Unpopular Opinion: It’s Harder Than Ever to Be a Good Software Engineer

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Product Minting

Working in a startup environment for almost a decade has given me privileged access to a fast-paced culture of innovation, exploration, and a fail-fast approach. I followed the standard progression ladder: intern, junior, mid, senior, and eventually moved to the engineering management track. Over time, many people I grew with later moved on to work at other companies, becoming highly respected contributors there. It would be fair to say they are good engineers.

Looking back at the journey of my peers, mentees, and my own, it seems harder than ever to be a good engineer.

Defining a good engineer

What does it mean to be an engineer? As software engineers, we are:

  • Responsible for translating complex problems into efficient and scalable solutions
  • Tasked with analyzing user requirements, designing software architecture, writing code, and testing and debugging software
  • Expected to stay on top of trends, seeking new business opportunities and ways to improve existing products

So, no – engineering doesn’t equal programming. Sometimes, that is the smallest part. It definitely appears so as one acquires more experience, as shown in the figure below.

Source: Engineering Leadership Skill Set Overlaps

Source: Engineering Leadership Skill Set Overlaps

What does it mean to be a good engineer? Based on numerous interviews and supporting my mentees’ progress, I noticed that people with different levels of expertise might give different answers.

Someone just starting out might think it’s the number of languages and frameworks a developer knows. A more experienced engineer might not even care about the language they’re using, instead emphasizing code quality - adhering to all coding principles and conducting QA while moving swiftly.

Highly experienced engineers place an enormous focus on bringing value. Sometimes, we’ll quickly write throw-away code that breaks all the rules to prove a hypothesis; sometimes, we’ll spend days writing a couple of lines of mission-critical code. But most days, we are making architectural decisions, discussing mission-critical issues, improving processes, etc. Why? Because often, that brings the most value.

Although there are always exceptions to the rule, we can say that a good engineer is one who efficiently focuses their effort to bring maximum value in achieving a goal.

Growing markets and competition

The tech market is constantly evolving. We have all seen massive successes over the years, from WhatsApp to Uber, Airbnb, and TikTok. While these may be exceptions, such examples often set the North Star for people – something they should strive for. This way of thinking puts extra pressure on engineers. They feel stress from the inside, thinking they're doing something wrong, and from the outside, with people comparing their company to many competitors.

Source: How Healthy is the Public Technology Market?

Source: How Healthy is the Public Technology Market?

To succeed in such an environment, companies needed to “move fast and break things,” as the famous Facebook motto says. Today, this is more obvious than ever – almost every company is becoming an “AI company.” Everyone is integrating ChatGPT, often for no real reason, without a strategy on how it will bring value.

By moving away from the core principle – how can we bring more value to our customers – and moving towards beating the competition on the hype train, we get engineers building functionalities that are doomed to fail.

The world is a confusing place.

What should an enthusiast such as myself do to become a better engineer? Apart from the obvious choice of perfecting coding skills by improving clean code and architecture philosophies, nowadays, there are lots of temptations lurking. Learning TypeScript and that one latest framework that changes everything, diving into the world of blockchain and crypto, experimenting with a myriad of AI products… Options are endless.

All javascript libraries

All javascript libraries

To be honest, after so many years in the industry, I still felt threatened by the new wave of change brought by ChatGPT, GitHub Copilot, and other emerging tech. My brain started imagining scenarios where I was out of touch with so many things. Am I focusing on the right things to bring value? Am I using my maximum potential?

After some time, it became clear we were in a hype. That, too, will pass, leaving only AI companies that are creating long-term value. The number of AI companies in the last five years has doubled in the US, with many startups just adding a feature on top of the newly-released GPT-3. They would later die with the release of ChatGPT or GPT-4, which could do the same thing but better. But that doesn’t stop the hype army of Twitter and other platforms from proclaiming the new world order.

Even with so many years working in tech, I got sucked into the hype. Rookie mistake!

Programming languages and constant releases of new frameworks also add to the confusion. Tailwind, TypeScript, Haskell, and Rust are all great; they each have an angle that gives them an advantage. However, people often mistake learning them for something that will give them an edge. It won’t, or at least, it shouldn’t. They are just tools that are nice to know but can’t replace experience. That is why we never put language/framework requirements in our job descriptions. I would be a fool to miss a talented engineer because they don’t know TypeScript, prompt engineering, or microservices.

My advice is - don’t get caught up in new trends and hype to the point where you lose focus on bringing value.

Fast pace and high expectations

When seeking new challenges, it can be difficult to strive for positive stress while avoiding negative stress. Positive stress is one where we perceive a stressful situation as an opportunity leading to a good outcome, while negative stress is one that can have detrimental physical and mental health effects, as seen in the image below. Continuously delivering results on a tight schedule is stressful, and building features for the wrong reasons sways toward the latter.

Positive stress vs. negative stress

Positive stress vs. negative stress

Both as a mentor and as a hard worker, I’ve seen stress lead to burnout. Without exception, having someone go through burnout results in less output than reducing workload, taking a break, and optimizing for the long term. That's why we always try to make raising red flags as straightforward as possible, with periodic team updates, one-on-ones, and a nurturing culture.

Still, things will go wrong. When they do, we cut scope, involve people who can help, or communicate with our clients to postpone a launch.

Pressure is higher than ever, coming both from within and without. Stay focused and surround yourself with a supportive team optimizing long-term.

How can we do better?

We all have our down moments – feeling like inadequate engineers, mentors, or colleagues. Things will never be perfect or easy, and they shouldn’t. Without making mistakes and hard times, we don’t learn. But there are some things I find can increase efficiency.

Levels of influence

Levels of influence

Individually, stay true to what is really important. Technologies will come and go, but the value you bring to the world is what counts. It’s hard to fake hard work and experience.

As a company, start with why when making decisions. This is the best way to deliver functionalities that will bring value. Also, make sure the employees know why. In my experience, they will make better decisions, give valuable feedback, and be happier.

Culturally, establish processes that will support the employees, optimizing long-term. Together with your colleagues, establish a culture of trust, support, and caring. That way, you will all get the best of one another.

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