The Importance of Thinking Like an Engineer

Last year, after a decade in the media business, I left the world of buying and selling ads to start an enterprise software company. Technically, I am still involved in the media business since the HR software we are building is designed for agencies and media companies. I also write about the industry in this column as well as for my blog, The Makegood.

But compared to the cacophonous world of media, running a software company has been a significant change. Sometimes, it’s a bit like living in a monastery. The high priests are the engineers—the people that conjure software into existence with lines of code uploaded to servers thousands of miles away. All this engineering takes a tremendous amount of concentration, so much so that when engineers speak to one another it’s usually in hushed tones. This is in stark contrast to some of the livelier agency environments that I have been a part of.

What’s also different is what motivates engineers. I’ve come to realize that, unlike some people I’ve known in media, money isn’t really a huge factor. Sure, developers want to be paid well, but for them money is not the end all, be all.

Engineers are also far less interested in status and power compared to other people I’ve met. While some engineers aspire to lead teams and become managers, most want to continue to code regardless of their responsibilities. Even Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has attempted to return to coding after spending years managing the company’s growth. The coolest job right now is being a highly talented software engineer, not a power mad CEO.

So what do engineers really want? First and foremost, engineers want to solve interesting problems. That’s why they became engineers in the first place. Also, it helps if the problems that they are solving are important and will actually make people’s lives better in some way.

Engineers also want to solve a problem in a way that is elegant. No good engineer wants to be known for creating some lousy software product. Like a computer that is well designed on the outside and on the inside, the integrity of the solution must be complete. Sloppy code, even if it works, really annoys great software engineers.

Engineers want consistent and steady direction. They don’t want to be asked to build something without a clear spec. They don’t want to be halfway through building a new feature only to be told that everything has changed. Engineers want very specific short-term objectives, more general mid term goals and then a broader, long-term vision for the product.

Engineers also want to be part of a great team. Software doesn’t get built unless a lot of smart people well work together, so it’s important to hire people that the whole team respects. There’s a reason why many developers love to work at Google—it’s a company that rigorously qualifies each candidate and puts engineers first.

As the media and advertising industry is transformed into a technology business, it will be important for everyone to understand how engineers approach their work. After all, every web site, ad server and mobile app rests on their shoulders. Learning to think like an engineer will ultimately be a useful skill for almost anyone in media.

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6 comments about "The Importance of Thinking Like an Engineer".
  1. Robert Wright from iAsk , June 18, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.
    Hi Matt, Excellent post, I'm in full agreement. My question for you is what specific steps are you advocating in order to think like an engineer? How will a person know when they are thinking like an engineer? Thanks for the clarification/ warm wishes, Robert
  2. Matt Straz from Namely , June 18, 2012 at 1:58 p.m.
    Great question, Robert. Based on your comment I'm going to follow this up next week with a column entitled "How to Think Like an Engineer." Look for it on Monday. Thanks again!
  3. Ruth ann Barrett from EarthSayers.tv , June 18, 2012 at 2:40 p.m.
    Who wouldn't want to work in an organization where the engineers are gods and they are nearly all white, under 30 and the marketing people are encouraged to think like white, under 30 males with an engineering degree and little life experience and no customer knowledge? Me.
  4. Norm Page from Same Page Capital, LLC , June 18, 2012 at 3:02 p.m.
    Shedding a light on the life of the engineer is important for us all, especially for those on the buy-side of the products and solutions that get built by said engineers - namely brands and agencies. (Many sales teams are already familiar with the nomadic engineer since sales folks represent technology or technology-driven media solutions.) And a common understanding of all industry business - and personal - drivers is essential to our collective success. That said, it is exactly the balancing act of elegant solutions crafted by the most gifted engineers with the market-driven leadership of sales translated through a talented product team where the trinity really comes together to form a transformational company. We have no shortage of engineering-driven solutions in desperate need of a problem in the industry, same goes for feature sets seemingly drafted in a market void, and easily as many vaporware sales efforts. What you want to be a part of - as a buyer of or a seller of - is a well-disciplined sales organization where engineers deliver the best products that meet and exceed the needs dictated by the market (most notably represented by dollars) as represented internally - and externally - by a strong group of product managers. Just my $0.02.
  5. Andrew Metcalf from Cloud Nine Media , June 18, 2012 at 3:20 p.m.
    As an engineer and product manager working for @cloudninemedia I can relate to what you're saying. I think the biggest challenge stems from the difference between an interrupt-driven and task-oriented workflow. As an engineer, I work by defining a problem, outlining a strategy for solving it and then developing a solution during periods of focused effort. The definition and prioritization of these tasks is the driving force in my workflow. Our sales and campaign management teams by comparison, are much more driven by interrupts such as emails, meetings and calls that demand attention throughout the day. When those interrupts require input from the engineering team, those workflows can clash. I think it has been very helpful for us to sit down with our counterparts and discuss our working styles with them. It's also valuable for us as engineers to understand the central importance to the sales and campaign teams of responding to customer questions and issues in a timely. As engineers, we are motivated by solving interesting problems but we can't forget that those problems don't exist in a vacuum -- they belong to real customers.
  6. Robert Wright from iAsk , June 19, 2012 at 1:20 p.m.
    Thanks Matt, Looking forward to your next post. / Robert