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.
On occasion I find myself lost in the depths of YouTube on all manner of crafting videos, and there's always a set of categories I find myself continually falling into. One of those is blacksmithing.
Of all the videos I have watched in that category perhaps the most impactful was "Making the Heretic - The Sword of the Year", the forging of a themed mosaic damascus sword by Ilya Alekseyev.
It is certainly a beautiful piece, and a masterwork of blacksmithing, but what in the world could that have to do with software engineering?
Well it turns out Ilya loves to go into philosophy and history, and something he said in that video stood out immediately to me. You can find it at around 22:35 on the video.
He raises a very interesting point that viewers might ask:
"Is this sword practical?"
He answers yes. It's sharp, balanced, and you could duel with it sure, but it misses the point of the sword.
A sword like this would not be used for battle, strictly speaking, it would be used as a gift and a negotiation piece between two powers potentially to go to war with a third. In effect the sword brings with it an entire army and alliance.
A practical sword, on the other hand, he argues only buys you a few more minutes on the battlefield.
He states it is a higher martial art to direct armies against each other rather than participating down below in the battle directly.
What is more valuable to an engineering company?
Is it one engineer who can personally deliver a significant amount by themselves, who through training and years of experience deliver more than any other single engineer? What might that multiplier be versus an average engineer? Capriciously let's say 10x to go along with the trope.
No. I would argue the more valuable by far is the engineer who wields their skills to lift up 10 others, maybe even 100 others, or at extreme levels thousands to an entire industry.
Could this same engineer weild their skills directly in the code base? Certainly. Should they still practice and be aware of how to use their skills directly? I won't argue with that. Would it be the most effective use of their time? That one stands to debate.
Just as an ornate sword represents the union of two groups so does a leader in software engineering represent the union of many to deliver on significantly more than any individual could ever possibly do themselves.
How then might we measure a leader, given that?
Would we judge a commander by their direct martial prowess? Would we judge them by their direct impact in terms of how many people they defeat? Would they be praised for personally charging in and saving the day?
The answer to all of the above is an emphatic no.
Similarly we do not judge engineers beyond senior levels by the lines of code they have produced, the number of commits attributed to their name, nor the random acts of heroics in which they swoop in to save the day on repeat.
We judge them instead on how they enable and empower others, how they grow people and cultures around them, how they provide strategy and guidance to enable 100 other engineers to do similar work, and how they ensure preventative measures are secured long before heroics should be necessary.
To do otherwise is to not fully utilize the full potential of that engineer in exchange for artificial metrics which do not reflect any true value. It is to incentivize behaviors that lead to egotism, isolationism, and the building of ivory silos of knowledge that present one of the single largest liabilities to companies.
Take those two archetypes again, the code heavy engineer who focuses on direct delivery and the strategic one who focuses on empowering others. At some point in the future, they decide to leave the company they're at. For most engineers this is a matter of when, not if, and frequently in under five years.
If you happen to lose the engineer who focuses on direct delivery and heroics you will quickly find that the knowledge they have accumulated and siloed away goes with them. You'll be left trying to fill the gap they left and catching up on all the knowledge they had not shared. You buy temporary expediency at the cost of exceptional liability should they ever leave.
On the other hand we have the leader who empowers others. If they leave not only is that knowledge already shared, but very likely that leader has a line of succession capable of continuing in their absence and growing into the role they left behind.
True leaders build up behind them engineers that can one day take their jobs and succeed.
I firmly believe that the best leaders in companies are those that are capable of working through others, of driving strategy to enable execution on a much grander scale than any one person could possibly deliver on, and of leveling up everyone around them to meet whatever challenges tomorrow may bring.
So the question is then what do you choose to do with your sword?