Level Up #10

Season finale

Hi 👋,

Hemant here. This is the last story in the Level Up series. You can read the previous 9 stories here. I highly recommend checking them out to learn more about our hero, Sandeep.

In the last story, we saw how Sandeep was anxious about the performance reviews of his people. He had a tough day concentrating on anything else. The time bomb had started ticking. Let’s see what happens next in today’s story.

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Things will never be the same again

“Hi, Derek! How are you?” Sandeep asked as he came up to Derek standing by his desk. “I have your appraisal report for the year. Want to discuss now?”

“Yes, let’s do it!” Derek said, and they started walking towards a conference room.

“By the way, did you make any progress on the Tour De India plan?” Sandeep asked as they walked.

“No, I haven’t, actually.” Derek had three lines on his forehead, as his eyebrows tried to touch each other. He adjusted his spectacles as he walked towards the conference room.

“Okay…” Sandeep stopped in front of a room that was empty. He opened the door, took his time to adjust his seat in the room and then some more time to flip open his laptop.

“So, first off, I want to say that it’s been a great time working with you on Project Neo. You’ve been great at setting up the team and making sure we are thorough with our product’s testing. So, thank you for that!”

Derek nodded. He relaxed his shoulders.

“Here’s your review,” Sandeep clicked a few keys on his laptop and put it in the middle of the table between them, so both of them could look at the same document. The one-page document mentioned areas where Derek had performed well, and the areas where he needed to improve.

Areas of improvement included “proactive planning of testing, training new people on the team to write thorough code,” and a few other aspects, with a few lines of justification accompanying each of them.

Derek read through the page, then re-read it, before turning to Sandeep.

“I’ll answer your questions, but based on this report, the company has decided a 3% increment for you this year,” Sandeep said and paused.

“Okay…” Derek said. “But you just said that I’ve been doing good… so why only 3%? I was, in fact, eyeing a promotion this time.”

“Well, it is out of my hands right now, but if you can improve on these aspects, I think we should be able to try again next year.”

“Isn’t next year too far off? I don’t want to wait that long…”

“Well, I will say… let’s focus on being consistently good with these areas. Once we feel confident, I can talk to the performance committee once again.”

“But I feel confident right now as well,” Derek said and narrowed his eyes. He leaned towards the table, placed his elbows on it and stared into Sandeep’s eyes, who was taken aback. “This is terrible, Sandeep…”

“Well, we had an issue a few days ago and have already given out an increment to you very recently, Derek, so…” Sandeep was referring to the time when Derek threatened to quit the company.

“But that has got nothing to do with this promotion cycle. I’ve been at this same role for almost 4 years now.”

Sandeep stayed silent.

“Anyways, thanks. I’ll leave now.” Derek said, stood up and left the room, slamming the door behind him.

Sandeep had feared this. He had not slept last night thinking about the consequences. Would people feel like he had not represented them well to the HR? Would they think that he doesn’t care about them much? Would they think that the company is trying to take advantage of their dedication to it?

Worst of all, he feared that people would leave the company because of a bad report.

They were 6 days away from delivering the final milestone of Project Neo, but Sandeep couldn’t delay delivering the reports. Seema was expected to go into labour any time now, which meant Sandeep could have to be on leave when the final milestone was going to be delivered.

Because Project Neo’s first release was closing completion, he had decided to take full advantage of the paternity leave benefit provided. But the timing of delivering the reports couldn’t be worse – if people left when they were so close to delivering project Neo, this move would be the biggest regret of Sandeep’s life.

Next up, he had to deliver Amita’s report to her. He took a look at the report, anticipating the questions she would raise. He didn’t know clearly what Amita expected from the review, so thought of as many questions as he could.

Then, he called her in to the same room.

“First of all, thank you for the great work on turning the Project Neo vision into reality. We are so close to the finishing line… let’s just make sure we cross it in flying colours.”

“Yes, totally!” Amita said. “All thanks to you, Sandy! The way you’ve taken ownership of this team when we were missing strong leadership is laudable.”

“Oh, of course not. I didn’t do any of the work, you did. Let’s take a look at your review?” Sandeep smiled as he said.

On his face was the look of a deer grazing among tall grasses, partly aware of a tiger being nearby. He didn’t know the exact location of the tiger, so wasn’t sure which direction to run in.

“Yeah, sure!” The tiger was getting closer…

Sandeep showed her his laptop screen, like he had done with Derek. He turned his eyes towards Amita, who was reading the report. She pulled her eyebrows together as she read the report. She moved her head closer to the screen and blinked a few times.

The tiger was finalizing its attack plan.

As she finished reading the report, she looked at Sandeep – not uttering a word. She was shocked. There were more things in the “Areas for improvement” section than in the “Kudos” section.

“Any questions?”

“Yeah, Like I’ve told you before, thinking long-term is one of my weaknesses, but apart from that, I don’t agree with anything in here,” she said.

“Okay…” Sandeep gulped. He expected this.

“So, for example, what do you mean when you say “spend more time on coordinating with other team and finalizing implementation plan”? For most of the stuff I worked on, the implementation plan was already clear, so…”

The tiger pounced.

“Well, for issues that need cross-team collaboration, I feel our entire team needs to do more work around documenting and planning. So, this is not specific to you.”

“But this appears in my review. So it is specific to me, no?” Amita raised her voice slightly.

Sandeep nodded.

“I understand why you feel that way, Amita, but think about it for a few hours. Let the dust settle. Let’s talk later today?”

“Do I get a chance to challenge this review? I feel like this was my best year at the bank, but this review just made it among the worst.”

“Well, yes, you can challenge. But I am not sure if anything will change,” Sandeep said.

“Okay…” Amit stood up. She was clearly not impressed when she left the room. Sandeep looked at her through the glass door, as she walked to a group of colleagues and started talking, looking animated.

Sandeep stayed back, looking into his laptop. “Hang in there, just a few more to go…” he said to himself.

On the inside, a part of his soul was being eaten up with each review he delivered. He could sense distances being created between his teammates and him. This review cycle was the final blow required to break his friendship with colleagues like Amita and Derek.

The next three reviews were the easier ones. All of them were aligned to the expectations, so Sandeep had an easier time delivering these reports. All of these review meetings had ended in less than 30 minutes, but these meetings had taken a toll on him.

There was one more to go.

It was Bavesh, who walked in with his usual facial expression – blank.

“First of all, Bavesh, thank…”

Bavesh stopped Sandeep. “You know, you can cut the initial thanks. It’s okay. Get to the point.”

“Well… I’ll cut it short then and just say thank you…” Sandeep said, “here’s your review,” he showed it to Bavesh.

Bavesh read through the review, no expressions on his face. He then looked into Sandeep’s eyes for a few seconds.

“Hmm, okay. This looks fine. I can continue to work on the areas of improvement…”

Sandeep was surprised. How could Bavesh not have any questions?

“Yeah, we can work on it together,” Sandeep said.

“Sure thing. Thanks Sandy.” Hearing “Sandy” made Sandeep feel tens of kilos lighter. It was as if the air conditioner was just turned on when the mercury was hitting 40 degrees celsius. Someone related to what Sandeep was going through right now…

There were a few seconds of awkward silence in the room.

“By the way, tell me, how was your first-time experience of going through this review cycle?” Bavesh asked.

Sandeep sighed. “Well, tiring for sure! But it’s been an eye-opener in terms of people management. I think without sitting through one cycle, you can never fully understand how humans behave. Just while delivering these reviews to people, I’ve learnt so much more about the people I’ve been working with for years now!” Sandeep said.

“Are you done, then?” Bavesh asked.

“Oh yeah, yours was the last one. I feel like taking a few days off now.” Sandeep responded.

“Oh, but before then, let’s go to the last milestone release meeting.” Bavesh smiled. They were running late for another meeting.

“Oh, totally forgot about it! Yes, let’s go!” Sandeep said. Both of them stood up and walked towards the meeting room.

---

“Sandeep, looks like we are on track to finish everything in time…” A team member stated.

“Wait, let’s be doubly sure about any risks we might face.”

“We’re close to finishing, Sandeep, I don’t think…” Derek said.

Sandeep interrupted him, “Well, but we’ve not crossed the line yet. So...” Sandeep looked into Derek’s eyes, before turning away. “Let’s think of all things that could go wrong. What if all of us fall sick tomorrow morning?” he asked.

No one responded.

“What if we have outages in all of our internal systems, preventing us from working? What if there’s an all-India strike tomorrow, which prevents any of us from coming to the office? What if…?”

Sandeep got a call as he was speaking.

“Sandeeeeeeeep,” Seema screamed on the phone, before their neighbour started speaking. “We are in a cab right now. Will be in hospital soon. See you there…”

Sandeep put the phone down. He forgot everything he had said just before the phone. “I need to…” his face was red with tension. A drop of sweat dropped from his forehead.

“I need to…” he said.

“What are you waiting for? Leave!” Amita screamed. “Good luck, Sandy. We’re waiting for the good news,” she said and smiled. Sandeep rushed out. “Think about all the risks, please…” he said as he stepped out of the room.

“Don’t worry about Neo. Consider it done,” Derek screamed as Sandeep rushed towards the elevator.

---

Hours later, Sandeep sent a message to the team that he had become a father to a baby girl.

Days later, Sandeep saw a YouTube video showing Surabhi launching the Neo product out into the world. Her eyes were wide and her cheeks were finding reasons to spread themselves. She announced how they had received great feedback from the beta users and were now looking at broadening the product to more users. They were still going to cap the number of users who could use the product on their phones to make sure they were on the right path.

Sandeep had successfully delivered on his first big project as a manager.

But he knew this was not the end. It was, rather, the beginning. Sri would now evaluate how the product was performing by looking at a set of metrics, find out if users were facing any problems while using it, then bring them to Sandeep to solve, and so on…

Sandeep still had doubts if he should continue as a manager after all his experiences. But he had no doubts in his mind that this was the most challenging experience of his life. Being an engineer and solving technical challenges was far easier than solving people challenges. Every single person was different, and creating a process that worked for all the people was not possible.

For now, he could focus on his baby girl. Work could wait.

THE END.


This concludes the first season of the Level Up series. What began 10 weeks ago as an experiment, has already given me some validation and some areas to improve upon. I recently posted this Twitter thread with my learnings so far:

Please reply and let me know if you liked the series.

I will be taking a small break from publishing short stories to explore a few ideas that I can publish continuously. In the meantime, I will continue to write essays and sharing what I learn, so stay tuned.

If you liked this story, hit the 🤍 button at the end of this post. Also, don’t forget to —

Thanks for reading :)

Hemant