Engineering Values and Principles

Posted by Howard on Wednesday, August 31, 2022

In almost every engineering all-hands I’ve been a part of, the senior engineering leader has a slide where they present a set of core engineering values. I guess it shouldn’t have come as too much of a surprise, then, when a colleague finally asked me what my core principles were. It’s more than just a reasonable question - being clear about values and principles can provide a crucial north star when needing to make a decision in the face of ambiguity. After reflecting for a bit, I put together the following list.

  1. Bias for action - build, measure, iterate
  2. Commonality requires finding patterns. Patterns are emergent, not a priori - delay constraining until there’s a clear pattern
  3. For functionality that creates differentiated value, we build it internally with full-time employees. For everything else, we buy it or use vendors.
  4. You build it, you own it - all of it
  5. If you don’t have a team to support it, what you have is a POC. Don’t release it.
  6. Cleverness is one of the fastest ways to design yourself into a corner. Optimize for clarity.
  7. Use the right tool for the right job, but balance that with accessibility to other engineers
  8. If you don’t have supporting data, you don’t have a best practice - you have a best preference
  9. If a piece of tech doesn’t do what you need it to without a clever hack, there’s a good chance it’s not the right tech

Principles like these can’t be converted into a task list. They’re also not so fixed as to be some kind of existential truth. However, for me at least, this list articulates a set of beliefs that have formed over the past 2 decades now (several of them through some really hard lessons - #6 being a prime example) - so while they can certainly change, my experience suggests that they change slowly - and there’s a delightful stability in that.

So these are my principles. My hope is that by sharing them with folks I work with, they at least have a little insight into how my brain works when we’re in the weeds together working through a problem.

To close, I’ll leave you with something to think about. What are your principles and how have they shaped (and continue to shape) your approach to engineering? Doing the kind of work we do is no fun if we all have the same lens, but I’ve found it incredibly helpful to at least be aware of my own lens so that I can maybe be a little more able to see others’ lens as perspective and not right/wrong.