A few years ago, I was asked to give a talk to a class of early engineering college students about the characteristics of a “good” engineer, so that they may begin to emulate those traits — or, presumably, drop out of the program if the very thought of such a thing made them ill. But as I was thinking about what these characteristics might be, I realized that there’s no such thing as a model engineer. In thinking back through my career I could identify, at least, several pretty distinct kinds of engineers, each with their own special sauce that made them great at different things. But there was no kind of Renaissance engineer, at least in my experience, that could simply excel at everything. So I started the presentation with this quote:
Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.of unknown origin, but not Einstein
I know brilliant developers who cannot work well in a team, but can debug a field problem like no one else. And amazing architects that come up with the most elegant designs, but who can’t stick to one thing too long. Or the opposite: deep tinkering thinkers who would give you the death stare if you tried to pull them off their passion project.
For the college kids, I came up with some examples, like the above, of great engineers and the situations that they excel in, but I couldn’t let go of the notion that there probably exists something like the Meyers-Briggs Types or the classical Four Temperaments, but for engineering. Pseudoscience yes, inasmuch as people don’t fit into nice and tidy boxes like that, but still helpful in thinking about strengths and tendencies.
Googling didn’t turn up anything like this existing in the tubes, and since the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, dimensions that seemed useful to me eventually took shape:
- Teamwork: collaboration vs vision. Do they value teamwork more for its own sake, or for seeing their vision be realized?
- Focus: design vs goal-oriented. The journey, or the destination? The means or the end? The architecture or the building?
- Scope: broad vs specific. Do they like working on lots of different things, either at once or in fairly quick succession, or to focus on one thing for as long as it makes sense?
Three dimensions with two values each means 23 = 8 broad kinds of engineers, which also felt like a good number for this sort of thing. We’ll take a look at those eight kinds next, and I’ll leave the more dry discussion on methodology until the end, but before we go any further, a caveat:
If you use these concepts for anything, it should be either for fun or as a thinking exercise, but because this is in no way scientific, it should NOT be used for anything serious -- just like the MBTI should not be. Please don't try to create questionnaires out of this, or use it to justify leadership decisions, or anything of that sort.
What I'm hoping for is that this framework provides some insight for engineers to maybe think about themselves and their career path, a shorthand for talking about certain behaviors, or probably more than anything: just as a fun lunch conversation.
All models are wrong, but some are usefulof unknown origin
Hopefully this is somewhat the latter. Okay: with all that out of the way, here is the creamy center.
This persona is collaborative, design-oriented, and has broad interests. They love to hear and incorporate people’s ideas and feedback, they love to produce a beautiful cathedral of a codebase, and they don’t really care what they work on as long as it’s interesting. Design and requirements meetings are something they enjoy, and many times organize, and they take no particular pride in the cathedral because they see it as the group effort it really is, with their role as a facilitator more than anything.
I think of this persona as the typical systems engineer or spec writer, or sometimes architect. Often times, because of their people skills, they end up in leadership positions.
Same as the Generalist, but with specific interests. Not necessarily narrow, but they enjoy being an expert in some small number of things, and then working with teams that need that expertise. They love deepening their knowledge on the subjects they master, and they love putting that knowledge to good use to efficiently and elegantly solve challenging problems that, without their expert advice, might otherwise take the team twice as long to create something half as good. They’re often the special guest in the meeting, because they’re an expert in authentication or databases or whatever, and this team needs some authentication or database know-how imparted upon them.
Collaborative, goal-oriented, with broad interests. They just love to build things. They have preferences of course, but by and large are open to working on a wide variety of projects. They don’t really care what it is or what the tools involved are or what the platform or the frameworks are — they’ll learn it all and make it work, and work well. If there’s a design in place, they’ll follow it, but if there isn’t, they’re happy to make one. They work very hard, will do everything possible to hit a deadline, and will deliver as good a product as you can expect.
Because of their broad interests, they gain broad experience, and because they’re goal oriented and get a reputation for meeting those goals, they tend to end up in leadership positions also.
Same as the Builder but with specific interests, the Conductor loves to get a particular thing done. But she’s collaborative, and the combination of traits here means this is almost always someone who quickly gravitates toward leadership. Project management, if that position exists, or whatever other role fulfills that function: tech lead, manager. The important thing is to be able to work in a team and motivate that team to do the thing well. Before she was in leadership, she got frustrated time and time again when the goal wasn’t met, and vowed that she could do better.
She doesn’t get involved in all the details of how every component works, because what she cares about is her specific role in it: to orchestrate all the moving parts so that the thing will ship on time. But she’ll get involved in whatever is required, do whatever it takes, and set up as many meetings as is needed to make sure someone will fix the situation so that the thing will ship on time.
Now we’re in the Visionary half, where other people are, at best, a necessary evil to accomplish the vision, and at worst, something to be avoided as much as possible. The Architect, like the Generalist, loves building cathedrals; the difference is that they have a specific cathedral in mind. They don’t necessarily want your input, but the good ones will fight that urge and still consider it, if for no other reason than to improve their future visions.
With broad interests, they’ll work on pretty much anything they can, as long as the work is interesting, and they can put their spin on a beautiful design that will be implemented to the letter. Even if they have to implement it all themselves. Even if it takes 3x the allotted time. Even if the technology doesn’t exist, and they have to invent it themselves. Perhaps especially then. This is someone you want to take the thing to the next level. Depending on many, many things you might end up with the Wardenclyffe Tower or the Taj Mahal.
I would bet a small sum of money that the guy who maintains ntpd is an Artisan; probably the two that maintain OpenSSL, too. Unsurprisingly, they have a specific interest: working in some domain or in some technology or theme or whatever else is the singular thing that drives them. They love improving it and polishing it and crafting it into a beautiful creation that is their life’s work. They are watchmakers. They have a vision, often very specific, and will work tirelessly to see it come to life and possibly be successful — the latter is less important. What’s important is the act of creation.
Artisans are the developers that you talk about going into a cave and emerging with The Work some months later. The great ones do it mostly to spec, but creative license is something you generally have to deal with here, because that mode of operation is how Artisans produce the best work. Put them on a sprint team working on random tickets off the queue and they’ll wither and disengage. Give them a challenging problem with a corresponding amount of freedom, and they’ll make sure to wow the whole team.
A clarifying point for those not of the software industry, who may be reading this:
A computer hacker is a computer expert who uses their technical knowledge to achieve a goal or overcome an obstacle, within a computerized system by non-standard means. Though the term hacker has become associated in popular culture with a security hacker – someone who utilizes their technical know-how of bugs or exploits to break into computer systems and access data which would otherwise be unavailable to them – hacking can also be utilized by legitimate figures in legal situationsWikipedia
But that’s a great definition for our purposes here too: a goal-oriented, singular visionary with broad interests. Could also be called a “fixer”. They have a lot of confidence to learn what they need to and figure out the situation, through whatever means necessary, irrelevant of pressure, to get the thing done. They don’t really care if the thing is duct taped together so much — as long as it works for now. It can always be done properly later, but what’s important is that the goal was met, the crisis averted, and the mountain was climbed swiftly.
This is the kind of person you want on a diagnostics/field-support team. Or on a critical release that can’t be late. Or on a proof-of-concept that might create a lot of value, if anyone could get it to actually work somehow. Just don’t saddle them with process and red tape, and let them hack the planet.
The counterpart of The Conductor, the difference is that The Marshal has a vision for how the goal will be achieved. Much like The Architect, they don’t necessarily want input, but the good ones will know that they’ll get a better success rate at achieving the goal by getting the council of knowledgeable people they admire. Unlike The Hacker, they have no interest in working on different things — they have one goal, and it’s usually a sizeable one. Like freeing Europe from Hitler’s grip. Though the term “General” is too… wait for it: generic.
Marshals are great at leading focused efforts of outsized value. Because they are laser-focused on delivering, they don’t want to deal with too many personalities or process, and so need the right kind of team around them, in the right kind of environment. And under those circumstances, they lead with passion that energizes the team and they swat away all distractions, jump in and pull the weight of three people, and lead the crew to defeat Khan against all odds.
There’s one more type of engineer, and this one’s not described by the model. If you’ve tried to figure out what motivates someone who is smart and capable, but their performance is consistently at best mediocre, and nothing really works out well… it might just be that they’re not interested in the work.
Maybe they don’t like the environment (the team, the project, the company, etc) or maybe they’re distracted by bigger problems in the real world or maybe they don’t like engineering and ended up doing it because someone told them it’s a good job. Whatever the reason, some people are just there to work for eight hours a day because they can’t get much enjoyment out of the work.
And that’s okay. Most people need a job, and if they bring value to the team, there’s a place for them. There’s always too much work for someone that has a clear niche, there’s always enough on the backlog that no one wants to do but that still needs to be done, and there will always be emergent situations that someone needs to attend. The Disengaged can be great for essentially doing whatever the project requires at that time, without having to worry about what motivates them — because nothing might, except more time off, or more money so they can retire earlier.
The most accepted model for personality traits is the Big Five, which has five binary dimensions:
- Extraversion (outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved)
- Agreeableness (friendly/compassionate vs. critical/rational)
- Openness, to experience (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious)
- Conscientiousness (efficient/organized vs. extravagant/careless)
- Neuroticism (sensitive/nervous vs. resilient/confident)
To me, these seem like great dimensions on which to differentiate personalities in general, but not as useful in terms of engineering. In our industry, being extraverted and agreeable only matter insofar as they’re important for working with and leading others, so I collapsed those two into “teamwork”. Similarly, “conscientiousness” and “neuroticism” aren’t as meaningful on their own, but when looking at them through the lens of what drives people, these two made more sense as a single “focus” dimension, where we differentiate between the journey and the destination. Finally, “openness” seemed an important trait on its own merit, but through my engineering lens, it became “scope” — “broad” being “curious” and “specific” being “consistent”.
But besides the Big Five, I also looked at the Four Temperaments, which is the classical view of personalities, and which is not too far off base — and is probably why it survived the centuries. It defines four personality types:
- Sanguine: extraverted, social, charming, risk-taking
- Choleric: extraverted, decisive, ambitious
- Phlegmatic: introverted, agreeable, philosophical
- Melancholic: introverted, detail-oriented, perfectionistic
If you look not-all-that-closely, two dimensions of the Big 5 are mostly at play there as well: extraversion and conscientiousness. In terms of this engineering model, you could say:
- Sanguine: collaborative and design-focused, the Generalist and the Specialist
- Choleric: collaborative and goal-focused, the Builder and the Conductor
- Phlegmatic: visionary and design-focused, the Architect and the Artisan
- Melancholic: visionary and goal-focused, the Hacker and the Marshal
The Four Temperaments were also used to seed the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, which expands them and maps them onto the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator. Like the MBTI, it defines four dimensions:
- Concrete/observant vs abstract/introspective
- Temperament: cooperative vs pragmatic
- Role: informative vs directive
- Role variant: expressive vs attentive
They map into 16 personalities, but I had trouble mapping these to anything useful in the engineering world. On its face, going backwards from the 16 personalities, the dimension that seemed not important (aside from management and QA) was cooperative vs pragmatic, but of course that trait is very important in other roles too, so it just doesn’t seem to be a good model for our domain.
The three dimensions I ended up with, to me, highlight the most important differences in engineers: those who love to work with others vs those who love to go into the cave; those who love to release code vs those who love to create beauty; and those who love to work on anything as long as it’s challenging vs those who have a particular passion.
Again, this is all such super-soft methodology that would put whipped cream to shame and shouldn’t be used for anything serious — not only from recognizing the many shortfalls of a model like this, but also the fact that people change all the time, and that they don’t fit neatly into one or two or even eight boxes.
But I do think that, especially as a people leader or as an introspective individual contributor, being aware of these sorts of inclinations can help with knowing what kind of work makes a person happy, which is very important because of the old proverb: “do what you love, and you’ll never work another day in your life.” A happy employee is the most productive they can be.