Tuesday, August 17, 2010

delayed rewards

I've noticed a pattern of some young engineers getting discouraged because they're not receiving much recognition for their work.

This happens disproportionately amongst people who don't fit the standard stereotype, namely female engineers and some minorities. The young engineer does a bunch of work, and hardly anyone notices. They start to experience self-doubt.

What exacerbates the situation is that they look around and see a senior engineer receiving accolades continually. They see Bob winning another award, or getting another five patents, or overhear people praise how amazing Bob is. The young engineer decides that he's not in the same league as Bob. Sometimes they wonder if they should switch to a different type of job.

A good manager can ameliorate this by giving instant feedback, but not everyone has that luxury.

The thing they don't know is: there's a lag between when you do the work and when you receive the recognition for it. The lag is typically a year or more. When you're doing the work, and even right after you finish, the reception is usually silence. You have to take a leap of faith that one day, your work will be warmly received. Experienced engineers get into a rolling-recognition situation where at any moment, they're reaping appreciation for work they did a year or two ago.

The journey always looks grim in the moment. When Frodo and Sam took the Ring to be destroyed in Mordor, it was tedious drudgery, they were hungry and cold, and they kept fighting with each other. Afterwards, they were praised as gods, and epic songs were written in their honor to be passed down throughout the ages. But at the time, it didn't look so rosy!

Same for working in software. I will leave it to the reader to make analogies for what Mordor symbolizes for you.

15 comments:

Joanna said...

This post resonates with me. Young engineer's work is very much entrepreneurial in spirit. When you do the work first, you are doing it in your "basement." You don't know whether it's going to sell or sink. No one is giving you any concrete feedback. It's just work drudgery. You're just taking a chance. And sometimes it seems like it's forever--there's so much yet to be done, and you can't see an end. And sometimes you wonder, is this all worth it? Something propels you forward and maybe the project gets done and everyone loves it. It's a lonely place to be in that initial work stage. That's where I am right now even though I'm not doing software engineering work. But isn't this what being an entrepreneur is about in certain stages?

changingway.org said...

Yes, Frodo and Sam hogged the credit, ut the project would have failed without Gollum. What is Gollum? QA? Documentation?

Anonymous said...

Bill said before really make any achievement, don't expect anyone to appreciate or care what you feel or think. That's the real world. Not just for developer. It's always a gap between what you think and what the others think. Appreciation happens when the gap can be filled in.

Peter Norvig said...

You know, I thought of using as an interview question: "Who is the hero of Lord of the Rings"? If they say Frodo or Gandalf; ok, you haven't learned much. If they say Sauron, end the interview now and call security. If they say the Fellowship, that bodes well for teamwork, and if they say Sam, then they understand hard work and sacrifice -- and inspired genius in a few key places.

Niniane said...

re: changingway.org. Gollum is the competition!

Niniane said...

re: Peter Norvig. What if they say Aragorn? He showed leadership as well as decision-making in the face of insufficient information.

Wes Bigelow said...

Interesting, in games it seems like they notice your contribution right away and love it (or hate it, whole factions can be born around the feel of a game's camera :). But the other common result is that no one ever knows when you tried to architect something well, they just know that it's not one of the broken parts of the game if they stopped to think about it at all.

ArC said...

Me, for sitting through the whole damn thing.

Piaw Na said...

The Frodo and Sam analogy doesn't work for me. Why? They were already the anointed ones, all the way from Rivendell. They had 7 other team members, including many who sacrificed themselves so they could proceed onto their mission. They also had a clear goal: destroy the ring or your way of life and all you hold dear is gone.

Compare that to the typical fresh graduate's work, which is usually relegated to bug fixing and patching problems, without being given clear direction or a goal. The fictional analogy would be the butler in "The Remains of the Day." At the end of his life, he realized that all his sacrifice was for someone who was on the wrong side of history, and if he had been less self-sacrificing and saw the big picture, he would have chosen to work for someone different.

Eric said...

In my limited experience, large companies recognize the importance of giving a young engineer feedback by institutionalizing that feedback; promotions are small but frequent, and annual reviews are mandatory. Quite frankly, the young engineer is quick to recognize that institutionalized feedback is mandatory and institutionalized, and therefore meaningless. At a small company, by contrast, feedback is random and promotions may or may not exist; nevertheless, a young engineer may prefer such a company. Sometimes the schedule crush is so harsh, a relatively green engineer's design makes it into production without being checked by anyone else. At a small company, your idea doesn't have to be the best idea in order to be a necessary idea.

The only honest feedback in the world is this: "We are using your idea." If you work for a year at a company without someone saying this to you, then your gut feeling is correct. Your company doesn't need you. You should leave.

ling said...

Out of curiosity: can you post a comment or a better yet a blog post on
1. How you motivated an young engineer who worked for you.
2. How you were motivated when you first joined Google or Microsoft.

mwuhahaha said...

Hmmmm

I thought Mordor == Microsoft.

Gates of Mordor and all...

Anonymous said...

Often it is not what you do. Asians often don't self promote or brag about their accomplishment. They are told to work hard and you will get the reward. As an Asian myself, I realize that one needs promote oneself. Don't just assume that your work will be recognize. Bottom line, besides hard work, you need to kiss some butts and play golf or watch football or do other oustide the work activities with the boss. Women do have one advantage. Flirting (sexist, but true if use appropriately.)

Niniane said...

> The only honest feedback in the world is this: "We are using your idea.

I like this comment.

gregbo said...

I can make an argument that Gandalf should at least be considered as much a hero as Sam, if we are talking about Tolkien Middle-Earth literature, instead of the Lord of the Rings movies. Gandalf realized the need to destroy the Ring, rather than to use it to defeat Sauron. He also realized that he needed to mobilize whatever troops were necessary to accomplish the Ring's destruction, if nothing else. He also perceived that Gollum would have a role to play in this, and had to trust that Frodo and Sam would allow this role to be played.