Senior Engineering: Open The Door, Move Away

As part of my change of bubble this year, I officially gained the title of “Senior” Engineer. Which made me take the whole “seniority” aspect of the job with more seriousness than I did before. Not because I’m aiming at running up the ladder of seniority, but because I feel it’s part of the due diligence of my job.

I have had very good examples in front of me for most of my career — and a few not great ones, if I am to be honest. And so I’ve been trying to formulate my own take of a senior engineer based on these. You may have noticed me talking about adjacent topics in my “work philosophy” tag. I also have been comparing this in my head with my contributions to Free Software, and in particular to Gentoo Linux.

I have retired from Gentoo Linux a few years ago, but realistically, I’ve stopped being actively involved in 2013, after joining the previous bubble. Part of it was a problem with contributing, part of it was a lack of time, and part of it was having the feeling that something was off. I start to feel I have a better impression now of what it is, and it relates to that seniority that I’m reflecting on.

You see, I worked on Gentoo Linux a little longer than I worked at the previous bubble, and as such I could say that I became a “senior developer” by tenure, but I didn’t really gain the insight to become a “senior developer” in deeds, and this is haunting me because I feel it was a wasted opportunity, despite the fact that it taught me many of the things that I needed to be even barely successful in my current job.

It Begins Early

My best guess is that I started working on Gentoo Linux when I was fairly young and with pretty much no social experience. Which combined with the less-than-perfect work environment of the project, had me develop a number of bad habits that took a very long time to grow out of. That is not to say that age by itself is a significant factor in this — I still resent the remark from one of the other developers that not having kids would make me a worse lead. But I do think that if I didn’t grow up to stay by myself in my own world, maybe I would have been able to do a better job.

I know people my age and younger that became very effective leaders years ago — they’ve got the charisma and the energy to get people on board, and to have them all work for a common goal in their own way. I don’t feel like I ever managed that, and I think it’s because for the longest time, the only person who I had to convince to do something was… myself.

I grew up quite lonely — in elementary school, while I can stay I did have one friend, I didn’t really join other kids It’s a bit of a stereotype for the lonely geek, but I have been made fun since early on about my passion for computers, and for my dislike of soccer – I feel a psychiatrist would have a field day to figure out that and the relationship with my father – and I failed at going to church and Sunday school, which ones the only out-of-school mingling for most of the folks around.

Nearly thirty years later I can tell you that the individualism that I got out of this, while having given me a few headstarts in life when it comes to technical knowledge, it held me back long term on the people skill needed to herd the cats and multiply my impact. It’s not by chance that I wrote about teamwork and, without using the word, individualism.

Aside: I’m Jealous of Kids These Days

As an unrelated aside, this may be the reason why I don’t have such a negative view of social networks in general. It was something I was actually asked when I switched jobs, on what my impression of the current situation is… and my point rolls back to that: when I was growing up we didn’t have social networks, Internet was a luxury, and while, I guess, BBSes were already a thing, they would still have been too expensive for me to access. So it took me until I managed to get an Internet connection and discover Usenet.

I know there’s a long list of issues with all kind of social networks: privacy, polarisation, fake news, … But at the same time I’m glad that it makes it much more approachable for kids nowadays, who don’t fit with the crowd in their geographical proximity, to reach out to friendlier bunches. Of course it’s a double-edged sword as it also allows for bullies to bully more effectively… but I think that’s much more of a society-at-large problem.

The Environment Matters

Whether we’re talking about FLOSS projects, or different teams at work, the environment around an individual matter. That’s because the people around them will provide influence, both positive and negative. In my case, with hindsight, I feel I hanged around the wrong folks too long, in Gentoo Linux, and later on.

While a number of people I met on the project have exerted, again with hindsight, a good, positive influence in my way of approaching the world, I also can tell you now that there’s some “go-to behaviours” that go the wrong way. In particular, while I’ve always tended to be sarcastic and an iconoclast, I can tell you that in my tenure as a Gentoo Linux developer I crossed the line from “snarky” to “nasty” a lot of times.

And having learnt to avoid that, and keeping in check how close to that line I get, I also know that it is something connected to the environment around me. In my previous bubble, I once begged my director to let me change team despite having spent less than the two years I was expected to be on it. The reason? I caught myself becoming more and more snarky, getting close to that line. It wouldn’t have served either me or the company for me to stay in that environment.

Was it a problem with the team as a whole? Maybe, or maybe I just couldn’t fit into it. Or maybe it was a single individual that fouled the mood for many others. Donnie’s talk does not apply only to FLOSS projects, and The No Asshole Rule is still as relevant a book as ever in 2020. Just like in certain projects, I have seen teams in which certain areas were explicitly walked away from by the majority of the engineers, just to avoid having to deal with one or two people.

Another emergent behaviour with this is the “chosen intermediate person” — which is a dysfunction I have seen in multiple projects, and teams. When a limited subset of team members are used to “relate” to another individual either within, or outside, the team. I have been that individual in the first year of high school, with the chemistry teacher — we complained loudly about her being a bad teacher, but now I can say that she was probably a bigger expert in her field than most of the other chemistry teachers in the school, but she was terrible with people. Since I was just as bad, it seemed like I was the best interface with her, and when the class needed her approval to go on a fieldtrip, I was “volunteered” to be the person going.

I’ll get back later on a few more reasons why tolerating “brilliant but difficult to work with” people in a project or team is further unhealthy, but I want to make a few more points here, because this can be a contentious topic due to cultural differences. I have worked with a number of engineers in the past that would be described as assholes by some, and grumpy by others.

In general, I think it’s worth giving a benefit of the doubt to people, at first — but make sure that they are aware of it! Holding people to standards they are not aware of, and have no way to course-correct around, is not fair and will stir further trouble. And while some level of civility can be assumed, in my experience projects and teams that are heavily anglophones, tend to assume a lot more commonality in expectation than it’s fair to.

Stop Having Heroes

One of the widely known shorthands at the old bubble was “no heroes” — a reference to a slide deck from one of the senior engineers in my org on the importance of not relying on “heroes” looking after a service, a job, or a process. Individuals that will step in at any time of day and night to solve an issue, and demonstrate how they are indispensable for the service to run. The talk is significantly more nuanced than my summary right now, so take my words with a grain of salt of course.

While the talk is good, I have noticed a little too often the shorthand used to just tell people to stop doing what they think is the right thing, and leave rakes all around the place. So I have some additional nuances for it of my own, starting with the fact that I find it a very bad sign when a manager uses the shorthand with their own reports — that’s because one of my managers did exactly that, and I know that it doesn’t help. Calling up “no heroes” practice between engineers is generally fair game, and if you call up on your own contributions, that’s awesome, too! «This is the last time I’m fixing this, if nobody else prioritizes this, no heroes!»

On the other hand, when it’s my manager telling me to stop doing something and “let it break”, well… how does that help anyone? Yes, it’s in the best interest of the engineer (and possibly the company) for them not to be the hero that steps in, but why is this happening? Is the team relying on this heroism? Is the company relying on it? What’s the long-term plan to deal with that? Those are all questions that the manager should at least ask, rather than just tell the engineer to stop doing what they are doing!

I’ve been “the hero” a few times, both at work and in Gentoo Linux. It’s something I always have been ambivalent about. From one side, it feels good to be able to go and fix stuff yourself. From the other hand, it’s exhausting to feel like the one person holding up the whole fort. So yes, I totally agree that we shouldn’t have heroes holding up the fort. But since it still happens, it can’t be left just up to an individual to remember to step back at the right moment to avoid becoming a hero.

In Gentoo Linux, I feel the reason why we ended up with so many heroes was the lack of coordination between teams, and the lack of general integration — the individualism all over again. And it reminds me of a post from a former colleague about Debian, because some of the issues (very little mandated common process, too many different ways to do the same things) are the kind of “me before team” approaches that drive me up the wall, honestly.

As for my previous bubble, I think the answer I’m going to give is that the performance review project as I remember it (hopefully it changed in the meantime) should be held responsible for most of it, because of just a few words: go-to person. When looking at performance review as a checklist (which you’re told not to, but clearly a lot of people do), at least for my role, many of the levels included “being the go-to person”. Not a go-to person. Not a “subject matter expert” (which seems to be the preferred wording in my current bubble). But the go-to person.

From being the go-to person, to being the hero, and build up a cult of personality, the steps are not that far. And this is true in the workplace as well as in FLOSS projects — just think, and you probably can figure out a few projects that became synonymous with their maintainers, or authors.

Get Out of The Way

What I feel Gentoo Linux taught me, and in particular leaving Gentoo Linux taught me, is that the correct thing for a senior engineer to do is to know when to bow out. Or move onto a different project. Or maybe it’s not Gentoo Linux that taught me that.

But in general, I still think this is the most important lesson is to know how to open the door and get out of the way. And I mean it, that both parts are needed. It’s not just a matter of moving on when you feel like you’ve done your part — you need to be able to also open the door (and make sure it stays open) for the others to pass through it, as well. That means planning to get out of the way, not just disappearing.

This is something that I didn’t really do well when I left Gentoo Linux. I While I eventually did get out of the way, I didn’t really fully open the door. I started, and I’m proud of that, but I think I should have done this better. The blogs documenting how the Tinderbox worked, as well as the notes I left about things like the USE-based Ruby interpreter selection, seems to have been useful to have others pick up where i left… but not in a very seamless way.

I think I did this better when I left the previous bubble, by making sure all of the stuff I was working on had breadcrumbs for the next person to pick up. I have to say it did make me warm inside to receive a tweet, months after leaving, from a colleague announcing that the long-running deprecation project I’ve worked on was finally completed.

It’s not an easy task. I know a number of senior engineers who can’t give up their one project — I’ve been that person before, although as I said I haven’t really considered myself a “senior” engineer before. Part of it is wanting to be able to keep the project working exactly like I want it to, and part of it is feeling attached to the project and wanting to be the person grabbing the praise for it. But I have been letting go as much as I could of these in the past few years.

Indeed, while some projects thrive under benevolent dictators for life, teams at work don’t tend to work quite as well. Those dictators become gatekeepers, and the projects can end up stagnating. Why does this happen more at work than in FLOSS? I can only venture a guess: FLOSS is a matter of personal pride — and you can “show off” having worked on someone else’s project at any time, even though it might be more interesting to “fully make the project one’s own”. On the other hand, if you’re working at a big company, you may optimise working on projects where you can “own the impact” for the time you bring this up to performance review.

The Loadbearing Engineer

When senior engineers don’t move away after opening the door, they may become “loadbearing” — they may be the only person knowing how something works. Maybe not willingly, but someone will go “I don’t know, ask $them” whenever a question about a specific system comes by.

There’s also the risk that they may want to become loadbearing, to become irreplaceable, to build up job security. They may decide not to document the way certain process runs, the reason why certain decisions were made, or the requirements of certain interfaces. If you happen to want to do something without involving them, they’ll be waiting for you to fail, or maybe they’ll manage to stop you from breaking an important assumption in the system at the last moment. This is clearly unhealthy for the company, or project, and risky for the person involved, if they are found to not be quite as indispensable.

There’s plenty of already written on the topic of bus factor, which is what this fits into. My personal take on this is to make sure that those who become “loadbearing engineers” are made sure to be taking at least one long vacation a year. Make sure that they are unreachable unless something goes very wrong, as in, business destroying wrong. And make sure that they don’t just happen to mark themselves out of office, but still glued to their work phone and computer. And yes, I’m talking about what I did to myself a couple of times over my tenure at the previous bubble.

That is, more or less, what I did by leaving Gentoo as well — I’ve been holding the QA fort so long, that it was a given that no matter what was wrong, Flameeyes was there to save the day. But no, eventually I wasn’t, and someone else had to go and build a better, scalable alternative.

Some of This Applies to Projects, Too

I don’t mean it as “some of the issues with engineers apply to developers”. That’s a given. I mean that some of the problems happen to apply to the projects themselves.

Projects can become the de-facto sole choice for something, leaving every improvement behind, because nobody can approach them. But if something happens, and they are not updated further, it might just give it enough of a push that they can get replaced. This has happened to many FLOSS projects in the past, and it’s usually a symptom of a mostly healthy ecosystem.

We have seen how XFree86 becoming stale lead to Xorg being fired up, which in turn brought us a significant number of improvements, from the splitting apart of the big monolith, to XCB, to compositors, to Wayland. Apache OpenOffice is pretty much untouched for a long time, but that gave us LibreOffice. GCC having refused plugins for long enough put more wood behind Clang.

I know that not everybody would agree that the hardest problems in software engineering are people problems, but I honestly have that feeling at this point.

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