After a number of conversations over the past few years with several other engineers who have moved beyond senior levels into staff and principal positions I've come away with a lot of insights, many of which have seen their way to Twitter or other conversations first, but now it's time to start collecting some of those stories into this new series: Beyond Senior.
What does it mean to go beyond the senior level in an engineering organization?
That's the question we're going to be looking at throughout this series.
Every now and then when trying to explain a concept I land upon a metaphor, and that metaphor starts to grow as I talk to more folks about it. This time around it's the concept of fire, and how there are three types of individuals I've seen with regards to how they deal with it.
The most common I've seen is the fire fighter. Someone who responds to fires as they see them, who addresses issues as they come up, and reacts as needed to put it out.
This is also the most recognizable type as they draw a lot of attention to issues when fixing them, and being seen reacting to problems is a very easy thing to point to around promotion time and when recognizing contributors to an organization.
They're visible, they're present, they show up where needed, and address things in the moment.
A significant portion of companies favor this type, promote them, and recognize them.
They're also very wrong to do so.
There is nothing wrong with responding to fires. There is something very wrong with always having to day after day, week after week.
The fire preventer's job is to make sure fires can't happen in the first place. They stabilize systems, add redundancy, fix errors, and otherwise make it very difficult to have massive fires break out.
When discussing signal versus noise ratios the preventer reduces the total amount of noise present in a system allowing people to focus on more relevant signals to their teams.
Where fire fighters are responsive preventers are proactive. They're force multipliers by nature, and your senior most engineers should be very comfortable in this mode. Not that they never fight fires, but that they prevent them from happening again afterwards.
Paradoxically this is also much harder to recognize as there's not nearly as much fanfare, requiring the preventer to advocate for their work actively to get recognition. The most useful engineers to the company in terms of taming chaos and bringing order are also often the least recognized, and can be actively penalized in performance reviews if they're not actively doing that advocacy.
Now while this role decreases noise it's very possible to boost signal as well.
There exist people who will light fires, pour gasoline, or otherwise make things much much worse. What's worse? They often camouflage as fire fighters after they do it.
They're the people who either irresponsibly boost the signal of issues to draw more attention, or in some cases outright create issues where one didn't exist.
You might also recognize this type of person as either empire building in management, or promotion driven in any other roles. After all, the bigger the fire they put out and show themselves putting out the better it looks right?
They create chaos for their own gains, sometimes very intentionally, and sometimes by accident. Either way having one of these people guarantees that you see an amped up helping of strong language, fatalism, absolutism, and phrases like "No one cares about X" bandied about irresponsibly.
Even worse? An immature organization and leadership will promote these individuals very quickly, giving them far too much power, and making the situation exponentially worse. A principal level arsonist can wreck a company, and I've seen it happen.
The role of leaders in a company is to create order out of chaos, to reduce noise, and to boost signal only where needed to get issues addressed.
When everyone else is screaming "fire! fire!" it's their job to say "great, but how much, and how are we going to plan on fixing it?"
Not every issue is equally important, and using sensationalism to subvert rational judgement is exceptionally counter-productive, and if anything prevents issues from actually getting resolved.
It creates an environment where you're constantly fighting fires for clout, and where if you're not seen actively fighting you'll be penalized for it. It ensures that preventers do not emerge, as doing so would put their roles in jeopardy.
Your goal as leaders is to reduce pageantry and increase collective understanding. That means calling out arsonists early and cutting off the sensationalism before it hits fever pitch and scares other engineers.
You are to be the responsible one who keeps everyone honest and held to account, making sure things stay on track.
Having seen this phenomenon play out at many companies, and likely many more in the future, I can only go back to something I'd heard years ago which is the single most valuable thing a leader can do:
Create order out of chaos.
We must ask ourselves constantly if we are creating order, understanding, community, and growing others rather than creating chaos and disorder that causes confusion and panic.
Be the responsible one, lower the temperature, and code on.