The other week I had a particularly disappointing discussion with a potential new hire. I typically describe our engineering organization at Delphix as a bottoms-up meritocracy where smart people seize opportunities to impact the company through through thoughtful execution and data-driven methodology (a.k.a. buzzword bingo gold). In this case, after hours of discussions, I couldn’t shake this engineer’s fixation with understanding how his title would affect his ability to have impact at Delphix. After deciding that it was not a good cultural fit, I spent some time thinking about what defines our engineering culture and what exactly it was that I felt was such a mismatch. Rather than writing some pseudo-recruiting material extolling the virtues of Delphix, I thought I’d take a cue from Bryan’s presentation on corporate open source anti-patterns (video) and instead look at some engineering cultural anti-patterns that I’ve encountered in the past. What follows is a random collection of cultural engineering pathologies that I’ve observed in the past and have worked to eschew at Delphix.
This engineer believes his responsibility is to think up new ideas, while others actually execute those ideas. While there are certainly execution-oriented engineers with an architect title out there that do great work, at Delphix we intentionally don’t have such a title because it can send the wrong message: that “architecting” is somehow separate from executing, and permission to architect is something to be given as a reward. The hardest part of engineering comes through execution – plotting an achievable path through a maze of code and possible deliverables while maintaining a deep understanding of the customer problem and constraints of the system. It’s important to have people who can think big, deeply understand customer needs, and build complex architectures, but without a tangible connection to the code and engineering execution those ideas are rarely actionable.
Often coinciding with “The Thinker”, this engineer would rather talk in perpetuity rather than sit down and do actual work. Talkers will give plenty of excuses about why they can’t get something done, but the majority of the time those problems could be solved simply by standing up and doing things themselves. Even more annoying is their penchant for refusing to concede any argument, resulting in orders of magnitude more verbiage with each ensuing email, despite attempts to bring the discussion to a close. In the worst case the talker will provide tacit agreement publicly but fume privately for inordinate amounts of time. In many cases the sum total of time spent talking about the problem exceeds the time it would take to simply fix the underlying issue.
This engineer believes that titles are granted to individuals in order to expand her influence in the company; that being a Senior Staff Engineer enables her to do something that cannot be accomplished as a Staff Engineer. Titles should be a reflection of the impact already achieved through hard work, not a license granted by a benevolent management. When someone is promoted, the reasons should be obvious to the organization as a whole, not a stroke of luck or the result of clever political maneuvering. Leadership is something earned by gaining the respect of your peers through execution, and people who would use their title to make up for a lack of execution and respect of their peers can do an incredible amount of damage within an enabling culture.
This engineer believes that the path to greater impact in the organization is through “owning” ideas and swaths of technology. While ownership of execution is key to any successful engineering organization (clear responsibility and accountability are a necessity), ownership of ideas is toxic. This can lead to passive-aggressive counter-productive acts by senior engineering, and an environment where junior engineers struggle to get their ideas heard. The owner rarely takes code review comments well, bullies colleagues that encroach on her territory, and generally holds parts of the product hostage to her tirades. Metastasized in middle management, this leads to ever growing fiefdoms where technical decisions are made for entirely wrong organizational reasons. Ideas and innovation come from everywhere, and while different parts of the organization are better suited to execution of large projects based on their area of expertise, no one should be forbidden from articulating their ideas due to arbitrary assignment.
Also known as “the specialist”, this engineer defines his role in the most narrow fashion possible, creating an ivory tower limited by his skill set and attitude. Good engineers seize a hard problem and drive it to completion, even when that problem pushes them well beyond their comfort zone. The recluse, however, will use any excuse to make something someone else’s problem. Even when the problem falls within his limited domain, he will solve only the smallest portion of the problem, preferring to file a bug to have someone else finish the overall work. When confronted on architectural issues, he will often agree to do it your way, but then does it his way anyway. Months later it can turn out he never understood what you had said in the first place or discussed it in the interim, and by then it’s too late to undo the damage done.
All of us have the potential for these anti-patterns in us. It’s only through regular introspection and frank discussions with colleagues that we can hope to have enough self awareness to avoid going down these paths. Most importantly, we all need to work to create a strong engineering culture where it is impossible for these pathologies to thrive. Once these pathologies become a fixture in a culture, they breed similar mentalities as the organization grows and can be impossible to eradicate at scale.