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Edward Huang
Edward Huang

Posted on • Originally published at on

Being Glue: The Skill Gap that Software Engineers Need to Become a Senior Engineer

Photo by Slashio Photography on Unsplash

Software Engineers need to focus on becoming the "glue" of the team.

To become a top performer, being good in a certain field doesn't cut it for Senior anymore.

Many companies used to think they could mash a group of extremely bright people with great brain power together because it was thought that all this brain power could achieve great things quickly.

You could put a brilliant developer in a room with equally brilliant developers, and no code would likely get written.

Companies increasingly realize that hiring someone based purely on technical skills is not good enough.

Because a team full of smart, technical people needs good harmony to push the project forward.

Glue work is what senior engineers do day-to-day.

They are technical experts in a certain field and can "glue" the team together.

That is why more and more startups don't use LeetCode for their interview questions. They want to find engineers that fit into their culture. They want to find teammates who can complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

To become a senior engineer and a technical leader, being like "Glue" is a must.

What is Glue?

Glue people "pull teams together to make them greater than the sum of their parts."

While most people are used to finding out one expertise they're good at and sticking with it, glue people naturally do the opposite, stretching themselves over their boundaries.

This is what makes them strategic for growing organizations and their own career opportunities as an engineer as well.

They are mainly experts in one area but can also be effective in cross-functional department communications. They can see the bigger picture and approach problems with empathy.

"Some people are good at one thing and only a little bit good at that other thing. Then others are in the middle, and they know some engineering, some marketing, and some product development. Those tend to be team leaders who pull together a product in many different types of an organization" - Neil Irwin.

Glue work is the difference between a project that succeeds and one that fails.

Usually, a large software engineering team thinks that technical program managers and project managers do the ultimate glue role. They see the gaps and fill them.

Nevertheless, I often see effective glue work done by someone who embodies technical leadership and usually someone who is more tenured or senior on the team.

Why is it Hard to do Glue Work as an Engineer?

It drains the mental effort that keeps us away from solving coding problems.

Answering people's questions, jumping into random meetings, and taking notes on certain system defects that don't help you get promoted.

It is non-promotable work.

Software engineers are often judged by their technical ability, and glue work usually falls outside the promotable category. Many engineers don't like glue work because it takes up much of their "time" and effort that doesn't directly translate into "impact."

How to be More Sticky like Glue?

Answer Questions on Internal Slack Channels

Help answer any questions on the internal slack channels, either from Engineers or Product Managers.

You'll get more visibility to your stakeholders.

You’ll earn the trust of your team members.

People usually ask repeated questions on Slack channels. We discussed how Junior Engineers should ask questions, but we also need to consider how we can answer those questions meaningfully.

When someone asks a question about how to get X and how to run Y, too often, there will be that one person that will pop up and answer all those questions. Even if the questions have been repeated multiple times, the person will still answer them or re-link old relevant answers.

When a customer service agent asks if someone on the engineering team can look at why customer X didn't get their refund back, you can volunteer and do them a favor to help solve that customer service agent’s problem.

Foster Better Engineering Culture

Help create a better onboarding experience for new hires to make them productive faster.

Remember how difficult the first few weeks of onboarding were for you? Help write onboarding documents so that people after you won't experience the same hardships.

Get involved in a mentorship program so that all new hires will have a mentor to help them onboard faster.

Help unblock team members that are blocked.

You heard on the standup meeting that one of the engineers needs information from another team but is mired in a three-week email thread. You can talk to that engineer, figure out the confusion, and sort it out to unblock them.

Help by performing code reviews or by speeding up testing time.

You realize that a lack of codebase tests causes many outages. Thus, you gather a bunch of senior people and keep pushing until they agree on the organization's coding standards. All code will be more tested, readable, and reliable, with fewer failures and rollbacks.

You help the code review process become faster because the code has a consistent style.


To become a senior engineer, you need to be well-versed in technical skills, adapt, and look at the bigger picture.

Being Glue can be a big benefactor to the team because it helps maintain cohesiveness and helps the team push the project forward.

It is hard to do glue work because, as a software engineer, the time and effort do not directly translate to impact.

Recognition needs to be shared when work is generally non-promotable for anyone - the work must be tracked in a way the team tracks other aspects and be shared deliberately. If it just gets done by whoever picks it up, it won't fall fairly.

Lastly, here are a couple of tips on becoming Glue:

  • Help troubleshoot or answer questions, not just from management, but from all engineers that need help.

  • Create a better engineering culture by speeding up the onboarding, testing, or any process within the system that is a friction of productivity to the team.

Be a glue person, and you'll be on your way to success in a high-performing career.

More Resources About Glue:

💡 Want more actionable advice about Software engineering?

I’m Edward. I started writing as a Software Engineer at Disney Streaming Service, trying to document my learnings as I step into a Senior role. I write about functional programming, Scala, distributed systems, and careers-development.

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