When I started my career as a software engineer almost a decade ago, the advice that I remembered hearing from a few people went something along the lines of:
Just focus on doing a good job and the rest will follow.
"The rest" meaning promotions, raises, and career opportunities. That these would come naturally when you worked hard and focused on improving your skills over time.
Fast forward to the present day and I feel like this advice hasn't held up as well as one would hope. The folks who often would get those promotions, raises, and career opportunities were the 'squeaky wheels': the ones who spoke up often about what they wanted and where they wanted their careers to go.
That's not to say that those folks didn't deserve those things, but I think a significant reason that they got to where they wanted to go sooner than others did was due to being very proactive in career growth and trajectory conversations in a way that others who waited for things to happen on their own weren't.
For the people who want to increase their odds of getting to where they want to go but aren't sure where to begin - meet the brag sheet.
What is a brag sheet?
It's like a traditional resume, but rather than speaking to your accomplishments throughout your career at various companies, a brag sheet focuses specifically on your accomplishments in your current role.
The following are some examples of what you might list on a brag sheet:
- Products and features that you've worked on;
- Employee Resource Groups;
- Technical working groups;
- Mentoring teammates and colleagues across the company; and
- 'Glue work' (great talk about it by Tanya Reilly can be found here).
Elements of a brag sheet
At it's core, a brag sheet has two elements:
- What you did
- Impact of what you did
What you did
This can be something like 'shipping a feature' or 'mentored teammates'.
Impact of what you did
This feature that you shipped made the company a lot of money or retained some valuable customers. Or one of the people you mentored went on to lead their first successful project shortly after they started on your team.
If the above sounds like what you'd be doing in the context of an interview - it's because you need to treat these conversations like they are one. Particularly if what you're aiming for is a promotion, you need to talk about yourself and your accomplishments as if you're interviewing for the next level without it being a formal interview.
As a side note, I've personally found that writing these points out as part of maintaining my brag sheet to also help me build my skills in evaluating if certain pieces of work are the most impactful thing my team and I could be doing right then, or if there was other work that we should be doing instead that will be more valuable. Those skills are crucial in growing into a senior level engineer as you will be making those types of decisions in partnership with product teams once you're a technical leader on your team.
What are some examples of brag sheet entries?
Example 1: Adding a new feature
What you did
I worked on adding a new set of API endpoints that allowed third parties to build integrations that required the use of webhooks.
This doesn't need to be too detailed, just enough to paint a picture for the reader.
Some of my company’s biggest customers wanted to have API access to the data stored with my company - together they’re worth approximately $2 million/year.
One customer had a renewal worth $400k that was coming up the month after these endpoints were released, and were at risk for leaving for a competitor if this wasn’t released on time.
Talking about this shows not only the impact that your contributions to that project had for the company, but that you're also thinking of the big picture. This could be your team's general mandate for the company or company-wide goals for the fiscal quarter or year.
Example 2: Enabling teammates to do their jobs more effectively
What you did
I wrote several runbooks for the customer support team related to the new API endpoints.
Support team members were able to diagnose common issues in minutes and resolve support tickets in < 3 hours on average (average across all product areas is 8 hours).
My team started project X a week ahead of schedule due to less bugs than expected.
I've never met a product manager who didn't like to hear that "things launched smoothly" and that something was released ahead of schedule.
Having this happen a few times in projects you lead or play a major role in looks really good on you because you're helping give the team more time to do other things. This could be career development and investigating improvements with the product area your team owns - things that don't often get done when time is limited.
How do brag sheets give your career a boost?
They help you map what you're doing to levels on a career ladder or matrix
When you're just starting in your career you often don't have a sense of where you're at with respect to your skills and what that maps to level-wise within your engineering organization.
By having a list of accomplishments in the form of a brag sheet, you can more easily see how what you're doing in your day-to-day maps to the expectations of engineers and their competencies on the career ladder or matrix at your organization.
These tend to be easy to access in mature companies so if you don't know where yours it at your organization, ask your manager, HR, or a senior engineer as they'll likely know where to find it.
They help your manager advocate for you during performance review cycles
Even the best managers out there can't keep tabs of everything that their reports do. At the end of the day you are your best advocate.
Maintaining a brag sheet and providing it to your manager when performance reviews are happening make it far easier for your manager to advocate for what you want as they'll have something to easily reference when having conversations with whomever they need to talk to to make promotions, raises, or other career opportunities happen for you.
They bring awareness to the type of work you may be doing more of at the expense of growth opportunities
If your brag sheet is telling you that you're doing a lot of interviewing and you're being told that you've been passed over for a promotion due to not demonstrating technical competencies, then you can have a constructive conversation with your manager about refocusing where your time and energy is going.
They minimize the impact of manager turnover
The Great Resignation is real. Speaking from personal experience, I had three different managers in the span of a year and a half in a previous role.
When a manager leaves it has a massive impact on your career with a company, especially if you were working towards a promotion just before your manager leaves.
Brag sheets help mitigate the impact of a manager leaving as all of your accomplishments are in an easy-to-digest format for your new manager. And while your manager can't speak to what you've written in the brag sheet, they can work with other senior leaders who will better understand the contents of the brag sheet to ensure that you still get what you've worked hard for or are looking for.
They make it easier when job searching in the future
When you're ready to leave your role, having a brag sheet makes it easier to update your resume. Additionally, a common question during technical interviews is some flavour of "tell me about a project that you worked on".
Having some high-level details of previous projects that you've worked on can help refresh your memory which will lead to a better, more confident interview and increase your odds of getting an offer for the job that you want.
I want to try this! Is there a template I can use to get started?
Yes! I've created a couple of samples that can be found here. Feel free to adjust them to what works best for you.
Don't wait for things to 'just happen'
Keep a brag sheet so that you can more easily and effectively work on your career growth and trajectory with senior leaders in your organization. Being proactive with them is key to increasing the odds that you'll achieve the career success you're looking for.