Pursuing Excellence, not Perfection

The following is the current version of a section in my book on interviewing for technical roles. I’m trying to help out with any advice I can while I’m putting all of this together. As part of that, I’m looking for constructive criticism and feedback. My experiences as an engineer are also not universal and so my own biases will creep up in my writing. With your input, I’m hoping to refine my own writing to help other folks out. If you’d be so kind to offer your advice in response, I would love to hear it.

Early in my professional career, I had a lot of self imposed pressure to prove myself. With the benefit of hindsight, it’s understandable to want to be good at something that we’re making a career out of. A lot of folks carry this same burden to demonstrate their worth. After all, no one wants to feel like the anchor weighing down a team’s progress. This fear of showing even the slightest flaw is so endemic in tech that we feel compelled to work nights and weekends picking up new tricks or adding a few more hours to the work day just to make sure we’re really working. With all this effort, we’ll be certain of writing flawless code, proving beyond any shadow of a doubt that we’re the best engineer for the job.

“Oh, you never want to be the smartest person in the room”, my buddy Rajesh Raichoudhury once told me. He was the CTO of the company I first worked at out of college, at a time when I  was an impressionable developer looking for a source of inspiration, brimming with the undeserved certainty that any company I touched would turn to gold. That passing comment caught me off guard though. Of course I want to be the smartest. I want to be the wiz kid engineer able to do it all. Who doesn’t want to be regarded as the best engineer, solving the world’s crises and saving the day? You probably get paid a lot for that sort of thing and get tons of recognition. It’s not likely you’ll be fired if you’re so valuable either.

He casually responded, “Sure, if all you’re looking for is a pat on the back from everyone in the room, but if you know more than anyone else around you…who would you learn from?”

Sacrificing pithiness on the altar of understanding for a moment, there’s so much to dig into here. On the surface, there’s more than a small bit of arrogance in the belief that we could ever achieve this level of pure awareness of our technical systems. So is your code completely free of any kind of glitches, or are these errors simply too difficult for anyone but you to catch them on review? Are you so quintessentially placed for this role that no one could possibly fill your shoes, the company closing up shop if you were to leave? Perhaps you sit in your office, a line forming outside with patient coworkers waiting for you, in your vast benevolence, to right all of the wrongs in the engineering world. If this were true, then there’s no sense in ever picking up another book again. Why would you, you already know all there is to know.

We love to tell ourselves that we’re constantly learning, that life should be one huge classroom with countless interconnected experiences to educate us. The only time you can learn, though, is when you find something you don’t understand, and that requires a healthy dose of humility. Any given point in your career you’re likely going to work with other people with a guarantee they will have experiences you don’t. Once you accept that, you can see how much of an amazing gift this is, to be around people who can synthesize things they’ve picked up and share with you. Who better to share these experiences than other talented engineers? The heart of this is knowing that there are compassionate, driven, and knowledgeable coworkers around you who you can and should learn from. Your career does have to be contained within an isolated bubble – you can tap into all of the paths others have taken with the benefit of avoiding exhaustively pursuing every branch of the decision tree. Of course, if you’re without mentorship in your role, then you may need to look elsewhere to continue growing.

Some nitpickers may say “Well, someone has to be the smartest in the room, and in that case they should leave their company. Then the next smartest should leave and so on until everyone has left. Logically, no company should therefore exist.” Yet here we are, with plenty of successful companies in the world.

Maybe the answer isn’t that we need to seek out the smartest. Maybe the flaw in our belief system is maintaining that in any given company one individual can ever be considered the smartest at all.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/thomashawk/8193038061

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