Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Software engineers are not (and should not be) technicians

Software engineers are not (and should not be) technicians

I don’t actually think predictability is a good thing in software engineering. This will probably come as a surprise to some people (especially managers), but I’ll explain what I mean.

In my view, a great software engineer is one who automates repetitive/manual labor. You would think that this is a pretty low bar to clear, right? Isn’t automation of repetitive tasks … like … programming 101? Wouldn’t most software engineers be great engineers according to my criterion?


I would argue that most large software engineering organizations incentivize anti-automation and it’s primarily because of their penchant for predictability, especially predictable estimates and predictable work. The reason this happens is that predictable work is work that could have been automated but was not automated.


I’ll give a concrete example of predictable work from my last job. Early on we had a dedicated developer for maintaining our web API. Every time some other team added a new gRPC API endpoint to an internal service this developer was tasked with exposing that same information via an HTTP API. This was a fairly routine job but it still required time and thought on their part.

Initially managers liked the fact that this developer could estimate reliably (because the work was well-understood) and this developer liked the fact that they didn’t have to leave their comfort zone. But it wasn’t great for the business! This person frequently became a bottleneck for releasing new features because they had inserted their own manual labor as a necessary step in the development pipeline. They made the case that management should hire more such developers like themselves to handle increased demand for their work.

Our team pushed back on this because we recognized that this developer’s work was so predictable that it could be completely automated. We made the case to management that rather than hiring another person to do the same work we should be automating more and it’s a good thing we did; that developer soon left the company and instead of hiring to replace them we automated away their job instead. We wrote some code to automatically generate an HTTP API from the corresponding gRPC API1 and that generated much more value for the business than hiring a new developer.

Technicians vs Engineers

I like to use the term “technician” to describe a developer who (A) does work that is well-understood and (B) doesn’t need to leave their comfort zone very often. Obviously there is not a bright line dividing engineers from technicians, but generally speaking the more predictable and routine a developer’s job the more they tend to slide into becoming a technician. In the above example, I viewed the developer maintaining the web API as more of a technician than an engineer.

In contrast, the more someone leans into being an engineer the more unpredictable their work gets (along with their estimates). If you’re consistently automating things then all of the predictable work slowly dries up and all that’s left is unpredictable work. The nature of a software engineer’s job is that they are tackling increasingly challenging and ambitious tasks as they progressively automate more.

I believe that most tech companies should not bias towards predictability and should avoid hiring/cultivating technicians. The reason that tech companies command outsized valuations is because of automation. Leaning into predictability and well-understood work inadvertently incentivizes manual labor instead of automation. This isn’t obvious to a lot of tech companies because they assume any work involving code is necessarily automation but that’s not always the case2. Tech companies that fail to recognize this end up over-hiring and wondering why less work is getting done with more people.

Or to put it another way: I actually view it as a red flag if an engineer or team gets into a predictable “flow” because it means that there is a promising opportunity for automation they’re ignoring.

  1. Nowadays there are off-the-shelf tools to do this like grpc-gateway but this wasn’t available to us at the time.↩︎

  2. … or even usually the case; I’m personally very cynical about the engineering effectiveness of most tech companies.↩︎

Wednesday, July 3, 2024

Quality and productivity are not necessarily mutually exclusive

Quality and productivity are not necessarily mutually exclusive

One of my pet peeves is when people pit quality and productivity against each other in engineering management discussions because I don’t always view them as competing priorities.

And I don’t just mean that quality improves productivity in the long run by avoiding tech debt. I’m actually saying that a focus on quality can immediately boost delivery speed for the task at hand.

In my experience there are two primary ways that attention to quality helps engineers ship and deliver more features on shorter timescales:

  • Mindfulness of quality counteracts tunnel vision

    By “tunnel vision” I mean the tendency of engineers to focus too much on their initial approach to solving a problem, to the point where they miss other (drastically) simpler solutions to the same problem. When an engineer periodically steps back and holistically evaluates the quality of what they’re building they’re more likely to notice a simpler solution to the same problem.

  • Prioritizing quality improves morale

    Many engineers deeply desire being masters at their craft, and the morale boost of doing a quality job can sharply increase their productivity, too. Conversely, if you pressure an engineer to cut corners and ship at all costs you might decrease the scope of the project but you also might tank their productivity even more and wipe out any gains from cutting scope.

HOWEVER, (and this is a big caveat) the above points do not always apply, which is why I say that a focus on quality only sometimes improves productivity. In other words, part of the art/intuition of being a manager is recognizing the situations where quality supports productivity.

For example, not every engineer cares about doing a quality job or honing their craft (for some people it’s just a job) and if you ask these kinds of engineers to prioritize quality they’re not going to get the morale/productivity boost that a more passionate engineer might get. Like, it could still be the right decision to prioritize quality, but now it’s no longer an obvious decision.

Similarly, not every engineer will benefit from stepping back and thinking longer about the problem at hand because some engineers are enamored with complexity and aren't as good at identifying radically simpler solutions (although I will say that valuing simplicity is a great thing to cultivate in all of your engineers even if they’re not good at it initially). As a manager you have to recognize which engineers will move faster when given this extra breathing room and which ones won’t.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing this post is to counteract the mindset that quality and productivity are competing priorities because this mentality causes people to turn off their brains and miss the numerous opportunities where quality actually supports productivity (even in the very short term).