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Your Loudest Engineer is Not a Genius

nprimak profile image Nadya Primak Originally published at nadyaprimak.com on ・5 min read

People tend to glorify confidence. In interviews, we tend to think more of the person who expresses themselves loud and bold, with their held head high. This tendency is especially true among Americans, the most obvious evidence being the current President of the United States, Donald Trump. After all, most psychologists agree he is profoundly full of himself. Despite his failures in business and real estate, he continues to believe he is the smartest man on Earth. Unfortunately there are many fields where people like Trump get promoted and software engineering is no exception.

Official portrait of President Donald J. Trump, Friday, October 6, 2017. country (Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead) – Our Narcissist in Chief

I wish that the tendency didn’t extend beyond politics, but it does. Entitled, loud, and opinionated engineers get promoted faster than their more subdued peers, regardless of actual skill level. Managers without technical knowledge have no other way to evaluate the skills of these developers. So they end up judging engineers the same way they judge managers.

I’ve seen this first hand in the six different programming jobs I’ve had thus far. It was difficult for me to gain any significant respect in the companies I worked at because I was not outspoken. Over the years I’ve learned that I need to open my mouth more. I’ve gotten better at self advocacy, but it still bothers me that silence is mistaken for a lack of competence.

Here’s something I want any manager reading this right now to consider. What if the quiet engineers are not incompetent, or shy, or lack social skills? What if they are just being careful to speak up because they want to verify accuracy? What if they feel intimidated?

When you are starting out as a developer, especially if you are underrepresented in tech, it’s difficult to speak up about things. Even if you know someone is saying something patently false, its easy to hesitate about correcting another developer. They might get angry and hold a grudge against you, who knows? Getting the confidence to confront another developer can take months, even years. Some developers never gain that confidence at all, even if they are competent.

Lots of developers have imposter syndrome, especially when they are starting out. They don’t always confront the senior engineers, even if they know they are wrong. (image source)

I’ve had this happen on a number of occasions. The most memorable was when I was discussing a UX issue with a backend developer who tended to dominate all of the conversations. Despite knowing nothing about UX, this developer consistently argued with me about every choice I advocated for. When I pointed to research and specific examples from my classes, this developer would fire back. He argued he saw the UX choice in interfaces that he had personally used (like JIRA – yes, JIRA). It became quite heated on several occasions.

The promotion of loud engineers is a problem because the more those loudmouths get promoted, the more people are afraid to challenge them. Since they were prone to interrupting other developers even before they were promoted, the problem gets a lot worse when their ego grows.

The other problem with promoting such engineers is that it validates a certain communication style. That is one of blurting out the first thing you believe to be correct, without proper investigation. Over confident developers are notorious for jumping to conclusions. If your team sees that the loudmouth engineers are the ones who get promoted, they are more likely to adopt this communication style themselves. Is it helpful to blurt out the first idea that comes to your head? In brainstorming situations, sure. But when you are trying to fix a difficult bug it can derail the problem solving and send the team down the wrong path.

To be clear, I don’t want to sound like I am demonizing anyone who leans toward the chattier side and likes to talk. A team of engineers that over communicate is better than the opposite. The problem lies specifically in the situation where one overzealous and egotistic engineer drowns out the other voices on the team.

Now that the new year has started, it’s the perfect time for companies to reevaluate their promotion strategies and consider fresh approaches. Sometimes quiter developers need a little bit more encouragement. They might not be sure if they can train people or be confident enough to lead a team. That doesn’t mean that they would automatically make a worse leader than the engineer who is always talking.

Is it possible the loud developer who thinks they are a genius will leave the company if they aren’t promoted? Certainly. But the rest of the developers will be grateful, and happier at work. They are more likely to go to the modest leader for questions, and learn more. It will also be easier for them to explain what they are struggling with without feeling stupid.

Maybe you believe your loud software engineer is the next Elon Musk (image source)

There’s one more thing. Maybe you are reading this and going: okay, but what if my loudest engineer really IS a genius? Maybe they have a PhD in physics, or four masters degrees, or they wrote their own game engine and sold it to Bethesda. Even if that is the case, consider deeply if their personality is really good for leadership.

Ask the following questions. Are they the kind of person who is willing to delegate tasks, or do they think they can do everything themselves? Might they become a bottleneck in the future if given too much control? Are they actually good at explaining technical concepts to juniors or do they like to overcomplicate things to make themselves sound smarter?

I know not everyone reading this is going to take my advice. Maybe it’s not practical, and there are too many other problems to deal with. My goal with this article was to highlight why these patterns in promotion are not as great as they might seem at first. Even if only a small fraction reading this actually change their promotion practices, I will feel like it was worth it to write this. As a developer myself, I know that having a positive relationships with my manager and lead engineer makes a world of difference.

If you enjoyed this article, consider following me on Twitter @nadyaprimak or if you need more tips on breaking into the tech industry, you can read my book “Foot in the Door”in paperback or Kindle now.

The post Your Loudest Engineer is Not a Genius appeared first on www.nadyaprimak.com.

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Nadya Primak

@nprimak

I am a full stack developer by day, experimental game developer and indie hacker by night. Blogging at www.nadyaprimak.com/blog

Discussion

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Hey Nadya, thanks for this article. I think you mixed here multiple problems.

1) promoting incompetence because he/she is loud
2) promoting competent individual contributor who is alpha geek who wants always to be right to management position
3) not promoting quiet individual contributor
4) mixing 2 different career paths individual engineering contributor and manager

  1. is always bad
  2. If promotion is to management position it’s bad but this person may still be great individual contributor in a team if properly managed
  3. in my opinion to move to the next level there is a moment when you have to start communicating more directly and it’s valid for individual contributor carrer path and management carrer path. Because even if you don’t want to be a manager as a senior developer you should be a mentor, and someone who can coach and give feedback and communicate with other teams. You have to be able lead a conversation to the direction which is good for project. You also should be able to influence without authority. To do all those things you have to be able to communicate properly. Not to be the loudest person in the room but the person that is a leader and set the bar higher for herself than anybody else.
  4. It looks like there wasn’t established clear carrer path in your companies because the only way up was by moving to management position, and it’s not true nowadays.

If you would like to discuss it more let me know :)

 

3) not promoting quiet individual contributor

You have to be known in your team/company. If you just do your job, even if you are very good at it, nobody will consider you because nobody knows you.

 

Well written. But just like the traits that you describe are problematic, the traits of being quiet, not assertive, fearing confrontation, etc are also problematic in their own way. And in many cases they create a vacuum that begs to be filled by the loud ones.

There's an art of making the other person having to deal with what you have to say based on its merits alone. Sometimes it might involve craftily turning the disagreement into a public (team) debate and asking everyone directly to express their opinion based on your arguments. Often people who are quiet and just don't bother getting involved will jump to the opportunity of voicing their thoughts when asked. Some other times it might involve going the extra mile, spending a few evenings and backing your opinion up with such a well-written, detailed, heavy-on-facts and solid on reasoning research that it just can't be casually dismissed.

Another important point is to give the person you think might be a loud arrogant sod the chance to prove they are not. I'd hazard a guess that most people that come out as arrogant assholes have a side that it's not like that! But it takes calm, honest, respectful eye-to-eye interaction to bring it out of them.

The important part in a disagreement is to totally move the framework from what YOU think and what THEY think, to "let's talk about the concerns at hand, as we both want the same thing". Who is right and who is wrong at any specific point stops being perceived as consequential when the discussion is such that only promotes the best solution.

But there are also things that can make achieving the above easier or harder

  • Don't act passive-aggressive towards them in general. Say the same things directly to them that you say behind their backs.
  • Be generous in your compliments, vocally and genuinely expressing your agreement and support for the things that you think they do right.
  • Try not to stick to the manner that they convey their message, just do your best to unpack its content, asking them to clarify the points you are having troubles with. Everything else that accompanies it (abruptness, sarcasm, irony, indirect insult, whatever) is a distraction to be ignored.
  • Be as open to changing your mind as you'd like the other person to be, regardless whether they seem to be or not.

Perhaps I have just been lucky, but so far the above approach never failed me.

 

This is great advice. Particularly

Be as open to changing your mind as you'd like the other person to be, regardless whether they seem to be or not.

Taking this to heart has made me realize how many times I was taking it too personally and not being a team player. Often times, if you find yourself butting heads with other developers, changing your own behavior will have a positive effect on everyone.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world - Ghandi

 

Right on! I can personally attest to all of this.

assert loud != confident
assert loud != constuctively assertive
assert loud != smart
assert loud != competent
assert loud == loud

You have to evaluate confident, smart, competent, and constructively assertive on a person-by-person basis. I've known people who qualified as such; some were quiet, some were heavily type A...but none of them made a habitual nuisance of themselves.

In other words, Don't Promote Loud Howard.

 

The tricky thing is that most of the times, the upward you get the more managerial the position, unless you are in a huge company; at least in my small country job market, technical jobs have just a couple of steps ahead and soon you get into managerial jobs, where being loud is part of the job, being quiet, no matter how talented or good engineer you are will result in smaller budgets, less importance in meetings, etc. Sadly introverted people are valued just by competent managers and those are scarce at best. I had to learn to get louder, having the right idea is useless if nobody hear it. W more vulnerable to feel powerless and weak and then resent those loudmouths that made the mistakes we quietly predicted.

We have to accept that extroverted people will tend to be on top, the time we spend doing the best we can, they spend networking and getting noticed. This is not always of course, but tends that way.

And finally beware what you wish for, often the most important part of a managerial job is to fight for your departments budget and to keep it visible to the rest of the company, most people easily understand the importance of sales, but understand the real importance of IT is not always as obvious, so a loud manager is often needed; sales and marketing departments are, by definition better selling themselves and their job. So if you, like me, prefer to quietly do your best, maybe don't aim for that job.

 

Totally agree. This is why 1:1s are so important for managers and their staff. Not everyone builds rapport the same way.

 

you'll go a lot further and waste a lot less time in life simply by avoiding politics

 

I laugh at the second image, hehe good analysis