What makes a great software engineer?

A couple weeks ago, a presentation made the rounds online about Netflix culture. The presentation featured the many benefits of working for Netflix and how the company goes about hiring (and firing) employees. While there was a lot of information about Netflix’s treatment of employees, which clearly makes Netflix an attractive place to work, the missing part is a list of employee expectations. The beginning of the presentation touches upon the company values that point in the direction of expectations but doesn’t go far enough to lay those out.

I don’t work at Netflix, of course (I work for Yahoo!), but I feel strongly that what makes a great employee and a great engineer is the same regardless of where you work. There are a few things that great engineers always do.

Always do it the right way

One of the challenges of software is to learn how to do it the right way. The right way is different depending upon what you’re working on and who you’re working for. Exactly what “the right way” consists of is less important than doing it that way all the time. Junior engineers tend to have the most trouble with this, but it does happen with senior-level people too. There’s an “emergency” project, or something that seems so different that it must have its own set of rules. That’s bogus. Good engineers know that the right way applies to all situations and circumstances. If there’s not enough time to do something the right way, then there’s really not enough time to do it. Don’t make compromises, the quality of your work is what ultimately defines you as an engineer. Make sure that all of the code you write is done the right way 100% of the time. Expect excellence from yourself.

Be willing to suffer

This may sound silly, but good engineers are willing to suffer for their work. Show me a great engineer and I’ll show you someone that has, at various points in his or her career, spent days trying to figure out a problem. Great engineers relish the challenge of a problem that keeps them up day and night, and knowing that it must be solved.

Not-so-great engineers call for help at the first sign of trouble. They routinely ask for help whenever something goes wrong rather than trying to fix it themselves. Their favorite line is, “can you look at this?” Great engineers first and foremost want to solve the problem on their own. Problem solving is a skill, a skill that great engineers take seriously.

Good engineers become great engineers by suffering. Suffering means not asking for help unless you absolutely cannot handle the task. Asking for help is a sign of defeat, so ring that bell infrequently lest you draw unwanted attention to yourself. Be willing to suffer. Spend time toiling over the problem. That’s how you learn.

Note: I am not saying that you should never ask for help. I am saying that you should try to accomplish the task on your own first, and if you get stuck, then ask for help. Don’t simply ask for help every time without first trying to solve the problem yourself. Chances are, you’ll find that you could have figured it out on your own once you know the answer.

Never stop learning

Any engineer who claims that they don’t need to learn anything new is not someone with whom I’d like to work. In some careers, you can get away without learning anything new for years; technology changes too quickly to not pay attention. Your employer is paying you for your expertise and if that expertise goes stale, you become expendable. In order to be a great engineer you must first admit that you don’t know everything, and then you must seek out more knowledge in every way you can.

Identify someone in your current company or organization from which you can learn and attach yourself to him or her. Ask for advice on complex problems to see how they think. Show them solutions you’ve come up with and ask for a critique. If you can’t identify anyone in your organization that can serve as a mentor, then either you’re not looking hard enough or you’re at the wrong company. If you can’t grow in your current job then it’s time to look for another.

Read blogs. Attend conferences. Go to developer meetups. Great engineers never stop learning.

Share your knowledge

There are some who believe that their sole value is their knowledge, and by sharing that knowledge they therefore make themselves less valuable. Nothing could be farther from the truth. What makes you valuable is not your knowledge, it’s how you make use of your knowledge to create value for your employer. How better to create value from your knowledge than to share it with others?

I’ve interviewed at companies where hording knowledge seemed deeply-rooted at the organizational level. In that type of environment, a fierce competition develops between co-workers, and this opens the door to politics and backstabbing. I don’t want to work in an organization like that. You can’t learn if everyone is keeping information to themselves.

Great engineers want others to know what they know. They aren’t afraid of losing their position because someone else can do the same thing. Great engineers want to see their peers succeed and grow. Organizations rally around people who share information, and as they say in sports, people who make other people on the team better.

Lend a helping hand

Great engineers don’t consider any task to be “beneath” them. Always willing to lend a hand, you can see great engineers helping out junior engineers in between doing their own work. If something has to get done, and no one else is able to do it in time, great engineers volunteer to take on the work. They don’t scoff when asked to help on a project, whether it be small or menial or low-profile. Great engineers are team-focused and therefore are willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. Whether that be writing 1,000 lines of code or editing an image, great engineers jump at the chance to help out.

Take your time

Great engineers aren’t born, they are made. They’re made by following the advice in this post and by hard work. If you’re just starting out, there’s still plenty of time to become a great engineer. Patience is key. You don’t become a great engineer over night. For some it may take a couple years, for others it may take ten. There’s no one keeping score. Strong organizations recognize when someone has the potential to be a great engineer and will guide you along. You prove yourself through your work and how you make your team better. Focus and self-discipline go a long way towards becoming a great software engineer.

Update (5 Sep 2009): Added disclaimer paragraph to “Be willing to suffer.” Seems like people are greatly misunderstanding my point.

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