On Engineers and Influence

(Based on yesterday’s tweetstorm and the ensuing conversation, https://twitter.com/mipsytipsy/status/1029608573217587201)

Let’s talk about influence. As an engineer, how do you get influence? What does influence look like, what is it rooted in, how do you wield it or lose it? How is it different from the power and influence you might have as a manager?[0]

This often comes up in the context of ICs who desperately want to become managers in order to have more access to information and influence over decisions. This is a bad signal, though it’s sadly very common.

When that happens, you need to do some soul-searching. Does your org make space for senior ICs to lead and own decisions? Do you have an IC track that runs parallel to the manager track at least as high as director level? Are they compensated equally? Do youImage result for engineer software meme individual contributorhave a career ladder? Are your decision-making processes mysterious to anyone who isn’t a manager? Don’t assume what’s obvious to you is obvious to others; you have to ask around.

If so, it’s probably their own personal baggage speaking. Maybe they don’t believe you. Maybe they’ve only worked in orgs where managers had all the power. Maybe they’ve even worked in lots of places that said the exact same things as you are saying about how ICs can have great impact, but it was all a lie and now they’re burned. Maybe they aren’t used to feeling powerful for all kinds of reasons.

Regardless, people who want to be managers in order to perpetuate a bad power structure are the last people you want to be managers.[1]

But what does engineering influence look like?  How do your powers manifest?

I am going to avoid discussing the overlapping and interconnected issues of gender, race and class, let’s just acknowledge that it’s much more structurally difficult for some to wield power than for others, ok?

The power to create

Doing is the engineering superpower. We create things with just a laptop and our brain! It’s incredible! We don’t have to constantly convince and cajole and coerce others into building on our behalf, we can just build.

This may seem basic, but it matters. Creation is the ur-power from which all our forms of power flow. Nothing gets built unless we agree to build it (which makes this an ethical issue, too).

Facebook had a poster that said “CODE WINS ARGUMENTS”. Problematic in many ways, absolutely. But how many times have you seen a technical dispute resolved by who wasImage result for code wins arguments facebook willing to do the work? Or “resolved” one way.. then reversed by doing? Doing ends debates. Doing proves theories. Doing is powerful. (And “doing” doesn’t only mean “write code”.)

Furthermore, building software is a creative activity, and doing it at scale is an intensely communal one. As a creative act, we are better builders when we are motivated and inspired and passionate about our work (as compared to say, chopping wood). And as a collaborative act, we do better work when we have high trust and social cohesion.

Engineering ability and judgment, autonomy and sense of purpose, social trust and cooperative behaviors: this is the raw stuff of great engineering. Everybody has a mode or two that they feel most comfortable and authoritative operating from: we can group these roughly into archetypes.

(Examples drawn from some of the stupendously awesome senior engineers I’ve gotten to work with over the years, as well as the ways I loved to fling my weight around as an engineer.)

Archetypes of influence

  • “Doing the work that is desperately hard and desperately needed — and often desperately dull.” SOC2 compliance, backups and restores, terrifying refactors, any auth integration ever: if it’s moving the business forward, they don’t give a shit how dull the work is. If you are this engineer, you have a deep well of respect and gratitude.
  • Debugger of last resort.” Often the engineer who has been there the longest or originally built the system. If you are helpful and cheerful with your history and context, this is a huge asset. (People tend to wildly overestimate this person’s indispensability, actually; please don’t encourage this.)Image result for engineer software meme manager
  • The “expert” archetype is closely related. If you are the deep subject matter expert in some technology component, you have a shit ton of influence over anything that uses or touches that component. (You should stay up on impending changes to retain your edge.)
  • There are people who deliver a bafflingly powerful firehose of sustained output, sometimes making headway on multiple fronts at once. Some work long hours, others just have an unerring instinct for how to maximize impact (this sometimes maps to junior/senior manifestations). Nobody wants to piss off those people. Their consent is critical for … everything. Their participation will often turbo charge a project or pull a foundering effort over the finish line.

Not all influence is rooted in raw technical strength or output.  Just a few of the wide variety of creative/collaborative/interpersonal strengths:

  • Some engineers are infinitely curious, and have a way of consistently sniffing a few steps ahead of the pack. They might seem to be playing around with something pointless, and you want to scold them; then they save your ass from total catastrophe. You learn to value their playing around.
  • Some engineers solve problems socially, by making friends and trading tips and fixes and favors in the industry. Don’t underestimate social debugging, it’s often the quickest path to the right answer.Image result for influence meme
  • Some are dazzlingly lazy and blow your mind with their elegant shortcuts and corners correctly cut.
  • Some are recruiting magnets, and it’s worth paying their salary just for all the people who want to work with them again.
  • Some are skilled at driving consensus among stakeholders.
  • Some are killer explainers and educators and storytellers.
  • Some are the senior engineer everyone silently wants to grow up to be.
  • Some can tell such an inspiring story of tomorrow that everyone will run off to make it so.
  • Some teach by turning code reviews into a pedagogical art form.
  • Some make everyone around them somehow more productive and effective. Some create relentless forward momentum. Some are good at saying no.

And there are a few special wells of power that bear calling out as such.

  • Engineers who have been managers are worth their weight in gold.  They can translate business goals for junior engineers in their native language with impeccable credibility (something managers never really have, esp in junior engineers’ eyes.). They make strong tech leads, they can carve up projects into components that challenge but do not overwhelm each contributor while hitting deadlines.
  • Some engineers are a royal pain in the ass because they questionImage result for engineer software meme individual contributor and challenge every system and hierarchy. But these are sharp, powerful rocks that can polish great teams. Though they do require a strong manager, to channel t
    heir energy towards productive dialogue and improvement and keep them from pissing off the whole team.
  • And let’s not forget engineers who are on call. If you have a healthy on call culture,your ownership over production creates a deep, deep well of power and moral authority — to make demands, drive change, to prioritize. On call should not be a shit salad served up to those who can’t refuse, it should be a badge of honor and seriousness shouldered by every engineer who ships code. (And it should not be miserable or regularly life-impacting.)

… I could go on all day. Engineering is such a powerful role and skill set. It’s definitely worth unpacking where your own influence comes from, and understanding how others perceive your strengths.

Most forms of power boil down to “influence, wielded”.

But just banging out code is not enough. You may have credibility, but having it is not the same as using it. To transform influence into power you have to use it.  And the way you use it is by communicating.

What’s locked up in your head has no impact on the rest of us.  You have to get it out.

You can do this in lots of ways: by writing, in 1x1s, conversations with small groups, openly recruiting allies, convincing someone with explicit authority, broadcasting inImage result for engineer software meme individual contributorpublic, etc.

Because engineering is a creative activity, authoritarian power is actually quite brittle and damaging. The only sustainable forms of power are so-called “soft powers” like influencing and inspiring, which is why good managers use their soft power freely and hard power sparingly/with great reluctance. If your leadership invokes authority on the regular, that’s an antipattern.[2]

If you don’t speak up, you don’t have the right to sit and fume over your lack of influence. And speaking up does mean being vulnerable — and sometimes wrong — in front of other people.

This is not a zero-sum game.

Most of you have far more latent power than you realize or are used to wielding, because you don’t feel powerful or don’t recognize what you do in those terms.

Managers may have hard power and authority, but the real meaty decisions about technical delivery and excellence are more properly made by the engineers closest to them. These belong properly to the doers, in large part because they are the ones who have to support the consequences of these decisions.Image result for engineer software meme individual contributor

Power tends to flow towards managers because they are privy to more information. That makes it important to hire managers who are aware of this and lean against it to push power back to others.

In the same way that submissives have ultimate power in healthy BDSM relationships, engineers actually have the ultimate power in healthy teams. You have the ultimate veto: you can refuse to create.  Demand is high for your skills.  You can usually afford to look for better conditions. Many of you probably should.

And when technical and managerial priorities collide, who wins? Ideally you work together to find the best solution for the business and the people. The teams that feel 🔥on fire🔥 always have tight alignment between the two.

Pick your battles.

One final thought. You can have a lot of say in what gets built and how it gets built, if you cultivate your influence and spend it wisely. But you can’t have a say in everything. It doesn’t work that way.

Think of it like @mcfunley’s famous “innovation tokens”, but for attention and fucks given.
Image result for engineer software meme
The more you use your influence for good outcomes, the more you build up over time, yes … but it’s a precision tool, not background noise. Imagine someone trying to give you a massage by laying down on your whole back instead of pushing their elbow or hand into knots and trigger points. A too-broad target will diffuse your force and limit your potential impact.

Spend your attention tokens wisely.

And once you have influence, don’t forget to use it on behalf of others. Pay attention to those who aren’t being heard, and amplify their voices. Give your time, lend your patronage and credibility, and most of all teach the skills that have made you powerful to others who need them.


P.S. I owe a huge debt to all the awesome senior engineers i’ve gotten to work with.  Mad love to you all.  ❤
Image result for influence meme

  • [0] I successfully answered one (1) of these questions before running out of steam.  Later. 
  • [1] Sheepish confession: this is why I became a manager.
  • [2] It’s also a bad sign if they won’t grant any explicit authority to the people they hold responsible for outcomes. I’m talking about relatively healthy orgs here, not pathological ones where people (often women) are told they don’t need promotions or explicit authority, they should just use their “soft power” — esp when the hard forms of power aligned against with them. That’s setting you up for failure.
  • [3] Some people seem caught off guard by my use of “power” to signal anything other than explicit granted powers by the org. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I find it too depressing and disempowering to think of power as merely granted authority. It doesn’t map to how I experience the world, either. Individual clout is a thing that waxes and wanes and only exists in relation to others’. I’ve seen plenty of weak managers pushed around by strong personalities (which is terrible too).
On Engineers and Influence

3 thoughts on “On Engineers and Influence

  1. Eric M Manuel says:

    Great post. Maybe some people are, on some level, seeking validation rather than power. We spend so much of our lives at work it can feel nice to believe we have a meaningful contribution. I’d love to see a managerial archetype wheel. Spin the wheel, get a random manager, just like real life. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tonyctl says:

    Enjoyed the post! The perspective of someone who has a foot in both the IC and management roles is something I’m interested in because that’s where I’m at in my career right now and the article put words to some of the stuff I’m thinking through now.

    Liked by 1 person

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