Tricks for dealing with “reviewer’s block”, for the beginner engineer

Tricks for dealing with “reviewer’s block”, for the beginner engineer
Photo by Tim Gouw / Unsplash

Similar to writer's block, that authors experience, early on as an engineer I struggled with ‘reviewer block’ i.e. having a hard time providing valuable feedback when reviewing an engineering design. Here are some tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that proved valuable.

Build it

I start with internalizing the problem that the author is trying to solve. Without going deep into the problem space, a well-presented solution may seem reasonable but not effective. Once I get a good-enough understanding, I mentally try to design it before reviewing the proposed solution. I then compare it to the author’s solution. Now comparing and contrasting these approaches gets the ideas flowing. Thinking about the pros and cons of these solutions provides a means to suggest feedback.

Break it

The second strategy is approaching the author’s design with - how would I “break it” mindset, meaning what are some aspects of the design that make it vulnerable. For example - what about an increase in traffic or growing data, is it vulnerable to security attacks, is it a maintainable system or is the data model designed for easy expansion, etc. I then turn these around into constructive suggestions to strengthen the proposed design.

Take notes and refit it

Picking up on patterns from past design reviews and maintaining a log of observations of others’ suggestions have come in very handy. Borrowing from previous designs, I explore re-fitting them into this scenario. It was quite surprising to find that many solutions are variations of existing patterns. For example - for a data migration design, can I re-fit an already available nearline system and walk away with some minimal customization instead of designing from scratch. Refitting to existing patterns or well-understood technologies helps in many ways. The framework provides common touchpoints for faster adoption, troubleshooting, and enhancements.

If you ever hit “reviewer’s block” try these tricks and share some of your own. I’m always looking to learn!

Huge thanks to Bef Ayenew for reviewing and providing feedback. Shout out to my team mates for the opportunity to present these tricks during the team lunch-and-learn sessions.

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Jamie Larson