Recently I was given the chance to record a short video message, which would be played for folks attending LeadDev New York City. The event organizers offered me a variety of speaking prompts, from which I selected,
“How are engineers enabling the future of user products?”
I feel I gave a nice, clean answer (it had to be under one minute – you can watch it here ). But the act of sketching out what I was going to say offered me the chance to reflect on the prompt itself, my answer, and the contexts behind them. I’m sharing some of those thoughts here.
My initial reaction was that this kind of question – “how can engineers affect the future of (whatever)” – could come from a place of anxiety. The rapid rate of change in the tech industry creates amazing opportunities but is also the source of a lot of stress.
On the one hand people new to a particular technology aren’t ever that far behind the curve. More importantly, it doesn’t take an investment of years to get comfortable, and maybe even proficient, with most technologies. Although admittedly it can still take years to perfect one’s craft and achieve true mastery.
And that’s where the stress comes in. With the rapid rates of change, it’s tempting to pick up every new thing which crowds out the ability to really buckle down and focus on the skills you’ve learned and level up. The decision to let the newest thing pass us by is rife with feelings of being left behind.
Out of those competing aspects comes the more philosophical questions – “Irrespective of the language, framework, or platform I’m using now, what am I really contributing? What good am I bringing to the world?” And that, I think, is the emotion at the heart of asking “how can engineers affect the future of products.” It’s a quest for the answer to the Big Question about tech, the universe, and everything.
Knowing that, it’s now possible to answer both clearly and meaningfully. If the value engineers bring to tech is more than just our ability to design, code, or debug, then it must be something more fundamental. And indeed it is.
As I answered in the video, I believe our value has far more to do with the work of our head and even heart than it ever did with the work of our hands.
Nuance, elegance, intuitiveness, and even sublimity are as much in the purview of engineers as they are of artists, philosophers, or orators. While it’s true that not every solution will transport the user to transcendental heights, it’s equally true that our goal should be to create products and solutions that do more than simply “work”.
They have to work well. They have to be created with an understanding of the user’s needs, desires, and struggles. And they also need to be stable, secure, and performant.
To do that, we have to be more than “coders” or “designers” but as complete humans. We have to show up ready to listen to their stories, put ourselves in their place, and build solutions that make sense to them.
These things can never be handed off to an AI. They are, almost definitionally, outside the realm of organizations that consider a MAP/MVP (minimum acceptable / minimum viable product) to be “good enough”. These things only happen when we bring our whole selves to the work as engineers.
How are engineers enabling the future user products? By combining our technical skills with empathy, passion, and care.