Tech Life Show Me Your Power

The Second Test

A quick search of Rands in Repose archives reveals that I have never mentioned Piers Anthony as a major influence. I consumed the Xanth series over the course of several years, and am certain much of a formative teenage wit is based on the literary stylings of Anthony.

These books have not aged well, or perhaps I’ve aged too much. When I recently picked up The Source of Magic, I appreciated the trip down memory lane, but it’s a lane firmly entrenched in my youth. Other books of the time, Ender’s Game and Asimov’s Robot and Foundations series, have stood the test of time as evidenced by my ability to endlessly reread them.

Anthony wrote a mostly forgettable series called The Bio of a Space Tyrant. The series describes the rise of the Tyrant of Jupiter, hilariously named “Hope Hubris”. Don’t read it, but know that the main character’s talents has stuck with me through the years because it relates to why you think engineers don’t like you.

Show Me Your Power

Whether you’re an engineer or not, if you’re reading this there is a good chance that there are engineers in your life. And that means there is an equal chance that at some point an engineer appeared to not like you and you weren’t quite sure why. Engineers are not a rare breed these days, but they are an odd breed. I’ve documented a lot of their, uh, attributes over the years. I’ve explained why they’re system thinkers, where they like to work, and why they hate meetings, but I haven’t explained why they hate you.

Ok, hate is a strong word. How about distrust? How about the sense that when you’re sitting in the room that they’re looking at you like you’re an alien when all you’re thinking is you’re the alien.

There is a variety of nerd quirks that can lead to this social impedance. Yes, we are generally low on emotional intelligence. Yes, our preference is that we could resolve whatever called for this crap meeting via email. Yes, we don’t like like talking to, you know, people, but a lot of that social awkwardness goes away when you’ve passed the Second Test.

Back to Piers Anthony’s forgettable Tyrant series. Hope Hubris (seriously, that was his name) had the ability to look at someone and immediately understand their character. As the series progressed, characters in the book would ask him to “show me your power” and he’d immediately respond with a complete analysis of their character. I’d dig up a specific example, but I can’t bear to read these books again.

Piers Anthony is a perfect read for the nerd teenager. He taps into the unabashed imagination of youth combined with the complex insecurities of the teen years. He also empowers. His Xanth books describe a land where magic exists everywhere and each person has a unique magical talent. In Tyrant, Hope’s character assessment talent is the same type of empowering, impossible magical talent that appeals to the awkward nerd teen.

I’ve never forgotten Hope’s talent because it’s a test I employ on every new person in my professional world. It is the Second Test.

The Second Test

In your company, there are three kinds of people. There are those you are aware of, but who don’t immediately affect your world. There are those who mildly affect  your world and upon whom you have a lightweight dependency. And there are those who are an active part of your world. You depend on them.

I don’t want to depend on you. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that as an engineer I irrationally believe that anything I don’t build with my own hands is going to get fucked up by someone else. I believe this because I’ve spent a good portion of my life watching other well-meaning people sit down at a computer and simply… make things harder for themselves.

It’s an irrational, unfair, and annoying perspective, but when you’re sitting there across from an engineer who has been forced to depend on you, he or she is wondering, “How are they are going fuck up my shit?”

The good news is that you already passed the First Test – you were hired. The folks sitting around the table hired you and that means they believe you should be there. Hopefully, it was a nontrivial process to get hired. Hopefully, they put you through a professional wringer and now that you’re hired you’re basking in a sense of accomplishment. Bad news, the Second Test is harder.

The Second Test is: you must build something of value as perceived by the organism.

It’s a deceptively slippery test, so let me explain each part:

You must build something. You’re thinking that I’m talking about coding or designing, but I’m not. I’m talking about a thing that you built by yourself, or for which you led development with others. You have mad skills of some sort and you have used those skills to build something that has previously not existed for the team.

Of value. This thing that you’ve built, this process that you’ve defined, this story that you told, it must be clear what value it’s adding to the company. You rebuilt the front page of the website – terrific – does it tell the story of the company better? Does it feel like the company? You optimized our bug tracking system – splendid – did you actually make it better or are you just trying to show you can do useful stuff? This leads us to our final clause.

As perceived by the organism. This is the hard part. I see that you’ve built this thing and I attended the meeting where you eloquently explained the value of this thing, but the test isn’t passed without independent confirmation. Even if I sat there nodding the entire time as you pitched me on the value, I’m not signed off until Arthur walks by, sticks his head in my office, and says, “Did you see the thing? That is going to save me hours each week. Awesome.”

Engineers are meritocratic, which means we don’t really care about your resume or your title. While your resume might be an interesting story that eventually led to your hiring, we want to see what you can build. Right now, that alien sitting across the table is wondering about your power. You passed the First Test, so the question now is, what power do you have and how are you going to use it for good? What you see in their eyes is not hate, it’s a deep skepticism.

I’m Skeptical of Experts

An unwatched successful business gets fat. The money pouring in means there’s far too much work, which means you go on a hiring spree. What was 15 folks rapidly becomes 50, and the experts start to show up. Experts are the folks who are allegedly really qualified to do a job. See, at 15 people everyone did a little bit of everything, but there is no time for that now because of the success. You think you need HR, Marketing, Sales, and Business Development.

Incorrect. What you need is people who get shit done.

I am not suggesting that the hardworking people in these other disciplines don’t have amazingly complex and difficult jobs, but I do think they should be able to clearly describe the work they do and the value they provide… to anyone. They need to pass the Second Test, and that means being able to fully and clearly explain your job to the rest of your team not with words, but with action.

Most folks believe that if they can describe a job that they can do it. Most folks are wrong. I’ve been spun and burned by too many fast-talking, charismatic experts in my career to trust anything but results. The Second Test is not the exclusive domain of engineers. In most groups of people, there is a means by which you earn your stripes. The difference with engineers is a combination of their low tolerance for spin and their deep desire for measurability.

Passing the Second Test when engineers are involved means that you’ve built something that fully and clearly explains your power.

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12 Responses

  1. /Stands and claps.

    Great post. Could not agree with you more..especially on the last section.


  2. I know that Second Test well ๐Ÿ™‚ It can be a little bit annoying as you get older and bounce around a lot.

    I wish I had Hope’s power. Too often I’ve misjudged someone based on their surface appearance. It would be nice to know when a fox has arrived in the hen house long before the eggs start missing …


  3. Jason 12 years ago

    Thinking about this test, and with respect to the upcoming elections, I just can’t shake the feeling that almost all of our politicians are incapable of passing the second test at all.

    Maybe that’s why as an engineer, I hate them so much…. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. (Holds match aloft) More!

    Distinctly uncomfortable memories of teaching presentation skills to a group of engineers. Uncomfortable until I showed them the before and after on a fellow engineer’s slides and language; explained why I thought the after version was worth the trouble; and quantified the value of the time and effort invested in the case study.

    Now I have much better language to express the above.

    Thanks as always.

  5. Wow, Piers Anthony is a pretty deep cut, and that makes me think of my teenage years as well…

    I think this is an excellent description of the mutual “feeling out” period that occurs when you start somewhere as a programmer or when a new programmer starts on your team. “Am I going to learn from this person?” “Am I going to be annoyed by this person?” “Will I become friends with this person?”

    That’s probably universally applicable, but it seems much more visceral in a line of work where you’re going to be collaborating on creating and building things. Many artists and other types of creators are fiercely independent and can be — we are, but are generally forced to collaborate. Hence, the friction.

    Great post.

  6. Great article. The only part missing is when you have two engineers looking at each other, both dubious of the other. The newcomer is wondering, am I going to learn and grow at this new place, or are they not all they seem. The other is wondering, what can I trust this guy with. Where’s the limit. We’re paying him, but what can he do for us?

  7. Great article – especially relevant for me, as I’m about to start a new job where I will be working with a lot of suspicious engineers, and will need to look for ways to show value early – I’m also re-reading your first 90 days post for ideas.

    Ah, Bio of a Space Tyrant. I have a fond memory of borrowing the first book in that series from a friend my freshman year of high school, and being so eager to read it that I started reading it in history class. The teacher snuck up on me, grabbed it out of my hand, and flipped it open to a random page, which happened to be the rape scene. He sputtered incoherently, flung the book into the garbage can and told me never to bring such trash into the classroom again. Oh, Piers Anthony.

  8. s/immediate/immediately/

  9. Phil Esposito 12 years ago

    As a non-engineer I found this to be an insightful article and I will keep this in mind moving forward. And it is a bit ironic, as a non engineer I have found myself in meetings sitting across from engineers also thinking, “how is he going to fuck up my shit up?”.

  10. Sigh; Piers Anthony’s Xanth novels suffer from the mysteriously retroactive sexism fairy. When I read them last time, there wasn’t all this crazy gender bias, how the hell did it creep in here? Some evil fairy must have gone back in time and put it there.

    (So does Dune, by the way. Holy shit, regressive politics ahoy. Although the ecology stuff is certainly awesome.)

  11. What DBT wrote, except as a teenage *girl* I was strongly aware of the crazy gender bias… it goes all hardcore sexist in the second or third book in the series… which is when I decided the prose wasn’t high quality enough to deal with the giggly women learning how “best to treat their husbands.”

    Reading through the second test, I realize that my DH is constantly passing it with his engineering friends. It makes some of their conversations make a bit more sense. (And I am glad to be an active part of his world.)

  12. Bruce 12 years ago

    Enjoyed Source of Magic. And Peter Gabriel.