Growing Engineering: Resiliency Trumps Experience

As R&D groups grow, it becomes harder to maintain a high-quality bar and a fast pace of delivery. We tend to blame pure growth (too many people have to coordinate) or the inability to keep hiring strong people at the required rate. While those factors are true, having worked with companies globally, I see that another problem is that the engineers hired are not resilient.

Companies have different generations. It just so happens that the first few generations of a startup tend to be more resilient or change-agnostic. That allows the company to be nimble and adjust as the business model unfolds and becomes clearer. However, leadership often doesn’t hire for resiliency or cultivate it, and so what happened naturally at an earlier stage of the company will not be maintained.

What’s a Resilient Engineer?

A resilient engineer is not continually fretting about someone moving her cheese. When the cheese moves, she readjusts naturally, because she understands resistance is futile. Where others might get sucked into a spiral, struggling to make things go back to how they were, resilient engineers bounce back faster and see this as a setback, not an insurmountable obstacle.

Let’s look at a current example: Apple completely upends the ad industry. I saw many simply rant online or read article after article of criticism, not actually making any progress. The resilient engineers were making headway immediately by learning what this new world would look like, trying out ideas, and looking for the opportunities the change might introduce. Does that guarantee their success? Of course not, but is there a choice here, really?

The same applies everywhere in tech. Frontend stacks change twice a year. People no longer can count on a single framework or language to fit their needs till retirement (unless those people happen to work with their BDFL, *cough*Basecamp *cough*). Non-resilient engineers allow their years of experience to become stale, where a resilient engineer would reinvent herself—a keyboard-clacking phoenix.

How to Spot Them?

When interviewing candidates, I like to take note of several things that help me assess their resilience:

Identity: This might start from their CV or the first few minutes where they describe themselves. Non-resilient (brittle? fragile?) engineers tend to adopt specific technologies or ways-of-thought as their identities. They might refer to themselves as “Java Engineers,” for example. Resiliency frequently manifests in an agnostic viewpoint and less zealotry.

Framing past changes: When the candidates describe their work history, perk your ears whenever the story reaches a sharp turn. How do they frame the changes that they had to endure when they switched jobs or learned new tools? Is this a terrible journey they had to soldier through? Or was this more of a challenge they wanted to succeed at? Furthermore, insistence on titles, job descriptions, and so forth is usually another sign of fragility.

Acceptance of the unknown: Every creative work role has parts that are obscure or prone to change. Assuming you do your expectation setting properly, this will come up in interviews. Fragile engineers shy away from mentions of vagueness or demand clarification.

How to Cultivate Them?

First, understand that I am not advising that you get rid of all of your “fragile” engineers. I am saying that you should have a healthy amount of resilient engineers to make your engineering organization’s skeleton more robust.

Then, as the company matures, help your team increase its resiliency:

  • Avoid premature organization: Whenever you create fiefdoms and silos, you push people to identify with those roles and titles. You shouldn’t avoid these altogether, but every upended organizational change creates scar tissue.
  • Allow your team to fail spectacularly: If people are afraid of failure, they will never leave their comfort zones. That’s the definition of fragility.
  • Celebrate resiliency: I always advise my clients to celebrate the behaviors they would like to see prospering in their teams. Find all manifestations and make sure to show your appreciation for them.
  • Optimize for motivation: A superpower in employees, and highly correlated with resiliency.