Talented Engineer, but Angry? There’s a Better Path

11Better path

You are one of the top engineers in your organization. However, you cannot stand some practices of others, or the system in general, causing anger in you.

Anger, I believe, is that kind of energy when tapped effectively is a great force for positive change. Time and again, we have been there being angry in our life situations and know the difficulty in compartmentalizing. In professional settings, it’s even more essential to identify the emotion and channel before its too late. It’s possible, but it may not be the case always that you have more rapport with family and friends than with your colleagues: read as more benefit of the doubt. I’d encourage building a kind of mental muscle early and often. I’m not talking about anger management but channeling it. Let’s jump in.

What are your concerns?

Once you read the list below, tell me how many of you resonate with my early career experiences as an engineer. So, here were some of my grievances:

  • Why are we using arcane programming languages or legacy systems?
  • What is management thinking and missing out on some of the basics, otherwise considered as common sense?
  • How come the product managers are not providing us enough long-term roadmap? (btw, later, I realized that’s a fools errand: long-term roadmaps; a story for a different day.)
  • Why is this onshore or offshore team (depending on your perspective) more responsible?
  • Why some of my colleagues are not taking enough ownership?
  • (and so on; you get the point)

Even if you’re not an engineer, you can identify yourself with these questions with some modifications. It took me several years early on to fully grasp the immensity of what I was dealing with, and just a simple-minded black-and-white way of looking at the events is not going to cut it. I’ve realized it’s much easier to learn some of the challenging technologies than successfully dealing with human emotions and interactions consistently: many shades of grey are at play.

To take this further, let me lean on this excellent description of an angry engineer by Jamie Dobson and Pini Reznik:

The angry engineer often speaks for the group they represent. They do understand their part of reality, usually around technical challenges. However, they have one black hole in their understanding of reality: they don’t realize that people don’t like to be shouted at. Over time, the angry engineer alienates those who are in a position to help them most, namely managers. This means their popularity within engineering may grow, but when it comes to affecting real change, they are ineffective.

(Source: Patterns and Strategy)

Consider these for an effective transition

Over the course of the last two decades, I had an opportunity to grow through the ranks of engineering into team management and product management. This experience has helped me look at different perspectives — as they say, and I confirm, “what got you here won’t get you there.” With that hindsight here are a few suggestions:

Empathize

Firstly, understand everyone is waging a battle of their own, of which you know not much about. Empathy and giving a bit of leeway to your colleagues would go a long way in building trust. Expand your circle of reality. You know about your daily struggles and that of your team’s. To become an effective spokesperson for your cause, expand that reality by understanding the journeys of others; especially the ones you have grievances with.

Earn trust

Trust is your capital, use it wisely. Understand that it takes several months or even years to build social bonding among the colleagues. You have to work for it to happen. As one of the reputed technologists, take the necessary initiative connecting with people in every direction of your organizational hierarchy. There is no zero-sum game when it comes to teamwork: blur the boundary lines, and connect one-on-one with the key players. Remember, all that you need is a handful of committed leaders to bring about the change.

Practice articulation

Learn to articulate your point. Knowing that you’re right is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to make an impact. You have to have buy-in from others for anything non-trivial. So, go to the first principles and validate your assumptions. Second, master the counterargument. If you have to step in the shoes of the naysayers, what are their issues? If you can’t explain them in simple words, you don’t know them well enough. Learn. Check your emotions and deliver a balanced articulation of your viewpoint.

Strategic thinking FTW

As a leader, balance tactical with strategic. You’ve already mastered the tactics needed for your role, mostly, anyway. Now, focus on what product and business strategies are driving the tactics. Think of how you can influence the strategy with the unique perspective that you bring to the table — technical feasibility and experimentation. There are many super talented engineers but not that many who are curious enough to understand the broader forces at play. Go all the way until you know the customers’ journey and their experiences. Isn’t that the most satisfying part of our careers? Seeing our work in action: helping customers making progress with their needs!

Practice critical thinking

Make critical thinking a part of your routine. It’s a skill that requires repetition to build the necessary connections between various ideas and mental models. Here is a cheatsheet from Wabisabi with helpful prompts for this exercise. Broaden your horizon for a successful brainstorming.

Source: Wabisabi

Depending on your company and situation, you may be interested in these tips to drive innovation.

Thanks for making it this far. What were your career takeaways on this topic? I’m all ears: ping me @surya_s.

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