Why software engineers fail
I was reading an interesting entry over at fellow Yahoo Luke Wroblewski’s blog entitled, Why Designers Fail. The entry outlines research done by Scott Berkun regarding the career of designers and why some fail to achieve the results they desire. Luke sums up the findings nicely saying that many of the reasons why designers fail have little to do with the design skills of the designer: “Many top reasons for failure are not typically considered design issues, such as collaboration skills, persuasion skills, and receiving critical feedback.”
What struck me most about the findings were that these skills are things that could hold back anyone in their career. Actually, reading the entry reminded me of one of the first conversations I had with my current manager at Yahoo! His words still ring in my ears from time to time: “At this point, we already know that you have all the technical skills to do the job; what determines how far you’ll go is really more about how you deal with people.”
I believe this is true for nearly any profession. When you begin your career, it’s important to prove that you have the skills to do the job. Writers must prove they can write, designers must prove that they can designer, teachers must prove that they can teach. After proving you can do the job, you need to show that you can continue to grow in the role. This means learning new skills, making fewer mistakes, and being able to do the job without oversight. At this level, what you’re really doing is earning the trust of your superiors and co-workers. After that comes the point at which many people fail: evolution into a piece of the organization. This typically begins the conversation about the Peter principle.
The Peter principle says that you’ll keep getting promoted until you finally end up in a job that you can’t do. This happens because the higher up in the organizational structure you move, the less your technical skills matter and the more your people skills matter. So whereas you began in a position that played to your strengths, you end up in one that plays to your weakenesses. This is precisely what Berkun found in his study, that designers were failing due to factors outside of their design skills. That is why designers fail. It’s also why software engineers fail.
Designers and software engineers, once they rise high enough in the organizational hierarchy, both need to learn how to work within the organizational structure. Oftentimes, that means gaining the trust of business partners: designers need to gain the trust of engineers, engineers need to gain the trust of product managers. Gaining the trust of these business partners means being able to successfully negotiate, compromise, and work towards meeting a common goal without alienating people through your actions and speech. This is typically where people falter in their careers.
Yahoo! is a huge company, and this year I’ve had to learn how to play the organizational game. I can honestly say it’s been far more challenging than anything I’ve done before. Dealing with people is much more difficult than dealing with technology, that’s for sure. You need to understand what each person responds to in terms of approach. Some people will easily cave when pressure is applied, others need to be convinced through logical argument while another set may require emotional persuasion. And of course, all of this must be done while making sure that all of these people still respect you and don’t feel manipulated.
Fortunately, my interest and research in social interaction has really helped me thusfar. Understanding what drives people and how to communicate effectively have been key to me. If you have aspirations of moving up in your company, then it would behoove you to also start researching these topics. The only way to really get ahead in business is a better understanding of people. Hard skill jobs such as engineers and designers are commodities that can easily be outsourced if necessary; soft skill jobs requiring you to work with and inspire others will always be in high demand and, as a bonus, can never be outsourced. Mastering people skills ensures employability, and more importantly, ensures that you won’t fail.
Disclaimer: Any viewpoints and opinions expressed in this article are those of Nicholas C. Zakas and do not, in any way, reflect those of my employer, my colleagues, Wrox Publishing, O'Reilly Publishing, or anyone else. I speak only for myself, not for them.