Engineers and other anomalies


In cased you missed it, Nicholas C. Zakas wrote a great post about the care and feeding of engineers and why they’re so grumpy.

If you have worked with engineers, this should either resonate with you, leading you to recognize your past misunderstandings and want to bear-hug engineers tomorrow OR you won’t read the whole thing and pass it off as another passive-aggressive rant from the techno-elite. Seriously, though, please at least read it.

If you are an engineer with some decent experience, you’ll likely grab a box of tissues and nod along like you’re seeing Shawshank Redemption for the umpteenth time. Near the part where he talks about engineers as creators, you’ll get the same feeling you got when Red said, introspectively:

“But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.”

So. Beautiful.

But wait! Put down the tissues. Before you start emailing your non-technical colleagues or tattooing this article on your chest backwards so you can read it in the mirror, there are some points I want to cover:

Mental fatigue and the culture of NO

Adopting NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! as your default response to things usually doesn’t work. Here are situations where it won’t work:

  • When U.S. customs asks you for your passport
  • When your grandma asks you to pass the mashed potatoes
  • When a cop asks you for your driver’s license and registration
  • When your best friend asks you to babysit their dog

Why smart and talented people would adopt this as their default reaction to questions is beyond me. The motivation behind the response is pure — focus on shipping, no time, reluctance to context-switch, etc. — but the reaction is entirely predictable in almost every case:

  • Jail
  • Dad punches you
  • Jail
  • (# of friends you have) – 1

All I’m saying is you get a chance to apply some creativity here. When that doesn’t work, at least apply restraint and say two magic words: “Yes, but…” Still confused? Here are some examples:

  • Yes, but it’s buried in my bag. Just a second, sir.
  • Yes, but my hands are terribly swollen and I have to use the bathroom. Ask Dad.
  • Yes, but my glove compartment is locked. It will take me some time to gather my legal documents.
  • Yes, but my house is getting fumigated and I’m flying to Peru that day.

Take the mental leap and apply it to work situations. If you can’t, your manager should be able to help. If they can’t, quit now.

Stop fixing stuff and take time to celebrate

An engineer’s obsession with creating is a great, wondrous thing. In my experience, it’s not unlike an addiction. It’s almost instinctive for an engineer to stay up late, whittling way at an impossible problem, fighting for that extra inch of performance, elegance or security. They can become immersed in fixing every bug, every issue in their project — but what about the positive parts? Where is there time for celebrating, recognition, reward and reflection?

Nicholas stated it well:

The software is our baby, and we like to care for it as such.

But as with most addictions, there isn’t much room for anything else. That baby can consume you, robbing you of some basic necessities like food, sleep, companionship, paying your taxes, personal hygiene and fashion sense. Bad baby!

I often remind engineers to spend equal time on the positives. In a culture so focused on finding creative ways to solve problems, we forget to recognize some basic things:

  • how much work went into the whole thing (a ton)
  • how much we learned from the project
  • what actually went well (a lot)
  • how cool the final result was

Don’t be selfless and obsessed. It makes you grumpy. Take time to appreciate what you’ve done together with your team (which includes designers, product managers, etc.) and take time to stop worrying about bugs. It’s not just about being positive — it’s about being human and letting yourself feel good about what you did.

Sometimes you’re just an asshole

There are those times where engineers are assholes. Yes, I know this may come as a shock to many, but engineers are also capable of being unjustifiable assholes. Over time, life will help you identify when you’re doing this, but if you need help read The No Asshole Rule by Bob Sutton.

If you’re an engineer and you engage in asshole behavior, it’s not justified by a silent frustration caused by other people. In those cases, it’s way easier to say, “Wow. I was an asshole yesterday and I’m sorry.”

Don’t go down the road of asshole justification. It’s a messy road, filled with bullshit. It’s often public, humiliating, and irreversible. Just say sorry and learn how to get your point across without alienating the people you will need to work with tomorrow. It actually feels great to talk it out with the team, the person you had issues with and regain your footing.

Stop digging a hole, put the shovel down and apologize.

Congrats, you made it this far!

Those were just some side comments to accompany a thorough post by Nicholas. Hopefully it helps and you spent the time to read and understand what I was saying. But if not, well…