Cameron Watters: software engineer & erstwhile engineering manager / director

Honesty Requires a Thick Skin

During my first term at UW, I took an engineering design class. The class mostly consisted of group projects for which we built some kind of structure or device. Each project was worth a substantial portion of our grade.

As one particular group project was wrapping up, we got an interesting email from the professor asking each of us to review our fellow team members' contribution to the project. In order to ensure that we felt the freedom to be completely candid, her email explicitly assured everyone that these evaluations would be used solely to rate the effectiveness of group projects as a learning method and would not be factored into any student's grade.

The formula was fairly simple. Each team was allotted 100 points per member and each of us was to award points to each member based on their contribution. Our group had 4 members, so we were to apportion 400 points. In a healthy group where each member had pulled their weight, each member would get 100 points.

Unfortunately, our group wasn't particularly healthy. Two of us did nearly all of the work while the other two members managed to show up to one team meeting (of 4 or 5) each. We had selected our group based on who we got along with. It turns out, that alone is not an adequate basis for teammate selection.

As luck would have it, the other contributing member and I were sitting next to one another in a computer lab when our professor's email showed up. We had a brief conversation and agreed that we would be completely candid even though we knew it would be unflattering to our teammates. They had let us do all of the work. I think we ended up awarding ourselves 160 points each and awarding each of them 40.

As grades were handed out the following Monday, we were all astonished to discover that two of us had received high marks for the project while the others had received disturbingly low marks. The situation was, to say the least, a bit awkward.

Lessons I learned from that situation:

  1. Directly addressing concerns/issues sooner rather than later can save everyone a lot of grief.
  2. The truth can be difficult. Telling others the truth, no matter how well-intentioned, may make people like you less.
  3. Evaluation is powerful. Be careful how you wield it. No matter what assurances you may be given about how the information is intended to be used, it will actually be used in the manner most useful to the possessor.