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Not Technical Enough: What Does That Mean?

Throughout the tech industry, women engineers are often told that they are simply “not technical enough”. Ouch! What should you do if you get this feedback from your manager? Step 0: Don’t panic! Keep reading for 3 tips for turning vague feedback into actionable insights for your career.

1. Guide the conversation

This type of feedback is really tough to hear. It’s too vague to be actionable. What’s worse, it can trigger stereotype threat, reinforcing ideas that you are inherently not good at “technical” work, which in turn can negatively impact your performance. But before you react, take a moment to step back. What are your career goals? What are your desired growth areas? What kind of impact do you want to have on your team, at your company? Use these questions to guide the conversation to become more specific, actionable, and relevant to your career.

Frame the conversation to set up the feedback that you actually want. For example, you could say: “My focus right now is on becoming a stronger tech lead.”

As you continue the conversation, focus on impact rather than the outcome. For example, “I am working towards a promotion” is good, but not as strong as “I am working towards a promotion by leading more technical design discussions.” In this example, the impact is technical leadership, and the outcome is a promotion. Focusing on the impact directs the conversation towards your growth and contribution to the company. If you focus on outcome, the conversation might turn into your manager defending themselves or you defending your skills and experience. While there may be a time and place for that conversation, this particular conversation is about getting better feedback to advance your career.

2. Ask specific questions

I can tell you firsthand that this feedback hurts. When I heard that from my manager, I felt misunderstood. At my lowest point, I questioned whether I belonged in the tech industry at all. Take as long as you need to acknowledge your feelings. Then, as difficult as it may be, assume that your manager has the best intentions. As long as your manager isn’t a bully and there is a baseline of trust between you both, there is something they are trying to communicate.

In an ideal world, managers give specific and actionable feedback to help you grow. However, even well-intentioned managers fail to deliver feedback effectively sometimes. We’re human, after all. Take the lead by staying curious and listening closely to what they are trying to tell you. Ask specific questions, and get down to as much detail as possible:

  • Can you give me an example of where you were expecting a higher quality of technical contribution?
  • It sounds like the expectation was for me to provide more technical guidance to junior engineers. Is that correct?

Remember that the conversation isn’t about what your manager did right or wrong, or even what you personally did right or wrong—it’s about getting information to take you to the next level. Get your manager on your side by collaboratively brainstorming with them:

  • Given my goal of becoming a stronger tech lead, what are some specific ideas you have for things I can do differently? What are some new things I can try?
  • I recently led a technical design discussion… does that type of activity match the type of work you’re looking for from technical leaders on this team?
  • As I work towards having an impact on adjacent teams, is there anything I’ve missed?
  • Over the next few weeks, will you help me think of ways that I can communicate my impact more effectively?
  • Is there someone on our team or at the company you think who does this especially well?

3. Distinguish perception from performance

High-performing individuals take feedback seriously. If that’s you, the danger here is that you might internalize that you’re “not technical enough”. But before you zoom in on your technical skills, find out whether the feedback is about your performance or about your perceived performance. A gap in performance indicates that you need to improve your project outcomes and execution, whereas a gap in perceived performance indicates that you need to improve your communication.

I’d like to share a personal story with you. A while ago, I worked on a project with a different team. I spent most of my time in a different building. After the launch, I felt proud of my performance! Shortly after that, I found out that my teammates thought that I lacked technical depth. After having a conversation with my manager, I realized that my team had no visibility into my work while I was in the other building for 6 months! Here’s what I learned: I need to communicate frequently with my manager and share technical implementation details with my own team. After making some changes to my communication, I now get extremely positive feedback about how much my manager understands my work and impact.

Before you take the feedback to heart, ask your manager:

  • Do you think the area where I can improve most is execution or communication about what I’ve done?
  • Was this something you observed directly, or did you get feedback from other people? What teams were those people on, if you don’t mind sharing?

Keep in mind that finding out how your work is perceived is different from agreeing with what other people think! Maybe you have demonstrated or communicated your work, but other folks just aren’t getting it. That’s useful information! Knowing that your communication isn’t having the desired impact is the first step to becoming a more effective communicator. From there, you can make some changes and test different approaches by adjusting content, frequency, and communication channel.

Reflect on what you’ve heard

Treat the conversation with your manager as research rather than an evaluation. Reflect on what you’ve heard: which parts do you agree or disagree with? What have you learned about your work and the way it is perceived? What have you learned about your manager? Here are some examples of what you might discover:

  • There are specific, actionable areas where your technical output can improve.
  • Your manager doesn’t have enough details about your work, and you need to communicate differently so that they understand your impact.
  • Your manager wants you to develop specific skills that they have a difficult time coaching you on. You need to find a mentor, coach, or other resource to help you.
  • Your manager is unable to support your career growth, and you need to find a new one.

At the end of the day, you can be your most powerful advocate, and you often must be, in order to advance your career. Effective communication is no small task, but remember that it’s a two-way street, and sometimes you need to take the lead.

Brenda Jin is a software engineer at Slack and advocate for women’s empowerment and education. Based in the San Francisco Bay Area, she taught herself to code in 2013 and has since become one of the highest ranking female technical contributors at Slack. Brenda is passionate about sharing the professional, leadership, and communication tools to support women in their careers. As a Board Member and Chapter Leader for Girl Develop It, Brenda empowers thousands of adult women with software skills every month and works to remove the barriers that keep women out of technology.