We’ve all worked with an arrogant engineer. The one who goes on and on, in an attempt to prove themselves the smartest. They respect no one else’s opinion or work, even when it’s not their skill set. They’re impossible to work with, you may waste hours trying to convince them just to listen to you. Everyone who interacts with them just gives up and you either miss targets or just build it their way, which invariably turns out to be a tragic mess. What no one likes admitting though — is that sometimes we all are that engineer at one point or another.
It can be very hard to admit you don’t know all the things. People may judge you. The work can be very challenging and you do need to build up confidence to face it. Sometimes we are able to go one of the healthy routes and tell ourselves we will figure out eventually or we might ask someone to teach us. When you’re feeling insecure, in your ability or unsure of your team’s support, it’s much easier instead to shield yourself with arrogance.
Not very long ago I worked at a company where a number of engineers had made significant contributions to the field or were fairly well known. Everyone there was brilliant. Everyday I came home thinking I was lucky to be working with some of the smartest people I’ve ever known. It was humbling working there. The interview process had been quite rigorous and I wasn’t sure that I deserved to be there.
We had some serious challenges, and we concentrating very heavily on performance. Our search and back end teams had worked incredibly hard to return large amounts of data smoking fast. The bottleneck became the front end. Many of our clients were scientists who needed to see accurate graphs with a lot of data points, each with it’s own meta-data attached, and we needed to display that without the browser freezing or noticeably slowing, and we needed to support a lot of older browsers. It was very meticulous work that required a lot of deep research, profiling, and refactoring.
I always felt like I was struggling to keep up, or maybe that I never would. No way was I as smart as these people. I still felt lucky to be working with them, but it’s easy to feel insecure. However, on a coffee outing with the chief scientist and another engineer the chief scientist shook his head and said “ everyone here is so brilliant, I feel stupid sometimes” — the other engineer said “oh I feel the same too!”. And I stood there, mouth open. Here were some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met, talking about how they felt stupid. I thought for a moment, “if they feel stupid here… what does that say about me?” But my work had been praised there sometimes too, and I learned it was ok to not know everything, what wasn’t ok was holding everyone back by hiding my ignorance.
Nearly all the engineers there said the same thing. “I don’t know how I got here, everyone here knows so much and is so brilliant. I feel so lucky.” We all felt lucky to be there. Lucky to work with people we respected. Because even the most senior engineers said it aloud, we all had permission to be ignorant sometimes. Which is really permission to learn. We got to build some of the coolest stuff I’ve ever worked on and I learned more there about how to think and solve problems than I had in the 10 years previous. And the performance problems we had got better because we talked about what we didn’t know if we could do, we compromised between what the back end could send and the front end could do.
I don’t want to be the arrogant engineer, so I practice what I learned there — humility. It’s hard work, a little scary and not all engineering environments are supportive. I practice not hiding ignorance behind arrogance. Practice learning from everyone, regardless of status. Practice being vulnerable. I practice listening. Practice supporting your team. This makes me a better engineer. I build better things if I’m capable of listening to and learning from my team.
Everyone I have ever worked with has taught me something. Instead of wasting everyone’s time and energy trying to prove you are the smartest in the room — be a little humble. Spend that time and energy solving problems. Take the focus off of yourself and focus on others. Have empathy. See the brilliance in your teammates that perhaps you had been too self-conscious to see. Don’t assume you know better than others. Make it a lifestyle. Be a little vulnerable — “I don’t know, and if you don’t either, let’s figure it out together.” Build fantastic stuff.