A Case For Being a Humble Engineer

August 14, 2023

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Photo by Kyle Johnson on Unsplash

Have you heard the myth of the 10x engineer?

The 10x engineer myth claims that engineers are “10x more effective than others.” These unicorn-status engineers are often typecast “brilliant jerks” that ignore meetings to rewrite entire systems in a few days or leave their teams out to dry.

The myth has become somewhat of a joke these days, but there remains some residue about this idea that to get ahead, you have to put yourself first. You are suppossed to avoid humility and opt for a winner takes all approach.

And yet many fantastic engineering leaders are humble. I think of people Scott Hanselman, Kelsey Hightower, or Kent C Dodds. People who have shaped our industry significantly through their accomplishments but are quick to take a humble stance, give credit to others, and adopt a posture of learning.

Why is there a disconnect here?

The reason is that we misunderstand (or potentially misapply) humility in our industry.

Being humble is not about a lack of advocacy for yourself or passing up credit for your accomplishments. Being humble doesn’t mean you’re a doormat, either.

Instead, humility is a posture. It’s about how you achieve your work, interact with your peers, and how you communicate your accomplishments.

Today I want to make a case for why humility as an engineer is more beneficial than you think.

Let’s dive into a few ways in which humility instead of ego can help move your career forward rather than hinder it.

Talking about humility on a post is always a bit awkward. I'll be upfront that while I aim to be like the engineer described below, in many ways, I'm still learning to adopt these behaviors too.

Humble Software Engineers Embrace Learning

Humble engineers understand that there is always more to learn. They fully understand that there is too much in our industry to be an expert in everything. They are careful to avoid making claims on topics they know little about.

This posture allows humble engineers to avoid the pitfalls of ego in their work, ever searching for a better solution, a new perspective, and something else to learn. It also allows them to be open to learning from their peers and admit gaps in their understanding of a topic.

To put this another way, humble engineers are always learning. They are curious during pull requests, always asking great questions and learning a new tip or trick. They are ever building their network with people with different skills and knowledge that they can leverage in the future when they have a gap. They read docs, books, and blogs to understand the craft of software even better. They then rely on those same sources to substantiate their opinions and perspectives.

And in an industry that changes quickly, this is an invaluable skill. A willingness and tenacity to always be ready to learn something new will be noticed and rewarded.

Humble Software Engineers Receive (and Give) Help

Humble engineers recognize that every engineer - including them! - will need help in their career growth journey. Whether they had great mentors, access to great professors or online courses, or even having that first company take a chance on them as an intern, humble engineers acknowledge the people who helped them along the way.

This is where many false ideas of humility lie. The idea is that a truly humble engineer won’t take any credit for their work or advocate for their accomplishments. But this is far from the truth. We’ll talk about how a humble engineer can take appropriate credit for their work in a later point - and in a way that makes taking that credit nearly impossible to argue with!

For now, know it is possible to say, “I’ve accomplished some great things and worked really hard to get here,” and also say, “And I couldn’t have done it without the help from so-and-so.”

On the flip side, an engineer who recognizes that everyone needs help is also the engineer most likely to give it. They offer their time and knowledge to others looking to grow, actively mentoring and coaching other engineers. And if there was ever a “10x engineer”, it is an engineer that invests in their team.

Humble Engineers Have Better Working Relationships

Based on the previous points, it’s no surprise that humble engineers have better working relationships with their colleagues. And these better relationships are often critical to an engineer’s career growth.

No matter how good you are at coding, if no one wants to work with you, your teams will leave you (or worse - kick you out!). No amount of brilliance will help you get the next big opportunity if you don’t haven’t built a relationship of trust with your manager or leaders. You might even have years of wisdom and insight to offer, but no one wants advice from someone they wish they didn’t have to work with.

Humility can help. Humility is an attractive quality. As excellence attracts luck so humility attracts relationships. Gaining a proper posture and view of oneself (which is really at the core of humility) can aid the creation and preservation of these positive relationships needed to build a team, be given level-up opportunities, and expand influence.

If you seek to create such positive relationships, you should learn humility.

Humble Software Engineers Prefer Facts Instead of Opinions

Lastly, humble engineers use facts more than their opinions. Opinions are plentiful, inconsistent and can lead you anywhere. Facts are often fewer, constant, and lead to solutions.

A humble engineer recognizes these differences and their own biases related to previous experience. This recognition leads them to search for information and data whenever they propose solutions to problems instead of relying on bravado or their past credibility. The docs, books, and blogs they read become (remember point 1?) become cited evidence for their proposals and ideas.

Another practical way that humble engineers prefer facts to opinions is how an engineer discusses their accomplishments during performance reviews. Instead of touting exaggerations - “I improved our event processing time by leaps and bounds. I was the only engineer who could have pulled this off” - a humble engineer says, “I improved our processing time of certain events by 25% and here is the dashboard tracking it.”

For humble engineers, their contributions for the year aren’t a “brag sheet” anymore. They don’t need to exaggerate or glorify - they point to facts and data.

Will there be places you have to wade into the opinion world to get things done in your career? Absolutely. Will you need to fill in the gaps in a promo packet about hard-to-measure objectives? Sure you will.

But don’t let those be the default, and always have some supporting evidence for your opinion or perspective.

All this to say, being a humble software engineer might just be the secret path toward growth you’ve been looking for. The secondary qualities it produces - tenacious learning, improved relationships, objectivity, and helping others - can take you far in our industry.

Every engineer will inevitably face a problem or obstacle in their careers they need help resolving. And in those moments, the prideful “10x engineers” will find themselves without a lot of it.

But engineers who have spent time learning, networking, and helping others will be positioned to stand out and succeed.

Happy coding!

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Dan Goslen is a software engineer, climber, and coffee drinker. He has spent 10 years writing software systems that range from monoliths to micro-services and everywhere in between. He's passionate about building great software teams that build great software. He currently works as a software engineer in Raleigh, NC where he lives with his wife and son.