REP: Focal–Intel’s Meritocracy Machinery

Hello, jobseekers!

It’s the early part of the year, and that means it’s time for the two things that no Intel employee can escape: Focal and taxes. And then to de-stress from these high-impact topics, I’ll tell you about my continuing adventures on Mt. Hood, like I promised last time.

Anyway, back to Focal. You may have heard that Focal is the word that Intel uses for performance reviews, and that is quite true. What you might not know is the gravity attached to this process, that it is the decision time when careers are made and unmade.

Well, maybe that overstates it a bit. What is absolutely true is that almost all promotions and raises come about as a result of the Focal process. At Intel, there’s no “stomp into your boss’ office and get that raise you deserve.” Here, it’s more like “when Focal rolls around, make sure that it’s clear that I deserve this raise.” And what that lacks in drama, it makes up for in predictability and fairness.

The Focal process has several components—“The Three-by-Three”, “360° Feedback” and a simple interview with your manager. The Three-by-Three illustrates your three key contributions over the past year, your three key strengths, and your three areas for development (or improvement, as the case may be). When properly constructed, it is a thorough document that might be better titled “The Many Reasons that Ian is Awesome and the Refinements that will Make Him Awesomer.” (If you so desire, your document doesn’t have to be about me, though.) While you may think you can write blatant untruths in your Three-by-Three, you can’t. Your Three-by-Three is corroborated by your colleagues that you choose to submit 360° Feedback. These folks write a quick paragraph about you and their interactions with you. Finally, you sit down with your manager and chat about the process. Of course, this isn’t the only time the two of you have talked about this; you’ve been in sync on this through your regular 1:1s so that there are no surprises here. After a few months, you’ll get a letter grade and a description of any change in your benefits. That benefits change could be increases in stock, base pay, or any of several important numbers that are used to calculate your substantial Intel bonus.

That’s the Focal process in a nutshell. At its best, it is a communication channel between manager and employee to discuss and reward working habits as well as identify the ways in which we can be better employees. At its worst, it is time-consuming and especially without sufficient communication between manager and employee, can feel confusing and arbitrary. Most importantly, Focal is Intel’s chief mechanism through which the company’s meritocratic culture is translated into feedback and rewards. Good results yield good reviews, which naturally become good rewards. Mediocre results result in a plan for development and improvement. And painful as it might sound, consistently poor results can translate into redeployment to help a struggling individual find his strengths. And at the core, that is Focal at Intel. It rewards the productive and helps everybody to be the best that they can be.

And though Focal accomplishes its goals reasonably well, we wouldn’t be Intel if we weren’t constantly trying to improve all aspects of our all-important processes. In fact, Intel is reducing the footprint of the Focal process by rolling out an all-new lean Focal to certain groups. While I’m not in one of these, I’m hearing strange things about it, like “no 360° Feedback.” Madness! Of course, I like that Intel is willing to improve those processes that have become cumbersome, and am curious about what changes will be rolled out company-wide.

Anyway, that’s enough about Focal. Let me tell you about last Sunday, when I returned to Mount Hood for the sixth time this season. Spoiler alert: it was awesome.

Last you hear from me, I was taking lessons, renting gear, and spending all my time falling down on Buttercup, the easiest run. Now, I’m done with lessons, I’ve got my own gear, and I’m falling down all over the mountain. (Check out the awesome trail map!) It’s nice having my own gear. I had plunked down about four hundred bucks from my glorious Intel paycheck (it’s nice to be out of school :) ) and got a nice board, boots, and bindings setup. I suppose I should clarify the bit about falling down all over the mountain. As I’ve gotten better, I fall down a lot less. However, because I’ve taken to going much, much faster on much more challenging terrain, my falls are less frequent but far more spectacular. Flips, slides, and face plants are pretty common, but I always roll back up and get back on my feet. Needless to say, I’m already glad I got a helmet.

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Oh! And speaking of going faster, I have a great story about this. Toward the end of the day, I was riding the highest lift, Cascade Express, on the mountain with two friends, Arnon and Gabe (both Intel guys). The lift was going to run for fifteen more minutes when we hopped on at the bottom. I was convinced we could do two more runs, but we’d be cutting it pretty close. However, the ride up the lift was delayed by wind, eating up precious minutes just dangling from the rope. By the time we got to the top and I had bound in to my board, Arnon announced that we only had three minutes left and wouldn’t possibly make it down in time for a second run.

I disagreed. Vigorously.

Gabe was sparked by my enthusiasm and he advised that we “do this thing.” I jumped to my feet and the two of us screamed down the slope, dodging slower boarders and carving long, smooth tracks in the snow behind. We lost each other when I caught an edge and ate a face full of snow. I quickly rolled back onto my feet and rejoined the chase. After several tense minutes of high-speed carving, I made it back to the base of the still-operational lift, with Gabe there waiting and checking an imaginary watch. Success! With the last seconds of lift operation, we hopped on for our second run. Mission accomplished. On our ride back up the lift, we saw Arnon the Doubter who was amazed to see us gliding back to the top for one last ride. All in all, it was an excellent day on the mountain.

Oh, and I’m training for one of Portland’s many recreational footraces. But that’s a story for another time :)

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