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A team led by, and consisting of, growth-minded engineers is likely the best antidote to the risks that face today's technology initiatives.
As an engineering leader at a medium-to-large company, it takes courage (with perhaps a touch of naïveté) to embark on any ambitious technology initiative.
Doubly so when armed with the knowledge that, of the likely outcomes for an average IT Project, 15% of them will fail outright, and of those that don't, 31% will fail to meet their initial goals, 43% will go over budget, and 48% will be delivered late.
I don't know about you, but those odds are unappealing at best and frightening at worst. As someone coming from a startup background, what I can claim with confidence is that a startup doesn't have the luxury of surviving a range of outcomes that include ‘failing to meet their initial goals’ (a.k.a. not finding product <> market fit) or ‘delivering late’ (a.k.a. running out of cash runway).
At a startup, ultimately your market and customers determine the fate of your efforts and company as a whole. The key to survival and success is to never lose sight of your customer's needs and to identify solutions to problems for which they're most willing to pay for.
Striking on the right opportunity, arriving at product <> market fit, and seizing glory can be generalized as an exercise of continual experimentation and iteration. The ‘overnight success’ stories glamorized by the press often gloss over a less glamorous reality that includes multiple pivots, failures, and regular existential crises.
Traits of success
Navigating the course of my career to date, one constant I’ve observed over the years from building high-impact engineering teams at both startups and enterprises, is that often the same traits that make an engineer successful in one context translates to success in the other, and vice-versa.
Accounting for work environment differences, two engineer traits, in particular, stand out as strong markers for success: 1) having a growth mindset and 2) a focus on delivering value to end-users early and often.
What is a growth mindset you may ask? For those less familiar with the concept, I encourage you to explore the mind-expanding research that Stanford Psychology Professor, Carol Dweck, has been conducting over the past 20+ years as it’s impossible for me to do her work justice in so few words here.
In summary, Professor Dweck has shown through study after study that individuals have either a fixed or a growth mindset (spoiler alert: the good news is that if you currently lean more towards a fixed mindset archetype, all is not lost, since it’s demonstrably possible to develop along the continuum towards a growth mindset!)
Fixed mindset individuals have an ingrained belief that their intelligence and abilities are static, which can lead them to plateauing early in their career and therefore missing out on their full unrealized potential.
Growth mindset individuals, however, recognize that their intelligence is not fixed and is only limited by their willingness to persevere and put in consistent effort to learn and improve. In fact, deliberate and consistent effort is recognized as the road to mastery in whatever endeavor they put their mind to.
How is this relevant to engineering?
For a good engineer, it’s largely table stakes to continue to improve one’s craft through consistent, deliberate effort, such as reading books or attending every conference possible within a particular technical domain.
A great engineer, however, continually pushes one’s comfort zone into new areas of professional growth: whether that’s learning about frontend technologies if primarily backend-focused (and vice versa) or understanding more about an unfamiliar field, such as marketing, sales, design, or product.
Great engineers are not afraid of going back to a state of a ‘beginner’s mind’ when necessary (Shoshin in Japanese) to gain a different perspective on a problem or to help them break through a career plateau. That’s not to say be ‘a jack of all trades and a master of none’ but a healthy dose of curiosity to learn something new can sometimes broaden your perspective and give an edge in the way you approach problems.
Why is a growth mindset a desirable trait in engineers? Just as technology is constantly evolving at what sometimes feels like a breakneck pace, so do consumer tastes and the accompanying landscape of business opportunities in their wake.
I’d go as far as to argue that it’s somewhat of a competitive advantage these days to build a team that’s comfortable keeping with the pace of such change and relishes the opportunity to try, fail, grow, and ultimately succeed – a team of engineers that embraces a growth mindset.
Deliver value early, often, and in increments
Gone are the days of trying to collect every conceivable business requirement up-front, and then going away to build a ‘solution’ over three to five years – a solution based on stale information.
As a concrete example of the above: the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically accelerated the shift of consumer spending online. Consumers are spending as much money online today (both absolutely and as a proportion of all retail sales) as they were projected to spend in the 2022-23 horizon (assuming a pre-COVID growth trajectory). Heading into the end of 2020, $1 out of every $5 in the US is now being spent online, representing more than 40% year-over-year growth. With 'food and beverage' being the fastest-growing segment in eCommerce overall for 2020, our engineering teams at PepsiCo eCommerce have been best positioned to swiftly pivot to meet the growing needs of our customers online.
The way we succeed in our efforts requires us to work our way through a problem space in small increments – trying, failing, learning as we go. (Growth mindset again making an appearance!)
In the same way that a bug in a production system is many times more costly than one caught earlier in the development lifecycle, it’s much less costly to incrementally chip away at a problem space containing a plethora of unknown unknowns (technical, business, or otherwise). The alternative extreme being that engineers code for a year or two before delivering anything of tangible value, only to find that the market and/or requirements have ultimately moved on in the meantime.
The power of growth mindset & incremental delivery
Trying to approach technology projects the traditional way is risky and likely to result in a spate of similar failed outcomes if a different playbook is not deployed.
A team led by, and consisting of, growth-minded engineers is likely the best antidote to the risks that face today's technology initiatives. Not only is such a team able to arrive at leaner, more innovative solutions in less time (all the while delivering waves of business value as they go), but they're also much less likely to succumb to the same well-trodden mistakes of the past.
In order to stay relevant and succeed in today's operating environment, it's imperative that engineering leaders identify members of their team that already embody a growth mindset and empower them to continue their journey to excellence.
Similarly, engineering leaders should recognize that potential is not a closed book and its incumbent on them to provide the coaching and resources to anyone on their team that has yet to fully realize theirs.
The rewards will be worth it though - what awaits will be a productive, professionally-fulfilled engineering team, deftly delivering business value with little-to-no wasted effort.