The Junior Engineer
You can determine the state and longevity of any industry based on several factors. Some economical, and some cultural — but one of the most important factors for the survival of any industry is youth adaptation. An industry that fails to attract younger generations is an industry that is destined to perish and vanish.
In the last 40 years or so, the tech industry has witnessed mass-adaptation and exponential growth and innovation due to attraction by younger generations. I remember a time when only a handful of individuals would be interested in writing software — it wasn’t a craft the majority of people really cared about. And now, we have influencers and streamers sharing their coding skills live in front of an obsessed audience with the idea of building software.
The survival of the tech industry relies heavily on attraction by younger engineers. I say engineers not employees — because engineers will ensure our industry continues to evolve. Employees on the other hand will work just hard enough to continue to get paid regardless of the state of the industry.
In order for the tech industry to survive (which directly contributes to the evolution of mankind) we need to understand that the primary priority in our industry is the newcomers. Junior engineers are the mass majority of any organization. They are the moving force by which any effort can truly materialize.
If individuals in senior levels are making plans, guides, and structures, none of that makes any sense or pays off until the mass majority of the engineering force backs that effort up and determines to realize it.
Imagine a week where every executive in any given corporation have decided to take time off. Nothing will really stop. Engineers will continue to develop their systems and deliver a value every single day. Now let’s imagine the opposite scenario. Imagine a week where every software engineer in an organization decided to take time off. Everything will go into a halt. Nothing will get developed, demoed, or delivered.
This dynamic of power is crucial to understand. It brings an entirely new perspective as to where the investment should go and what true value really mean in our industry. This realization should shed light on the primary priority in every team.
Given that junior engineers are usually the mass majority of the engineering force in any system. These engineers are then the moving force that very system. Undermining, underestimating, or undervaluing that priority constitutes a threat to the survival of any system Irregardless of how “successful” that system may seem.
Birthplace of Innovation
The folks we call “juniors” today are the birthplace of most of the innovations that we use every day. Every big tech company that we have today was founded by what we would call today a “junior engineer”. Bill Gates was only 19 years old when he founded Microsoft. Larry Page was 25 years old when he founded Google. Steve Jobs was 20 years old when he founded Apple. The story goes on and on. Young, passionate, and free innovators, taking risks and willing to go the extra mile to change the world.
But that theme is not exclusive to our modern age. Throughout history, some of the most impactful engineers were very young in age. For instance, Louis Braille, the inventor of Braille language globally adopted by the blind community — he was only twelve years old when he invented his amazing method of silent communications.
Einstein was only 26 years old when he proposed the existence of the photon which was the foundation of quantum theory. He also developed other theories like the theory of special relativity around the same age.
All these numbers are just a pattern that is meant to help us understand where we should focus and invest to ensure that we foster an environment and an industry that excites, educates, and trains younger engineers on the path of success and prosperity.
Our industry suffers today from a dangerous disease that I call Elitism. Elitism in its essence is the idea that someone would be favored merely based on some corporate title, nothing more or less. You can see it clearly in the claps and laughs of a group of sycophants pampering an executive who’s neither funny nor intelligent in any capacity.
Elitism could also present itself through certain patterns of favoritism such as seniority on teams, previous accomplishments, or popularity. These are all dangerous patterns that prevents the survival of truly innovative ideas.
There are few principles that I have developed to bring Elitism and its ugly cousin Favoritism to its knees. The most important of these principles is realizing that fancy ideas are not exclusive to people with fancy titles. More importantly, true software engineers don’t really follow titles. They follow principles and innovations wherever they find them.
That’s because titles are arbitrary and don’t truly reflect any true experience most of the time. Sometimes people will earn higher titles for “sticking around” and “doing what they’re told”. That doesn’t seem to be quite the characteristic of an innovator that’s posed to change the world.
Junior engineers’ ideas could sometimes get discarded due to their “experience” in the industry. But in reality, the less experienced someone may be in the tech industry, the less “computerized” their brains may be. Their brains then become this amazing breath of fresh air full of innovative ideas that are not restricted or hindered by corporatism. They don’t really play by the rules of the machine. They play by their own rules of possibility.
Every business should drive it’s future investments by the leaders of the future. That’s every junior individual in that very same business. These future leaders’ role is to pave the path forward for the next generation to take evolution to the next level in every industry. I ask the question; how can we invest in the future if we are relying on leaders from the past? It’s truly that simple.
Our industry today suffers from a severe disconnect between the past (lessons), present (handover) and the future (investment). The warm handover between generations seems to be suffering from contentious argument over roles and responsibilities.
Some of the seniors seem to be holding everything too close to the chest, they wouldn’t allow or try to share insights about the path forward with the juniors. This behavior might masquerade itself in the form of “advice” such as: “It’s a long story” or “I have a plan for you” or my personal favorite “You’re not ready yet”.
This pattern needs to be flipped upside down. A business that truly cares about evolution and innovation is required to heavily invest into the “crazy” and “immature” ideas of the generation of the future. A business that wants to survive the forever changing industry in an unpredictable future must pay attention to its juniors.
It’s important for today’s leaders to understand that empowering younger engineers isn’t an act of charity. It’s not a “nice-to-have” but rather a “showstopper”. Any group of leaders shall measure their success of leadership by their ability to handover future leadership responsibilities to the generation of the future.
It’s quite ironic to see decision-making boards of directors in some of the bigger corporations that has plans for a future where everyone on that board will be on retirement. Not a single leader of the future in these meetings helping shape the future and guide these decisions. The handover here is non-existent.
The responsibility of pushing the wheel of innovation is not just upon leaders. Newcomers in our industry should know that their fancy toys, perks, and total compensations could be the tombstone for their true talent if they are not aware of their responsibility towards themselves, communities, and the rest of the world.
It’s quite disturbing how many great minds have gone to waste fixing defects in a dying enterprise system instead of investing these talents and powers into something more fulfilling. More rewarding and impactful.
To these juniors I say: “Don’t trade time for money” — That’s a level of survival that should be the smallest chapter in your journey in the industry and in your life in general. I say: you need to move on to the next level, where what you do every day compliments your intellect and fulfills your purposes and ambitions.
It’s the responsibility of every engineer in our industry to seek meaning and purpose through what they do on daily basis and not settle for the shiny perks or miniscule rewards. There’s a lot more to engineering than a bank score, fancy home, or a big vacation.
Engineers must move beyond survival and unto evolution and fulfillment through what they do every day. The alternative is to have everything you could ever wish for but never be able to enjoy it because you feel that your life has no true meaning or purpose.
The Future is Now
The future stands before us every day. Young, ambitious, and eager engineers looking to change the world. It’s our responsibility as leaders to invest in that energy, not kill it. To grow it, not destroy it. To protect it until it becomes solid enough to withstand and lead on its own.
This can only happen by following three main practices that I’ve developed for every leader out there to commit to every engineer they meet. Let’s talk about these practices here:
Hope is the subtle hidden superpower that lights up every action we take, every step we make and every word we speak. Hoping for something better is almost always the main motive for everyone everywhere. Some hope for a new car, new house, a promotion, a reward or even a new job. Everyone is driven by hope.
But in recent years, hope started to fade away in younger generations. Massive waves of depression and detachment have started to invade their lives and hearts. Younger engineers are consumed by the massive challenges of the current day and age. They no longer want the pre-packaged hope manufactured by society, families, and friends. They no longer see it as their hope because they saw how miserable and sad the ones who consumed that very pre-packaged hope ended up. They want something different. Something personal. Something impactful but also attainable.
Instilling hope into the hearts of people is a hard job. And yet, it’s a very crucial one for the survival of our species. Instilling hope begins with authenticity, trust, honesty, and directness. It begins with being able to draw a picture of the future, but also as importantly draw a map for the path to that very future.
I sell people on their survival, growth, and happiness. I draw pictures of a future where they feel secure, important, and truly fulfilled. It’s the best way I could describe a hopeful future. It’s not a pre-packaged idea of being a doctor or an engineer. Neither it is some dreams of being a billionaire — it is whatever the person chooses for themselves.
Filling the mind with knowledge comes second to filling the heart with hope. Knowledge without hope is like a fancy car with no destination. Hope without knowledge is like a manual without tooling. They compliment each other. They contribute to the existence and success of each other.
Engineers appreciate a knowledgeable leader. Someone who has actually practiced what they teach. Someone who stays up to date with the latest in our industry. Engineers lose interest in an ignorant “Engineering Leader” who doesn’t practice what they preach. Even worse, a leader who doesn’t stop talking about how they developed an archaic system in the 1960’s in COBOL. That’s irrelevant and quite honestly boring!
Our industry doesn’t respect tradition. It respects innovation! Our mission as species is to continue to learn and evolve not dwell on some small wins from the past.
Knowledge can be obtained and taught in five different ways. The oldest of them all is reading. Simply reading books, blogs, magazines or any materials or tutorials that walks an engineer through learning a new tech, skillset, or pattern.
But knowledge can also be taught through results. Engineers can learn simply by reading someone else’s code. No comments, tutorials or anything just simply reading the code and understanding how things work.
The most popular form of sharing knowledge today is video tutorials. Streaming live or pre-recorded sessions that walks engineers through every single step of how to develop a certain feature. This form has gained such huge popularity in the recent years, especially with the interactive nature of Q&A and being able to participate in the sessions live in real-time.
But the most effective of them all is pair programming. So far, I have yet to see a form of knowledge sharing that can exceed pair programming. From one engineer to another. Fully focusing on sharing knowledge and transcending hope and passion through every line of code and through every instruction.
Regardless of the form of knowledge one should obtain and teach. It must be complimentary and integrated with the purpose of that very knowledge. Not abstract and lifeless.
Newcomers in our industry require care and attention. They require consistent presence and care. An “unavailable” or “always busy” leader from his people is no leader at all. Leading the generation of the future requires availability in the present. The daily contact. The daily conversations, interactions, and everything else in between.
A leader must put his team above himself and his own leaders. A leader must put his team above everyone and everything else. That’s because that very team is the future. You can tell how much a leader cares about the future by how much they invest in the new generation of engineers.
Care comes in all shapes and forms. As a leader, there are several care practices that I keep going back to with every team I work with. The most important of them all as mentioned, is presence. Being there, being available is the most important of them all.
But care also means putting one’s team needs as the highest priority. Any kind of need. From something as simple as an equipment to something as large as an emergency. I have been the emergency contact for so many of those I mentor and lead. They felt close enough to honor me with such responsibility.
Care also mandates a leader to be vulnerable before his team. To be honest and not shy away from displaying weakness and uncertainty. Because that’s how draw a realistic picture for the leaders of the future.
Care could mean ending the team for the best of the team …
With the three magical powers of hope, knowledge, and care — our industry can flourish again. A generation of ambitious, intelligent, and strong engineers could lead humanity into a prosperous future. Building in the present and learning from the past.
I wake up everyday looking forward to seeing the next generation of engineers taking that leap into an evolutionary future — a future worth working towards and being excited about.