There’s something of a mythology in the developer community around high performing employees who are seemingly able to output much more work than anyone else is in the same amount of time. The concept isn’t strictly limited to software development either as I’m sure anyone from any industry can regale you of a tale of someone who did the work of multiple people, whether through sheer intelligence or dedication to getting the job done. Whilst I have the utmost respect for people with this kind of capability I’ve recognised a disturbing trend among projects who contain people like this and, to the betterment of the wider world, I believe we have to stop seeking these mythical people out in order to exploit their talents for our own ends.
Long time readers might remember a post I wrote a couple years ago about how I tanked my university project due to my lack of any project management skills. A big part of this was my failure to recognise the fact that I had a 10x worker on my hands, someone who was able to do the vast majority of the work on the project without aid from anyone else. In the short term it was a great boon to the project, we made fast progress and we all felt like we were getting somewhere with the idea. However it didn’t take long for all the additional work that 10x person was doing to turn into a dependency, something which the whole team was relying on. My failure to recognise this (and to pitch in myself) was what led to the inevitable demise of that project but I’ve since learned that this is not an uncommon occurrence.
Typically the situation develops from the best of intentions with a high performing employee put on a task or project that’s in need of some immediate attention. For them it’s not too much trouble to solve and the short time frame in which it’s achieved means that they quickly establish themselves as someone that can get stuff done. What happens next depends on the person as once that reputation is established the stream of requests will only intensify. From what I can tell it goes one of two ways: either the 10x in question sets a hard limit (and sticks to it) or they continue to take everything on board, right up until breaking point.
For the former it’s not too much of a problem and indeed would go a long way to highlighting resourcing issues with a project. I firmly believe that whilst the occasional bouts of additional hours aren’t too detrimental long, sustained periods eventually lead to burnout and loss of productivity. So setting limits on how much work you do and staunchly refusing to take on additional tasks shows where additional resources need to be placed. This also requires you to be comfortable with things you’re personally involved with failing on occasion, something which a lot of people find hard to do.
Indeed the latter kind of 10x-er can’t let things fail, especially for anything that they’ve had direct input with. For tasks on the critical path this can be to the project’s benefit as you can rely on the fact that it will get completed no matter what else happens. However as more and more people start to go to this 10x person for help the breadth of things they’re involved with, and thus feel responsible for, broadens to the point where almost anything is within their purview. Thus a terrible feedback loop is established, one whereby they become critical to everything and feel compelled to continue working. This continues until they burn out or some forcible action is taken.
Whilst this is a two sided problem I do feel that we, as the regular workers of the world, can do a lot to ensure such people aren’t destroyed by the burden that we place on them. It can be so easy to fob a task off onto someone, especially when you know they’ll do it quicker and better than you could, however if you know that person is similarly being burdened by multiple other people it may be better for you to learn how to do that task yourself. Then hopefully that 10x worker can continue operating at that capacity without approaching those dangerous levels where burnout becomes all too common.
Engineers are special people when it comes to normal everyday things in life. Pretty much anything that’s brought before them is instantly seen as a system that can be worked out or a problem that can be solved. Everything from relationships to politics to anything that needs to be installed or can be modified you can guarantee that your engineering pal will dive in head first and try to work out how they can complete something even if it doesn’t need to be done. Last weekend I realised that this was more true than ever when it comes to everything in my life.
The first part of my weekend was spent fumbling around with the Aion client trying to get it working on Windows 7. I had read numerous posts that said people had got it working so I thought that if there was at least one other person out there I could get it going. After my first attempt I ran into the error 114 issue which told me to turn off my firewall. Funnily enough I had already done that but after a while of fiddling around I managed to change the error I was getting to the error 170 problem, which had me deleting the folder. It seemed every time I tried something different I would get one or more of these errors and that’s when I resided to reinstall vista so I could play the darn thing. I wasn’t going to get stuck in a sunk cost fallacy for a game I could only play for the weekend.
After gleefully playing through the first few hours of Aion I was greeted by my beautiful fiancee who looked like she’d just got in trouble for something. Cautiously I asked what the problem was and the reply was something I wasn’t really expecting:
I broke the toilet.
We’ve had problems with our loo before and I knew that the last solution I had was a hack job involving some cable ties and a little hope and I thought that it had just all come apart. The first thing I do is rush in there and rip the top of the cistern to see what could be done. Unfortunately my first inspection showed that I’d have to replace the whole mechanism, as a critical part had completely snapped.
Que a trip to our local hardware supply store where I seek out the parts I need. I was hoping that I could just replace the flushing bits inside the cistern but as it turns out it’s cheaper buy a whole new one (thank you throw away society). So what I thought was an hour or so job turned out to be 4 hours of grunting, pulling and leaking taps and fittings. This wasn’t my first foray into plumbing either, as I had similar “fun” installing our dishwasher. In the end I managed to chase away all the leaks and get our new cistern working, but it got me thinking: why did I even attempt to do this in the first place?
I guess the first part is simple male pride. Whilst I’m a big believer in that a professional is always worth the money when you can’t do something yourself if I think I’m even slightly capable of completing a task I’ll have a crack at it myself first. This has lead to a few times when I’ve tried, failed and then called a professional to come in. I don’t usually admit that I tried to do something first, but I’m sure they knew. Especially considering I’m a big fan of duct tape and cable ties. 😉
The second part I believe comes down to the analytical ideals that are drilled into engineers from the first day they step into university: if a problem is too big break it down into smaller tasks until they can be completed (usually by a single person). I remember many of my university assignments and projects were given to us right at the start of the semester, long before we had been taught the skills needed to solve them. Our lecturers did this so that we’d begin to look at the problem from day one and identify what we could and could not do and work out strategies to tackle them. Once you get into the habit of breaking problems down into their simplest forms it becomes hard not to apply it everywhere else. This is becomes especially true with things that are in essence just abstract representations of whatever engineering discipline you studied (pipes and water flows are used extensively as an analogies when introducing budding engineers to electronics).
This is what constitutes the engineers folly; the idea that everything is merely a system of inputs and outputs that can be solved if broken down far enough. We engineers are passionate about problem solving and it is that which drives us to do things that most times would be better left to the professionals. Sometimes people mistake this for us being arrogant because we say something is simple, but that’s far from the point. It just looks simple to us since we’ve broken it down into 1000 simple pieces.
I’d better stop here before I get stuck in a recursion loop looking at myself.
(For a bit of fun type recursion into Google, it seems the engineers there have a sense of humour :D)
Take anyone from your IT department and have a look at their job title. About 90% of the time there will be at least one person who has the title word engineer thrown in there, usually at the end (Network Engineer or Systems Engineer). Now to someone like myself who is an actual engineer this is a bit of a poke in the face, but the IT industry seems to get off scott free when it comes to abusing registered titles something which gets my and many other engineer’s guards up. We put a lot of work into becoming the people we are and having our title watered down by those who don’t care to look up and recognise its importance is a sore spot for us all.
I first came across this when I started studying engineering. I gleefully called myself an engineer in front of my father (a radio and telecommunications engineer himself) and was instantly met with scorn. He then took me through the history of what the engineer title was, and why calling myself one prematurely was unprofessional. I took this under my hat and didn’t mention again until I graduated. It was a very proud day for me since I knew the weight that my new title would carry when I began my first tenuous steps into the professional world. Needless to say I got a bit of a rude shock.
It’s hard for me to pin down where this whole debacle started, since the IT industry is pretty lax when it comes to defining roles with a standard nomenclature. I can identify with the notion that when you’re recruiting for a position you would want someone with engineer like qualities (which are pretty much standard for most positions within the IT industry) however giving the engineer title to a position is a slap in the face to those of us who have pursued a career in the field of engineering. I guess I should be pointing the finger at recruitment agencies and HR departments, since they’re the ones who are responsible for actually assigning names to roles (and would explain the lack of understanding of what an engineer is).
It may seem like a minor point to get upset about but just imagine the same thing being pulled with the Doctor or Architect titles (shamefully the IT industry has diluted the meaning of Architect as well). The title is supposed to carry with it a sense about the person who carries it, and having people use it so broadly only detracts from its purpose. If anything it shows that we’re capable of putting up with University for 4 years.
I guess it’s the bitter engineer coming out of me again but I do feel a great deal of respect for those of us who have gone through the hoops in order to call ourselves engineers. We form a select group of people who are expertly skilled and I dont like to see the engineer title diluted by those who don’t cut the mustard.
Many moons ago I graduated from the University of Canberra as a Bachelor in Engineering in Computer Engineering. If you’re brave enough to click that link you’ll will notice that it’s dated 2003 and that you should check the university’s site for more information. Attempting that will lead you down a long and convoluted path which eventually leads to this page, saying that this course is no longer open to enrolments.
Like many young people who are destined to leave college I looked towards university to further my education in the hopes of improving my career prospects whilst doing something that I enjoyed. At the time I was fascinated with consumer IT hardware and after attending the open day I was convinced that the computer engineering degree was the way to go. It felt like there was quite a bit of freedom to specialise after the first year and they even offered programs with languages, which really intrigued me.
The first year of my degree went like any other. I spent the first month trying to figure out the university way of life and settling in with the people who would form my university friends for the next 4 years. After that it was a bit of a roller-coaster with my first semester seeing me barely pass all my subjects, which seemed to be the norm for all of us. The second semester went quite a bit more smoothly, with me finally figuring out how to fit into the university mould. I was an energetic little go getter ready for second year.
I do count the second year of my stay in university as the best out of the 4. With a full year of experience under my belt I didn’t feel bewildered walking into a classroom and I’d worked out all the basics (note taking, tutorials, etc) so I didn’t have to spend time on that as well as the subject material. Everything was looking up, I even managed to dux a test and get myself inducted into the Golden Key Society, who recognises the top 15% of students (of which I’ve made little use). Things were definitely looking up then, but the problem with being up so high is that there’s only one way to go afterwards.
Towards the end of second year one of my lecturers walked into the class with a sad and dejected look on his face. We’d seen this before, when he had announced earlier in the year that the Computer Engineering, Software Engineering and Electronics and Communication Engineering courses would all be merged into one degree; with the third year onwards determining a “specialisation” into the respective merged areas. To be honest, the writing was on the wall from first year for this to happen. The total influx for engineering students in my year was only 15, with the makeup being 2 computer, 7 electronics and 6 software. Although these degrees share a common basis there are specialty subjects that only apply to the specific areas, and you can’t run a subject with only 2 students willing to take it.
The news he brought on this occasion was far more grim. The university was closing the entire engineering branch, and whilst our degrees would be taught out to their fullest extent most electives would not be available. As it turned out, none of them outside the general IT and programming electives were and we were relegated to the ranks of glorified software engineers with separate titles. Whilst our initial education had given us skills in other areas the last 2 years were filled with software courses, useless mathematics courses (3rd year Engineers doing Introduction to Statistics and Introduction to accounting which are both first year subjects? Surely you jest!). Although I did enjoy some of the management and economics education I received some of these courses were clearly a complete joke and felt like a personal insult to someone like me who had to take a beginners class next to something along the lines of say, multi-variate calculus.
This was then coupled with what I call the “Third Year Blues” which was introduced to us by the engineers who preceeded us. At the start of the third year most university students will end up questioning why the hell they’re in their degree. This is amplified in IT related degrees since from beginning to end technology will have rapidly changed and you could find yourself working from a basis that is no longer relevant. It was strange to see the once highly energetic engineers questioning their very foundation, we even lost a couple since they couldn’t bring themselves to finish the degree off.
Feeling thoroughly dejected I started looking for answers. After questioning many of my lecturer’s the story became very clear, but it only worked to deepen my bitterness towards the situation.
Approximately 10 years before the close the Australian National University opened up its doors to Engineering students for the first time. Whilst they have a superb reputation in all the fields they foray into they do have a distinct taste for the more academic side of subjects. Engineering was no exception to this rule, and many discussions with ANU branded engineers showed that whilst they had a great theoretical understanding, they lacked a lot of real world implementation. Many of the subjects they were learning used out-dated tools and languages, and the practicals were very lacklustre. However, the opening of a competing engineering university in Canberra more then halved the numbers that the university of Canberra saw, especially those with post-graduate aspirations.
Looking into the ANU’s books brought up some astonishing figures. They were in as much trouble as UC, with numbers dwindling at a similar rate. However their post-graduate programs showed no decline, whereas UC’s were declining. My lecturer’s confirmed that ANU pushed for people to go to the post-graduate level, where they focused closely on employment. This is why ANU continued to run whilst UC died ever so slowly.
Maybe it was a misplaced sense of patriotism towards UC but I’ve never really let go of that fact. The true essence of engineering is solving a problem and then iterating to improve it. ANU’s lack of practical focus went against what I feel is the true sense of engineering, and their continued existence just adds salt to the wounds.
All of these factors made the day when I was given my degree bitter-sweet. I was elated that could now call myself a true Engineer, a thing that my father had scoled me for calling myself before I had finished. However, looking over the sea of graduates that day I knew only a handful were engineers, and all were the last of their breed to exit those halls with a UC degree under their arm.
Whilst I may be bitter about the experience that university gave me I’m still thankful for it. Although the content of the degree might not be what I wanted the meta-skills (problem solving, time management, critical thinking, etc) have proven themselves to be far more valuable.
And thus, the bitter engineer was created. Sometimes I wonder if all university students turn out this way, but even that’s too cynical for someone like me.