Teamwork, and Resourcefulness & Creativity.

   22. Based on established goals and objectives, for our group, what
   results did you achieve?  If a goal changed, how much progress did
   you make toward the revised goal?
   23. What additional contributions did you make?  Were there
   accoplishments that were definitely outstanding?
   24. What examples can you recall of instances in which you were
   responsive to your customer or successful in completing a quality
   25. What leadership and decision making abilities have you
   26. Give me an example of a major decision you've made and the
   27. Give me an example of any project you have led and the outcome.
   28. How have you improved existing processes and procedures?
   29. In what ways have you added unique value to your job?
   30. Give me an example of when you have demonstrated technical or
   functional expertise.
   31. Tell me about what measures you have taken to ensure that your
   skills are state-of-the-art.
   32. Give me an example of an effective presentation you have made.
   33. Give me an example of how cooperative interaction with other
   members of the Sun team have been a part of your work.
   34. Give me an example of a time when others have been able to count
   on your "being-there" time after time, project after project.
   35. Give me an example of when you used strategic thinking in moving
   toward achieving a goal.

UPDATE: 2019-07-01 Microsoft Perf Handout

Here are some additional similar questions that I see at Microsoft:


36. Tell me about a time when you experienced a major organizational
change (for example, a reorganization, a new supervisor or a new
procedure) that created stress.

37. Describe a time when you proposed a major change in your work
process or job duties. How did others respond to your proposal?

38. Describe a time when you had to complete a project in which you were
provided with very little information or guidance.

39. Tell me about a time when you had to change your priorities in
response to the demands of a changing situation. 

40. Tell me about a time when a project, product, or service
implementation did not go according to plan. 

41. Describe a time when you presented a proposal or provided a service
that was given an unfavorable response by stakeholders. 


42. Describe a time when you worked on a challenging cross-functional
team that produced an exceptional deliverable. 

43. Tell me about a time when you developed a relationship with another
area of the company that had no previous history of collaboration. 

44. Describe how you have collaborated with others outside of your
immediate team to resolve a critical issue. 

45. Tell me about a time when you experienced conflict with a team

46. Describe your most recent experience working with a virtual
team. What were the challenges you faced and how did you work through

47. Tell me about a time when your attempt to collaborate across teams
was unsuccessful. 

Customer Focus

48. Describe a time when you were involved in the resolution of a
complaint from either an internal or an external customer. 

49. Describe a time when you provided outstanding service to an internal
or external customer by anticipating their needs. 

50. Describe a time when you had difficulty determining the needs of a
customer to provide them with a product or service that met their

51. Tell me about a time when you fell short of meeting a customer's

52. Describe the strategies you have used to gather information that
increased your understanding of current and future customer needs. 

53. Provide an example of a time when you initiated a change in a
process or policy to improve the quality of customer service 

Drive for Results

54. Describe a time when you uncovered something that could be
problematic for your organization or team. How did you correct the
situation before it became an issue? 

55. Describe a time when you tried to achieve a difficult professional
goal. What obstacles did you encounter that made the goal difficult? 

56. Tell me about a time when you successfully removed an obstacle that
interfered with your ability to complete a task effectively. 

57. Describe a long-term project or assignment of which you took
ownership. How did you make sure each milestone was achieved in a timely

58. Provide an example of a time when you had to motivate others to
complete a challenging deliverable. 

59. What has been the most difficult assignment or task in your career
so far? 

Influencing for Impact

60. Tell me about the most challenging situation that you have
experienced, when you had to persuade someone to accept your

61. Describe a time when you had to persuade someone to complete a task,
but had no formal authority over their work. 

62. Tell me about a time when you had to convince others to implement a
new procedure or process. 

63. Tell me about a time when you successfully influenced multiple
stakeholders with varying agendas. 

64. Give me an example of a relationship that you developed through
networking that had a positive impact on your work. 

65. Give an example of a successful method (for example, research
findings, anecdotes, stories, metaphors, or analogies) that you have
used to convince a stakeholder to support an idea. 


66. Describe a time when you made a critical error in your work. 

67. Describe a situation when you had to make a major decision under
time constraints. 

68. Tell me about an unpopular decision you've had to make. 

69. Tell me about a time when you had to make an important decision but
had no policies or procedures in place to support it 

70. Tell me about a situation when you had multiple alternatives from
which to choose. What steps did you take to determine the most
appropriate alternative? 

71. Tell me about a situation that required you to build your knowledge
base before solving a complex problem. 

End-to-End Innovation

71.  Give an example of an idea that you suggested that led to
improvements within your organization. 

72. Tell me about a time when you presented a new idea that successfully
addressed a customer’s end-to-end product experience. 

73. Tell me about a time when you identified a risk and offered a unique
method of addressing the risk. 

74. Tell me about a time when you contributed to the development of an
innovative idea that impacted the market, industry, and ecosystem. 

75. Tell me about a time when an innovative product or service you
worked on failed. Looking back, what would you have done differently to
ensure success? 

76. Tell me about a time when you had to make adjustments to a feature
or product, based on considerations of the overall customer experience. 

Planning, Organizing, and Executing

77.Describe a situation when you made progress on a project or
assignment despite ambiguity. 

78. Describe a situation when you managed the impact of a change on
schedule, processes, and project goals. 

79. Describe a situation when you led a project with a geographically or
functionally diverse team. 

80. Tell me about a time when you aligned multiple stakeholders to
achieve an objective. 

81. Tell me about a time when you did not meet a planned milestone. 

Technical Excellence

82. Describe a situation when you came up-to-speed quickly on new tools,
methods, or processes. 

83. Describe a situation when you were able to create improvements in
code, designs, content property, or media assets. 

85. Describe a situation when you sought out a new engineering or
project/program management challenge beyond your role requirements. 

85. Tell me about a time when you sought out a challenging technical

86. Tell me about a time when you mentored others in your area of
technical expertise. 

87. Tell me about a time when you had to learn a new technology. What
did you do to gain expertise?