Ahead of his talk at LeadingEng West Coast in October, Best Egg’s Johnny Austin talks us through the biggest lies engineering managers tell themselves.
We all lie to ourselves from time to time. “I’ll go for a run tomorrow”, “I’m no good at this”, and, “If I make that one hire everything will be solved”. It’s only human, but it’s also not a productive use of your time.
Ahead of his talk on the topic at LeadingEng West Coast later this year, LeadDev's Scott Carey (SC) checked in with Johnny Austin (JA), Head of Technology at the lending platform Best Egg.
The below conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. Johnny's full talk will be available at LeadingEng West Coast on October 18 in Oakland, California.
SC: Can you tell us what you’re going to be talking about at our LeadingEng event in Oakland later this year?
JA: The title of the talk is, Space aliens are among us, your product roadmap is realistic, and other lies you believe. The title is a bit tongue in cheek, but it’s really meant to get at all of the things that we assume or tell ourselves are true, but aren’t actually true when reality hits. I want to help people work through those ambiguities a little bit so they can set more realistic expectations moving forward.
SC: What are some of the biggest lies that senior engineers tell themselves?
JA: I’ll talk about a couple, but if you want the rest you are going to have to buy a ticket. One of the big ones is “You’ll hit your headcount on time to deliver your key roadmap items”. I’ve seen this over and over again, I’ve done it myself plenty of times. It’s like, “Alright, it’s Q2, we’re going to deliver this thing by the end of Q3”, and it’s all hinging on you hiring three people in the meantime, and their onboarding, and all that other stuff. This almost never happens the way you expect.
The other one that comes up a lot is that big refactor is going to somehow improve developer productivity. It probably won’t and it’ll probably take much longer than you think. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some refactors that are absolutely necessary, I’ve seen those add a lot of value. But the ones that I’m talking about are switching from Angular to React, or “TypeScript isn’t right for us”. There are all kinds of reasons, developers want to rewrite code. Probably the biggest one is “I don’t understand the code that someone wrote, so I need to rewrite all of it”. There are valid reasons to do this, but I’d say 80-85% of the time, it’s completely unnecessary.
SC: What are you hoping that the audience takes away from your talk?
JA: Things rarely play out as expected. We tend to live in theory a lot, we’re making plans, but when reality hits, we need to be comfortable with the unexpected.
Handling ambiguity is as important a skill as coding, if not more important, as far as I’m concerned. Coding is something that is much more of a commodity these days, particularly as global borders have come down, and you can hire from anywhere in the world. There are a lot more coders out there. So that’s less of a differentiated skill set. Really being able to deal with the ambiguities of day-to-day life and quantifying what people are working on and how it impacts the business, ultimately, is a much more valuable skill set these days. I really want people to walk away with that understanding.
SC: And why did you decide to share this story at LeadingEng?
JA: I talk to a lot of engineering leaders, and particularly coming out of the pandemic, a lot of leaders judged themselves really harshly for not delivering on the things that they had planned.
Everyone thought they were on this rocket ship at the beginning of 2020 and the world just absolutely went sideways. I was just reading that a lot of executives in particular are considering leaving their jobs because they have been burned out over the last couple of years with fast-paced growth, COVID-19, people going home and then dealing with the fallout there, the hiring boom, and then the hiring bust and having to layoff so many people. It’s a lot.
I think we just need to ground ourselves in what reality is and remind ourselves how the world actually works. In a lot of ways, it’s a therapy session, and I want to really get people back to thinking about things in a way that’s more productive and conducive to their mental health.