Being able to reflect on and then explain what you have learned and what you have achieved at work or in school can be as important for career advancement and personal growth as carrying out the work itself– sometimes, even more than the work.
Maintaining a record of what you have worked on and what you have achieved is one of the simplest and most effective ways to make this reflection and communication easier. These Accomplishment Journals, or Brag Books, can help you plan your career and succeed in your current job and the jobs ahead.
This White Paper lays out the “what,” “why” and the “how” of maintaining an effective Accomplishment Journal or Brag Book, and provides templates you can download to start your own. For brevity’s sake, this document will refer to these documents as Accomplishment Journals
If you’re already sold on the idea, jump ahead to the Content of an Accomplishment Journal.
This White Paper was workshopped during a Community Conversations webinar– Sema would like to extend our deep thanks to the participants for their great questions.
What is an Accomplishment Journal / Brag Book
An Accomplishment Journal is a systematic way of keeping track of all of the things you've done.
At minimum Accomplishment Journals should include:
- All of the compliments and kudos you’ve received: from supervisors, from peers, from users, and from other stakeholders.
- Stories about individual moments where you were particularly successful, alone or in a group. Each story becomes a Journal Entry. These moments could include a piece of code you created at work or in an Open Source project, a feature that you and your team carried out, a school assignment, or even significant experiences in a school club or extracurricular activity.
Accomplishment Journals could also include Stories about moments that were not successful but were growthful to you. You may not share these stories on your resume but they are extremely useful for personal growth. The templates include notes on how to carry out the “Expanded” Accomplishment Journal, which includes setbacks as well as victories.
The Expanded Accomplishment Journal should include moments…
- Where you worked very hard, regardless of outcome– that’s where the most learning comes from.
- Where you found yourself getting mad, frustrated or disappointed. A negative emotional reaction is a clear sign that the experience did not meet your expectations– learn from it.
Accomplishment Journals work best when:
- They are updated regularly and frequently– more on what “regularly” means below
- They are a comprehensive repository– you can go to one or two locations and find all Journal Entries and Kudos across work, school and extracurriculars/ hobbies.
Accomplishment Journals are not a resume and not polished. Resumes are a finished product, heavily edited and formatted, and intended to be shared. Resumes can – and should be! – updated based on your Journal as needed. It is likely that you will update your resume 1-2X per year, while an Accomplishment Journal might be updated monthly or even weekly.
An Accomplishment Journal is private to you. You may choose to share parts of all of it with others as part of formal or informal coaching, and you will “mine” the Journal for your resume. But the most important audience is you.
Accomplishment Journals are also focused on your own contributions. Almost everything we do in school, work, and life is due to collaboration and contributions from others. But in an Accomplishment Journal, you need to highlight and specify your own contributions to the story you are telling: such as what you did directly, or how you coached or guided others.
Think of it from an interviewer’s perspective: they need to understand how much of that team's success is due specifically to you (unless they are planning on hiring the whole team– that’s why consultancies put together group level Accomplishment Journals). In that interviewing moment, you need to explain your own contributions: what you did directly as an Individual Contributor and or how you advised, guided, led, or responded to others.
Given the above, an Accomplishment Journal system includes:
- Tooling: Creating a mechanism to store all kudos and Journal entries
- Timing: a regular cadence for adding Journal entries
- Template: a standard format for your Journal entries makes it easier to add as you go– so you can focus on the content, not the structure
- And maybe, Talking: If you are using your Journal for personal growth, find a buddy/ partner to review your Journals together
Why create an Accomplishment Journal
There are three good reasons to create an Accomplishment Journal.
- So you can read, not remember. It is much easier to read something than to try to remember it. Building a resume or preparing for an annual review is much harder when you have to recall all of the things you did over the last 6 or 12 months. By getting into a regular rhythm of creating “raw material” for those documents, the Accomplishment Journal lets you write more detailed, more powerful documents, more easily.
- Stories are more persuasive than data points. In tech we are used to digging into technical details, systems, and structures. Stories– which have a beginning, middle, and end like a novel, or provide context to the reader like a newspaper article– are a much easier way for humans to understand experiences. We’re probably hardwired for this. Journal Entries help turn your experiences into stories, and so you’ll be better equipped to include the most relevant ones in a resume, or talk about them in experiential interviews.
- Accomplishment Journals are a powerful tool in the fight against Impostor Syndrome. We all know about the feeling that maybe we don’t deserve to be here… and most of us have experienced it at one point or another. Just as stories are a good way to explain to others what we have done, so too, Accomplishment Journals can help demonstrate to yourself what you have achieved. It’s harder to look at a list of five, or ten, or twenty of your accomplishments, and kudos from your colleagues, and still believe you don’t belong.
Protip: if you are going to use your Accomplishment Journal as a way to fight Imposter Syndrome, it’s a very good idea to find a buddy to review it with you.
Reason number one, it is likely that they will be supportive and encouraging of you– we are almost always harder on ourselves than another person.
Reason number two, by explaining your experiences, you are convincing yourself. Ever hear the expression: “when you’re talking, you’re persuading yourself”? In this case, talking about your experiences can convince you that you’re further along than you thought.
Applications for an Accomplishment Journal
Uses of the Journal fall into two categories: external, communicating with the world, and internal, learning about yourself. There are five total reasons.
The most common external use of a Journal is updating your resume (#1). Having a good list of things you've achieved makes it much easier to keep your resume fresh and provide stories that readers will find compelling.
A second external use case is annual performance reviews (#2), otherwise known as the Perf process. Journal entries can be used not only for your own advancement but also to help your friends and colleagues when they need references. It is a huge gift to be able to provide specific, detailed moments for your colleagues when they need to make the case for their promotion.
The third external use case is interviewing (#3), especially when experiential interviews are involved.
Experiential interviews are when an interviewer asks you to explain previous moments, or experiences, from your past. What they are looking for is stories that demonstrate success, hard work, or growth… exactly what you are keeping track of in your Journal Entries.
A common experiential interview format is:
Tell me about a time when you worked on something really hard. What made it difficult? What did you do? And what happened as a result?
Being as detailed as possible in Journal Entries, and keeping track of the kudos as external validation of these stories, makes preparing for interviews much easier.
Those are the external uses for an Accomplishment Journal. There are two important internal reasons, too.
One is fighting Impostor Syndrome (#4), as discussed above.
The other is self-exploration and planning your career (#5). Accomplishment Journals are a great tool for interpreting your own journey: for figuring out what you did and didn’t like about your past experiences, looking for patterns of what those moments had in common, and then using that information to seek out life and work experiences that are a better and better match for what matters to you.
The best career advice and planning is extremely idiosyncratic– you are not a demographic category, you are not a cohort, you are one in 7.753 billion (at the moment). There is nothing more useful to your career planning than your own interpretation of what you liked, and didn’t like, and why.
Pro tip: The Expanded Accomplishment Journal, with stories of hard work but less success, and with frustrating moments, are really important if you’re going to use your Accomplishment Journal for self-exploration.
This is about bragging? Yuck.
OK, first the good news.
If building a bragging document sounds unpleasant to you… congratulations. That speaks well of your groundedness and the awareness of how much people working together are responsible for a project’s, team’s, and organization’s success.
Now the bad news.
You’ll need to find a way to keep track of your accomplishments anyway.
An Accomplishment Journal is the best tool you have to provide specific data to make the case for advancement and new jobs.
And it’s one of the best methods you have for personal growth.
So how can you overcome your concerns? Here are a few tips that might work.
- Don’t call it a Brag Book. Accomplishment Journal works just fine, or professional journal, or anything that works for you.
- Imagine the advice you’d give to a friend who was concerned about bragging. Would you tell them that they were being conceited to keep track of what they had accomplished? More likely, you’d share the same arguments here. Imagine giving advice to a friend instead of yourself is a really good hack to make sure you’re being fair to yourself.
- Commit to yourself that you’ll use this for personal growth as well as career advancement- and set aside regular time, alone or with a friend.
The Content of an Accomplishment Journal
Now that we’ve covered the what and the why, let’s talk about the how.
As mentioned above, Accomplishment Journals should include all of the compliments you’ve received, and Journal Entries about each accomplishment. We’ll consider the Kudos Collection first and then turn to two options for how you can structure the Journal Entries: Newspaper Articles and Logic Models. Along the way, we’ll explain the Hierarchy of Success: what data points matter more than others when explaining your accomplishments.
The goal of a consistent structure is to remove the mental energy associated with how you’ll structure your thoughts so you can focus on what to say.
Google templates for the two types of Journal Entries are available here.
Every time you get positive feedback from someone, you should save it in a folder or in a document. Think “single source of truth” for all compliments.
Make sure it covers feedback from all channels- email, Slack, code reviews. If it’s verbal, do your best to transcribe it verbatim and add it to the collection the same day. If it's a virtual meeting, get it transcribed and save it.
Make sure it covers all people you interact with– your boss, your professor, your colleagues, your code reviewers, your mentors, customers, and end users.
And, if you haven’t already, develop a sense of curiosity about the “next level of feedback” and start collecting evidence of that too. Next level of feedback is about what happens after the immediate success of the project or activity.
The feature was shipped on time… great. What happened to user adoption or retention? A refactoring was completed in the first half of the year… What was the impact to the organization in the second half? How happy are users? If you have access to these metrics already, soak them up. If you don’t, ask your manager – they are likely to be delighted to share them with someone who wants to understand the next level of impact.
Pro tip: having a hard day, a hard week? The Kudos Collection is an amazing pick-me-up.
Journal Entry Type 1: Newspaper Article
In the Newspaper Article format for Journal Entries, you should imagine yourself serving as an impartial observer writing up your accomplishment.
The Entry should answer:
- Who was involved? (Team members, clients, stakeholders, managers, etc.)
- What is the problem/situation you were trying to address?
- Did anything make the work particularly hard? Explaining the difficulty level is important because it shows the listener how much work was necessary to achieve the result.
- How did you solve it? What steps did you take, and what steps did others take? Friendly reminder to Devs: it’s not just about the coding! Planning, researching, influencing, negotiating and other core/ “soft” skills can matter as much or more to the success of an effort, do not forget about including these.
- What, specifically, did you do, versus other people involved in the effort? Again, since this is about you, you need to be able to articulate your individual contributions. If project success was due to effective communication or negotiation, you may want to write a mini “transcript” of what you said, how others responded, what you did next, etc. That’s too much detail to include in a resume but makes for a great reminder when prepping for an experiential interview.
- What was the result? More on that in the next section.
Good journalists are able to convey the major points of their story in a “lede,” typically one or two sentences. When you get ready to use this “article” for interviews or a resume, consolidating all of this information into a brief synopsis is hard. But it’s essential– you want the reader or listener to get the gist in a minute or less, before you dive deeper into the details. Practice in your lede as you complete each Entry.
Hierarchy of Results
Whether your Journal Entry method is Newspaper Article-style, as above, or Logic Model-style, coming next, you need to think about explaining your results in the way that matters most to your audience.
With any audience, there will be a Hierarchy of Results– a ranked order of which results will be most persuasive to your audience. You need to capture those.
Let’s start first with the Hierarchy of Results for External audiences.
- Objective reality results are the most important, especially at the organizational level, especially when there’s a comparison. Coding is a craft– there are benefits innate to creating code completely apart from how the code is used. But external audiences will care what happens as a result of your coding: does the number of bugs on a project decrease? Does the number of GitHub stars increase? Those measures are more objective than whether you personally thought the code was well written.
What about “at the organizational level”? This is what happens as a result of your code. Do sales increase, does user retention increase, does customer satisfaction increase? These are all examples of the “next level of feedback.” Being able to put your work in the context of how the organization is better off is a sign that you understand the context of your work and can continue to make decisions that help advance the team’s goals– music to external audiences’ ears.
What about “especially when there’s a comparison”? The easier you can make it for the audience to put your results in context, the better. Let’s use Grade Point Average as an example. If you get a 4.0 (a perfect GPA at many US universities) in your major, and everyone else in your major gets a 4.0, that tells the audience that you did about as well as everyone else. If you get a 3.0, and everyone else in your major gets a 2.8, that shows a positive contrast with other students. Almost always, the second situation is more impressive for you.
- Next in the hierarchy comes subjective opinions of people who have particular weight or influence. This would include bosses, a strong senior engineer who reviewed your code customers, or major stakeholders to the particular accomplishment. Maybe it’s the VP of Product who thought that the delivery of the feature was particularly useful. Try to recall the feedback as specifically as possible–like a transcript.
- Next are subjective opinions of people who have less weight or influence but who were able to observe you closely. It’s situation-specific who’s in this category vs the previous one; but in your gut you probably know.
Pro tip: if you are using your accomplishment journal to prepare for a job interview to become a manager, “people who have particular weight or influence” are your colleagues, direct reports, or others you are mentoring. That’s because how you are perceived by them is a leading indicator of how your next team might view you.
- The least important category for external audiences is your own subjective opinion. Growth-oriented organizations know this matters too, and so they might ask you: what did you learn? How do you think it turned out? Being able to say “I thought I did this well or we did well, but we could do it better next time” is music to interviewers’ ears. But you should do everything you can to put your success in the context of 1, 2, or 3– otherwise the interviewer will have to rely on their subjective assessment of your subjective assessment of your performance, and that is pretty risky for you.
So that was the Hierarchy of Results for External audiences. What about the Hierarchy of Results for the Internal use case, your own growth and development?
Drumroll… it’s the same hierarchy but reversed. From most to least important:
- Your own subjective opinion of how you did
- Subjective opinions of people who have less weight or influence but who were able to observe you closely
- Subjective opinions of people who have particular weight or influence
- Objective reality results
You’ve likely been on projects that were personally satisfying and didn't achieve real-world results. And you’ve probably been on projects that have had great success, but were very unpleasant.
When it comes to planning your career, your experience– and the experience of people who have spent the most time with you and can observe what you did– provide the most helpful direction.
Journal Entry Type 2: Logic Model
The other approach for Journal Entries is a Logic Model.
Logic Models break down situations into four parts.
- What people, tools, and materials were available?
- What work was carried out with these people, tools, and materials?
- Who did what?
- What lower importance results came from these activities?
- What higher importance results came from these activities?
There are a couple of benefits from the Logic Model:
- It’s super clear, for you and any external audiences
- It speaks to the hearts of systems thinkers
- It forces clarity about what really matters by distinguishing outputs and outcomes. Let’s explore that a bit further next.
What’s the difference between lower importance and higher importance results?
Go back to the Hierarchy of Results.
If you have an external audience,
- Outcomes should be the most important objective reality results.
- Outputs can include other, less important objective reality results.
- Outputs can also include subjective opinions of people who have particular weight or influence.
Determining outcomes vs. outputs is an art and science, you’ll get better with time. But a rule of thumb is there should never be more than three Outcomes, and one highly meaningful outcome can be enough. “My app was the #1 app on the Apple store” would be perfectly good as a single outcome– think of how much information the audience can deduce from that single data point.
- 30 members of First team
- Club support staff
- Ewood Park Stadium
- Gym workouts
- Physical therapy
- Diet and other lifestyle choices, healthy and otherwise ;0
- Film review
- 38 English Premier League Matches for the season
- 90 minutes of play, plus injury time
- 57 goals in 2021-22, 1.3 per game
- Some fans called their win over Preston “the best performance of the season”
- 31 appearances
- 70% starting Eleven
- Average of 23 passes per match
- Pass completion rate of 75%
- 0 assists
A few things to note about this:
- Inputs and activities can be very long lists. For purposes of an Accomplishment Journal, you don’t need to list them all… but do think about some of the non-obvious inputs and activities that made the accomplishment more difficult or more successful.
- Notice how short the Outcomes list is. Be sure to be rigorous about only picking a few items, at most three. All of the other results that matter less should go in outputs.
- These two outcomes– one for a person, one for the team– have the benefit of being objective and comparative.
- Rooting for you, the Rovers, and Namibia, Ryan!
Best practices for updating your Accomplishment Journal regularly
Hopefully by now you are persuaded of the value of creating an Accomplishment Journal and of updating it regularly– remember, reading is easier than remembering.
Here are tips to make your Accomplishment Journal a habit.
- Add Accomplishment Journal creation time to your calendar and block it off
- Set up your Accomplishment Journal in a way that is maximally easy for you: pick whatever medium you like best, pick a standard format, and just do it. Any possible format, carried out regularly, is better than a format that you use less often. See below for a few templates that could get you started.
- Add it to a habit tracker.
- Reward yourself for filling it out.
- Find a buddy and set a regular meeting to review it together.
Now let’s talk about how frequently you should be filling out the Accomplishment Journal.
It would not be inappropriate to spend 15 minutes every week filling it out. That has the benefit of codifying things while they are fresh.
But at minimum, you should be adding to the Accomplishment Journal at least 1/12 of each project or accomplishment.
Why 1/12? Working backwards: you are likely going to have 1 or 2 Journal Entries each time you sit down to write. If you write 12 times you’ll have 18 Entries when you are finished with the project. 18 Entries will give you more than enough “source material” to whittle it down to 2-6 bullet points, which is what you’d need for a resume entry or story for an interview.
So if you are in a 3-month boot camp, or in a University class, you should be adding to the Accomplishment Journal every week. If you are aiming for a promotion at work in a year, writing monthly is enough.
Your future self will be extremely pleased with your current self for creating that many entries to work with.
Templates for creating your own Accomplishment Journal
Click here to download Accomplishment Journals templates you can use on your own.
There are Google Sheets and Docs versions of the Newspaper Article and the Logic Model.
Each template includes:
- A commitment guide to help you set a promise to yourself on how often you'll fill it out
- Template for Journal Entries
- Find a buddy and set a regular meeting to review it together.
Conclusion … why did we just write a piece about Accomplishment Journals, anyway?
The team at Sema is passionate about folks in tech building their skills, advancing their careers, and chasing their dreams. And we believe that telling stories about your experiences– with all of the context, specificity, and insight necessary to talk about code properly– is a great way to make that happen.
We’re working on a free tool to help Engineers build their Accomplishment Journals based on code reviews– we call it a Developer Portfolio. You can read more about it here. It works with GitHub for now. If you’d like to try it out, sign up for the waitlist on our website or drop us a line at code reviews at Sema - firstname.lastname@example.org
Please tag us on Twitter if you start experimenting with Accomplishment Journals– we’d love to celebrate your growth and experimentation. https://twitter.com/semasoftware1
We wish you great success and fulfillment ahead.