Soggy Floppy Arms

The other side of the Grace Hopper coin

I was talking to my friend the other day, and he said, “I discovered something important. You don’t know how much influence you have until you have failed to influence someone.” I thought for a min and said, you know, that sounds a lot like Grace Hopper’s “It is easier to get forgiveness than permission.” And my friend said, “yea, but it is the other side of the coin. Grace’s quote is about you and the actions you take, mine is about how I get others to take the actions I need them to take.”

In specific, he was describing some behavior where a group of Principles felt ‘unsupported’ by the execs at the company. They wanted more vocal preemptive permission in order to accomplish the hard jobs they were doing. And immediately, I was reminded of every time I heard a Staff Engineer say, “My boss won’t let me do this thing I think needs to be done.”

You are allowed to do that you know

If I had a nickel for every time I heard a Staff Engineer say this, I would have a pretty hefty cudgel to beat some sense into that engineer with. But instead, I roll my eyes and remind them of the Grace Hopper quote and then ask some probing questions about what was going on to see if I can unblock them.

Organizations have to trust Staff Engineers a lot. They understand the engineering of the product they are working on, they also understand their customers, and they understand the organization around them. They know how to organize people, and how to break down work. I think of them as shitty Engineering Managers. Which is to say a Staff Engineer could probably do an EM’s job, poorly.

If you think of them that way, the relationship between them and an EM is not a subordinate one, it should be a peer relationship. The Staff Engineer should be feeding priorities and observations to the EM, sometimes they should go off and build something because no one else has time or skill. But they should be helping to plan the actual work that happens with their technical forward focus.

So when I hear a Staff Engineer say “My boss won’t let me do a thing” I immediately start to wonder why would you even ask for permission. Just do the damn thing and tell the EM what needs to be done, and if they don’t do it then figure out how to influence folks to do it.

I hear keyboards warming up to tell me I am an idiot encouraging Staff Engineers to run amok, but this is premised on your Staff Engineers are actually capable of doing the job. My experience is that the number of Staff Engineers who can’t do the job is much higher than Sr Engineers who can’t do their job, change my mind.

I have coached a LOT of Staff Engineers over the years and getting them to realize they have autonomy in the system is the hardest thing. They are like a dog who is used to a leash and one day that leash is gone, they keep looking back to make sure things are OK. But in time the real Staff Engineers realize what their role is and start leading the way we intend them to.

How far is too far?

If a Staff Engineer has to be reminded of Grace Hopper, Principles have to be reminded of my friend. The value a Principle Engineer brings to the organization is not how good they are at writing software, it is a part of it but nowhere near all of it. Principle engineers know everything a Staff Engineer knows, and they understand the business as well. If Staff Engineers are shitty Engineering Managers, Principle Engineers could actually be good, if not great Engineering Managers and Directors.

My friend explained how he came to his epiphany, one day he noticed a Director in an org really pushing a change at a layer that didn’t really make sense. They were going to leverage a 3rd Party component to produce a result that would require them to do a LOT of work to the data in order to get reliable metrics. What would have made more sense would have been to pull this all into the enterprise and write a service to produce what they needed. Their effort would probably be the same, but they would have way more control. The pushback from the Director isn’t important, but their objections can be dealt with leaving the org in a better place. Instead of pushing harder my friend let them continue and he is starting to see the issues he was worried about.

Now my friend could have pushed harder, but he didn’t know where his limits were. No one really shut him down, the Director just said I think I am right, we are sticking with my current plan. There was still stuff my friend could have done. But he didn’t and so he doesn’t really know where the edge of his influence is. He never actually asked for support from a VP or the CTO (which he could have done.)

Soggy Floppy Arms

Another friend of mine Matt Knox and I talk about what he calls “Soggy Floppy Arms” a lot. If you have ever watched the Muppets, you know that action they make when they are running away in fear from something? Their arms are above their heads, and flopping like those air-driven tube people that peddle all kinds of things on the side of the road. I used to describe it as “I have tried nothing, and I am all out of ideas,” but I like Soggy Floppy Arms a lot better.

For a group of Principles to ask for exec support before an exec has shut them down is premature. If you aren’t getting the response you want from people, it might be time to try a few more things including asking the exec to help out. You don’t know where your influence ends yet. The next thing you might try just might work, and if it doesn’t you will know how much influence you actually have.