Thoughts on “Being a Senior Engineer”

On Being a Senior Engineer made the rounds late last year. Before I finished reading it, I felt it was pointing me down a path I hadn’t realized was there but needed to go down. It’s the kind of “yes, this!” writing that I often end up ineptly giving people a link to without the ability to explain why they should care or how amazing it is.

I chewed on the original article for a few months, following the links, re-reading it. Basically, I’m trying to completely consume this idea of the responsibilities and abilities of a mature engineer. Below, a bunch of quotes that struck a chord with me and follow-up ideas.


I expect a “senior” engineer to be a mature engineer.

Mature engineers seek out constructive criticism of their designs.

Here’s an example of how I try to apply this: attempt to hold all the options (designs, causes, etc.) in your head. This is doubly important if you have identified a design or project plan as infeasible, but it appeals to those who don’t have the whole thing in their head. Empathy and understanding of other points of view is crucial.

Being able to write a Bloom Filter in Erlang, or write multi-threaded C in your sleep is insufficient. None of that matters if no one wants to work with you.

A thousand times yes! I have often felt that internet culture lionizes those who are quick and merciless in cutting down those that don’t agree or can’t code as prodigiously as the original poster. A senior/mature engineer is not soley defined by typing the most code per day.

Be the engineer that everyone wants to work with.

Please, if you ever see me not being that engineer, tell me!

…they have a responsibility to others to make themselves interpredictable. In general, mature engineers are comfortable with working within some nonzero amount of uncertainty and risk.

This is from a section on making estimates. It’s hard to make estimates, because they feel like binding contracts. If you’re working with the right people, it’s OK, they’re not a contract. Make a guess and help others you work with understand the level of entropy involved in your project reaching a milestone at a specific date.

This code looks good, I’m proud of myself. I’ve asked other people to review it, and I’ve taken their feedback. Now: how long will it last before it’s rewritten? Once it’s in production, how will its execution affect resource usage? How much so I expect CPU/memory/disk/network to increase or decrease? Will others be able to understand this code? Am I making it as easy as I can for others to extend or introspect this work?

  1. The only time is runtime, but a lot of developers focus on the static, build-time properties of their code.
  2. As a corollary, developers become the experts at the “hypothetical” of their code, and the ops team become the experts at the “practical” of their code. This isn’t a good division of labor.

Generosity of spirit is one of our core engineering values, but also a primary responsibility of our Staff Engineer position, a career-level position. These engineers spend the time to make sure that more junior or new engineers unfamiliar with the tech or processes we have not only understand what they are doing, but also why they are doing it.

I’ve found it challenging that I’m so far removed from the struggles of a junior developer that in some ways I don’t even comprehend them anymore. Trying to help those who have come up through Hungry Academy, even just a little, has paid dividends in understanding “junior” programmers and more experienced developers who don’t have my experiences.

They know that they work within a spectrum of ideal and non-ideal, and are OK with that. They are comfortable with it because they strive to make the ideal and non-ideal in a design explicit.

Again: hold all the things in your head, even though you take only one path. For now. It’s software you can and will change your mind.

Further: write software such that doing the right thing is easy, the wrong thing is hard, and amending the shortcomings is possible at a later time.

Being empathetic in this sense means having the ability to view the project from another person’s perspective and to take that into consideration into your own work.

Hold all the people, and their conflicting goals, in your head too. Isn’t engineering fun?

…never go to your boss with a complaint about anything without at least one (ideally more than one) suggestion for a solution. Even demonstrating that you’ve tried working the problem on your own and came up empty-handed is better than an empty complaint.

There will always be things that suck. Complaining about them feels good! Proposing, advocating, and working on solutions is better.

The issue with cognitive biases is that we can be blissfully unaware of when we are interpreting data with our own brains in ways that defy empirical data, and can have a surprising effect on how we get work done and work on teams.

For every time I wonder what cognitive bias I’m currently exhibiting, I’m sure there’s two more times when I have no idea. His list of biases is well worth reading into.

Ten Commandments of Egoless Programming. Yes.

How people feel about technologies, technical decisions, and technical directions is just as important (if not more) than the facts about the details.

People are irrational. Work with it. People have scars learnt from bad experiences. Deal with it. Everyone has succeeded in different ways and made the right and wrong inferences from it. Listen when people talk and speak to what they are excited and concerned about.

By Adam Keys

Telling a joke. Typing.