Monday, October 25, 2010

Why engineers fail and what makes a great engineer ?

Let's start with what makes great ... Today seen a presentation about Netflix company culture. The presentation told about how the company goes about hiring (and firing) of employees.
I don’t work at Netflix, of course (I work for, but I feel strongly that what makes a great employee and a great engineer is the same regardless of where you work. There are a few things that great engineers always do.

Always do it the right way
One of the challenges of software is to learn how to do it the right way. The right way is different depending upon what you’re working on and who you’re working for.Junior engineers tend to have the most trouble with this, but it does happen with senior-level people too. There’s an “emergency” project, or something that seems so different that it must have its own set of rules. That’s bogus.
Good engineers know that the right way applies to all situations and circumstances. If there’s not enough time to do something the right way, then there’s really not enough time to do it. Don’t make compromises, the quality of your work is what ultimately defines you as an engineer. Make sure that all of the code you write is done the right way 100% of the time. Expect excellence from yourself.

Be willing to suffer
This may sound silly, but good engineers are willing to suffer for their work. Show me a great engineer and I’ll show you someone that has, at various points in his or her career, spent days
trying to figure out a problem.Great engineers relish the challenge of a problem that keeps them up day and night, and knowing that it must be solved.
Not-so-great engineers call for help at the first sign of trouble. They routinely ask for help whenever something goes wrong rather than trying to fix it themselves. Their favorite line is, “can you look at this?” Great engineers first and foremost want to solve the problem on their own. Problem solving is a skill, a skill that great engineers take seriously.
Good engineers become great engineers by suffering. Suffering means not asking for help unless you absolutely cannot handle the task. Asking for help is a sign of defeat, so ring that bell infrequently lest you draw unwanted attention to yourself. Be willing to suffer. Spend time toiling over the problem. That’s how you learn.
I am not saying that you should never ask for help. I am saying that you should try to accomplish the task on your own first, and if you get stuck, then ask for help. Don’t simply ask for help every time without first trying to solve the problem yourself. Chances are, you’ll find that you could have figured it out on your own once you know the answer.

Never stop learning
Any engineer who claims that they don’t need to learn anything new is not someone with whom I’d like to work. In some careers, you can get away without learning anything new for years; technology changes too quickly to not pay attention. Your employer is paying you for your expertise and if that expertise goes stale, you become expendable. In order to be a great engineer you must first admit that you don’t know everything, and then you must seek out more knowledge in every way you can.
Identify someone in your current company or organization from which you can learn and attach yourself to him or her. Ask for advice on complex problems to see how they think. Show them solutions you've come up with and ask for a critique. If you can’t identify anyone in your organization that can serve as a mentor, then either you’re not looking hard enough or you’re at the wrong company. If you can’t grow in your current job then it’s time to look for another.
Read blogs. Attend conferences. Go to developer meetups. Great engineers never stop learning.

Share your knowledge
There are some who believe that their sole value is their knowledge, and by sharing that knowledge they therefore make themselves less valuable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What makes you valuable is not your knowledge, it’s how you make use of your knowledge to create value for your employer. How better to create value from your knowledge than to share it with others?

I’ve interviewed at companies where hording knowledge seemed deeply-rooted at the organizational level. In that type of environment, a fierce competition develops between co-workers, and this opens the door to politics and backstabbing. I don’t want to work in an organization like that. You can’t learn if everyone is keeping information to themselves.
Great engineers want others to know what they know. They aren’t afraid of losing their position because someone else can do the same thing. Great engineers want to see their peers succeed and grow. Organizations rally around people who share information, and as they say in sports, people who make other people on the team better.

Lend a helping hand
Great engineers don’t consider any task to be “beneath” them. Always willing to lend a hand, you can see great engineers helping out junior engineers in between doing their own work. If something has to get done, and no one else is able to do it in time, great engineers volunteer to take on the work. They don’t scoff when asked to help on a project, whether it be small or menial or low-profile. Great engineers are team-focused and therefore are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. Whether that be writing 1,000 lines of code or editing an image, great engineers jump at the chance to help out.

Take your time
Great engineers aren’t born, they are made. They’re made by following the advice in this post and by hard work. If you’re just starting out, there’s still plenty of time to become a great engineer. Patience is key. You don’t become a great engineer over night. For some it may take a couple years, for others it may take ten. There’s no one keeping score. Strong organizations recognize when someone has the potential to be a great engineer and will guide you along. You prove yourself through your work and how you make your team better. Focus and self-discipline go a long way towards becoming a great software engineer.

Discuss now why engineers fail ? This typically begins the conversation about the Peter principleThe Peter principle says that you’ll keep getting promoted until you finally end up in a job that you can’t do. This happens because the higher up in the organizational structure you move, the less your technical skills matter and the more your people skills matter. So whereas you began in a position that played to your strengths, you end up in one that plays to your weakenesses. This is precisely what Berkun found in his study, that designers were failing due to factors outside of their design skills. That is why designers fail. It’s also why software engineers fail.
software engineers, once they rise high enough in the organizational hierarchy, they need to learn how to work within the organizational structure. Oftentimes, that means gaining the
trust of business partners: engineers need to gain the trust of product managers. Gaining the trust of these business partners means being able to successfully negotiate, compromise, and work towards meeting a common goal without alienating people through your actions and speech. This is typically where people falter in their careers.
This year I’ve had to learn how to play the organizational game. I can honestly say it’s been far more challenging than anything I’ve done before. Dealing with people is much more difficult than dealing with technology, that’s for sure. You need to understand what each person responds to in terms of approach. Some people will easily cave when pressure is applied, others need to be convinced through logical argument while another set may require emotional persuasion. And of course, all of this must be done while making sure that all of these people still respect you and don’t feel manipulated.

Fortunately, my interest and research in social interaction has really helped me thusfar. Understanding what drives people and how to communicate effectively have been key to me. If you have aspirations of moving up in your company, then it would behoove you to also start researching these topics. The only way to really get ahead in business is a better understanding of people. Hard skill jobs such as engineers and designers are commodities that can easily be outsourced if necessary; soft skill jobs requiring you to work with and inspire others will always be in high demand and, as a bonus, can never be outsourced. Mastering people skills ensures employability, and more importantly, ensures that you won’t fail.

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