Level Up #9

💣 The time bomb

Hi 👋,

Hemant here. This is the 9th and the second last story in the Level Up series. You can read the previous 8 stories here. I highly recommend checking them out to learn more about our hero, Sandeep.

In the last story, Sandeep had to accept that many things were out of his control. I today’s story, Sandeep will write reviews for his reports. This is going to be tricky. People could get demotivated, some might even leave, and some might get so angry that they harm the team. All waiting for one mistake from Sandeep.


💣 The time bomb

“Derek has done some great work this year, by bringing together a process that helps us not only test our work better but has also helped cultivate a culture of re-verifying everything the team builds. This helps us release better code to our users, thus creating better apps and serving them better.

Over time, he has also demonstrated strong leadership, by stepping in when required, delegating things efficiently, and making sure that the work is consistently of high quality.

I have been blessed to work with Derek by my side. If I’m not around for a few days, I’m sure Derek will be able to fill in wherever required.

I look forward to working with Derek on delivering Project Neo.”

Sandeep wrote in Derek’s review. Each year, during the bank’s appraisal cycle, the bank asked all the managers to write reviews for their team members. These reviews would then be used by the Human Resources department to raise salaries and award bonuses if any.

With Derek’s review, Sandeep finished writing them for all his reports. He had written good reviews for all of them. On a few occasions, he was tempted to write a negative line or two, and he even typed them; but he never submitted them. Why add something negative about his reports in front of the entire company? Why get into a situation that could get him into the bad books of his direct reports? Why create room for something that could derail his reports’ motivation towards delivering Project Neo?

Especially now, when the 11th milestone of the project was about to be delivered? There was only one to go after this, so creating any distractions for his people didn’t make any sense.

He submitted all the reviews to Sri and the HR team. Sri was the ultimate signing authority when it came to bonuses and salary raises. While she knew of the progress the team had made, she didn’t track the day-to-day activities of the entire team. So, when she read the reviews Sandeep sent her, she couldn’t see how a person had demonstrated the qualities he had stated. She replied to him -- “please add specific evidence for the strengths you have written down. We cannot go with what you have. HR will ask for more justification.”

Sandeep sat down in front of his computer once again. He searched through planning documents, adding links on communication wherever he could. In some cases, he added screenshots of features someone had built, and how these features were being used in the market.

But he struggled to add evidence for all the points he was making. For example, how could he show that Derek had started showing leadership skills? He added stories of incidents when he had seen this behaviour, but wasn’t sure whether this was enough. Would people believe him?

After a frustrating seven hours of working on the reviews, he sent them back to Sri. It was already 8:30 pm when he left for home. In hindsight, he realized that he should have stayed at home to write the reviews. Being in the office led to distractions. Someone had a question and walked up to him, someone else wanted to have coffee with him, and so on! This was the first time he hated talking to people.

As he was going into bed at night, he had a message from Sri.

“We have our review meeting scheduled with folks from HR tomorrow at 3:00 pm. Be ready to present whatever you’ve written, and expect a lot of questions,” she said.

Sandeep nodded as he went to bed. While he was feeling sleepy a few minutes ago, he was wide awake as he lay in bed. Thousands of questions went through his mind, probably more than the ones Sri and the HR representatives would have.

Early in the morning, he woke up dreaming that one of the HR representatives had suggested demoting one of his reports as their performance was sub-par. Sandeep sat in his bed with the thought running in his mind. Despite the air conditioner temperature being set at 18 degrees Celsius, he was sweating. He then went to the bathroom and drank a glass of water before coming back to his bed. He could no longer sleep.

He was back in the office before anyone on his team. He went and drank coffee all by himself. Next, he locked himself into a conference room for a few hours as he read everyone’s reports one by one and rehearsed his answers to the questions he was expecting. For the first time, he was making a pitch for his people, and he wanted to make sure he was right.

As the meeting started, Sandeep started fielding a lot of questions around supporting evidence. In some cases, the performance looked way off from Sri’s expectations. For example, if someone was performing at a junior level last year, for them to perform at a senior level within a year seemed tricky. So, she asked for a lot of evidence and questioned Sandeep whether that was true or not.

Sandeep realized that in many cases, he didn’t have supporting evidence, which made it harder. Sri continued to question him.

The supposedly hour-long meeting ended almost two hours later, as Sandeep still didn’t know the ratings of his reports.

“We’ll calibrate our ratings against all the employees at the same level, before telling you their final rating. You should know next week,” the HR representative smiled.

This was harder than any of the interviews he had given to date. He felt as if he had betrayed his reports by not submitting hard evidence for all the good work they had done. He could only pray now as to what had happened.

He went back to his desk and looked at the project tracking document. Milestone 11, which was slated to be released in three days, was looking all set.

“Hey, Sandy!” Amita walked up to him. “A bunch of us are going out to the new Avengers film. Do you want to join? We’ll leave in about half an hour.”

“Um, I need to catch up on…”

“Oh, come on, just go with us,” she said. Sandeep smiled. Going to the movie meant an additional couple of hours spent with the team. If he got even one question around his experience of sitting in front of the review panel, he would blast out at them. He tried his best, but he knew he had not convinced them.

As they entered, everyone was giggling, bantering, clicking pictures, and Instagramming. Everyone, except Sandeep. He interacted with people when he was asked to, but did not initiate any conversation on his own. He didn’t even realize when someone had handed him a bucket of popcorn that he was already munching on.

As he sat into his theater’s chair, his eyes shut off.

Bam! He woke up thinking there was a bomb blast within the theater and that he had to evacuate but realized it was just the movie playing. All around him, he saw happy faces predicting what was coming next and making jokes about the film. He didn’t care what Iron Man was doing on screen. So, he shut his eyes off again. But the loud sounds didn’t let him sleep. He half-opened his eyes and stared at the screen. Not a part of his body moved, despite the destructive action happening on screen. Buildings were being thrown apart, people were struggling to find a secure place, superheroes were confused about what to do, but Sandeep didn’t care.

After about half an hour, he had a call from Seema. Thank god! He thought and rushed out of the theatre.

Before even Seema could say anything, he said “Yeah, I’m reaching in 15 minutes, just hold on till then.” He thought his wife was in labour.

As he reached home, he discovered that that was not the case. Seema wanted to tell Sandeep to get ice cream on his way. “Nevermind, I escaped them!” he said, smiling. He kept thinking about how he was going to face his peers before he got the reviews approved by HR. What if someone asked him about their rating? Should he just tell them that it wasn’t very good, or wait for HR to get back? HR was going to get back to him only after a week, so the next week was going to be full of awkwardness.

“Let’s deal with it when the time comes,” he said.

He settled in front of the TV watching an older Avengers movie, this time watching it with much more interest. He knew what exactly the Iron Man was up to, was constantly commenting on how stupid the Avengers had been on a couple of occasions, and so on.

Seema sat beside him for a while, but she couldn’t bear the film. She wanted to watch something else. Sandeep almost gave it to her on a couple of occasions but stopped her just in time. Even though Sandeep had watched the film so many times, it didn’t get boring. It was a good way to kill time.

A good way to distract himself, as the time bomb continued ticking…


How do you think this episode is going to end? Find out next week, in the last story of this season of Level Up!

I’m currently thinking about what’s next for this story series. Should I start writing more stories within the Level Up series, or start something new. It depends on your feedback. Do let me know by replying to this email & I’ll adjust accordingly.

If you liked this story, hit the 🤍 button at the end of this post.

Thanks for reading :)

Hemant