Here's a trick that leads to highly engaged engineering teams: Least experienced member of the team speaks first.
We're taking engaged engineering teams as an obvious good here. If you prefer to work in sequestered lone genius mode, this email is not for you. But I urge you to reconsider – you can't outwork a team.
An engaged team feels collaborative. You work together to design solutions and work in tight partnership with product or stakeholders. Your tasks look like "get me across the water" not like "build this exact bridge".
You are valued for your insights and opinions, not just how fast you can churn out valid code.
That means you value others for their insights and opinions. It's turtles all the way down.
You start designing a solution. The experienced person goes first. It sounds about right and everyone goes "yeah sounds good".
No learning happened. No collaboration. No feedback.
Senior is the bottleneck forever. All blind spots were missed. Team stops engaging because why bother. Skills atrophy. Team devolves into yawns.
If you're the senior, you pose a question and shut up. Wait. Sit in uncomfortable silence. Let others step forward and suggest their opinions.
Then you do not judge their opinion. This part is hard. I fail all the time. You don't say "I like that" or "Not quite" or anything judgy at all. You say "Yes and what about <consideration they didn't think of>".
Those guiding questions are how you shape the outcome of your design. How you deploy your insight and reach a solution that works.
You're also allowed to consolidate and summarize. "Okay Jane suggested Blah and John said Foo, what if we used Fo and Bl to make a FoBl. Would that work?"
You know it would. It's important to let the decision come from others. That's how they learn and feel empowered.
Plus, and this is important, the team covered each other's blind spots. Together you know the whole codebase. Like slices of swiss cheese that are full of holes but when stacked on top of each other make sure no hole reaches all the way through.
That's a security metaphor.
If you're the junior, speak up! Don't hold back for fear of looking stupid or sounding foolish. We know you don't know, that's your role! You have to ask.
Going first when you don't know the answer serves multiple roles with many subtle benefits:
- It forces you to think. This is important from a learning perspective because generating an answer is harder than recognizing an answer.
- It creates spaced repetition which is a great learning tool. By periodically retrieving ideas from your mind, you reinforce those lessons and make them stick.
- It's easier to contribute early. Early in a discussion the field is wide open and anything helps. Later on you get into details that take a lot of experience to understand.
- It helps others help you. Knowing where you are helps others explain the things you don't yet understand. Or bring up considerations and details you missed.
The worst outcomes happen when 2 seniors start debating an esoteric technical detail and everyone else in the room thinks "What the hell are they even talking about?" but is too afraid to stop them.
Don't be afraid to start with questions! I love to ask clarifying questions before offering solutions when I'm the junior in the room. That helps the senior people elaborate and share relevant context.
Remember: your junior/senior status is fluid. This isn't about titles. It's about looking at the room and seeing who's the most experienced for this discussion.
And sometimes you might be called upon to Be The Expert. That's when you're the only person with enough experience to have deep insights on the topic.
When that happens you say "It's cold out. Do you want to wear the blue coat or the red coat today?". Give them a curated "choice" 😉
PS: The Senior Engineer Mindset book is 30% off until Monday with code
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Who am I and who do I help? I'm Swizec Teller and I turn coders into engineers with "Raw and honest from the heart!" writing. No bullshit. Real insights into the career and skills of a modern software engineer.
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