TL;DR Judging software engineeer's potential is not easy. Skill is in fact of secondary importance, experience may be a subject of diminishing returns, passion can manifest in very different forms. Fortunately there's one, particular personal trait, the one I call an Ability To Execute (ATE) which is absolutely essential to get shit done - ones that have it will succeed like they were appointed by gods, ones that lack it will only keep chasing their own tail while running in circles.
One of my key responsibilities whoever I work for at the moment is building engineering teams & helping them grow. That doesn't just make me meet (& assess skills, & recruit, etc.) many engineers of various specialisations & experience levels, but it also induces some interesting questions:
- how to compare two different engineers?
- how important is the technical skill / practical experience / passion?
- how to assess developer's future potential?
And so on.
But the most important question is -> what is the personal trait / non-technical ability that characterizes the most successful engineers? Let's add "for any level" (starting with junior, ending with engineering managers), to make things even more interesting. Is there even a single trait like this? I daresay there is, but it may not be your first guess ...
The most instinctive answer here seems to be passion - for technology, digital markets, bleeding edge products & disrupting ideas, peppered with a strong desire to always remain up-to-date & relevant. But no, passion is important - it can inspire, spark ideas, ignite knowledge sharing, etc. but it doesn't provide any guarantee in terms of getting the shit done. Even the brightest idea / vision is just that - an idea / vision that has yet be forged into something tactile. And that in many cases is easier said then done.
So the key trait / ability is not passion. It's something different. I call it an Ability To Execute (ATE).
What is an ATE?
It's an efficacy, focus, understanding, motivation & perseverance altogether.
It's about being able to work in goal-oriented mode, carving out your own path in correct direction, continuous assessment of risk & feasibility (+ prompt escalation if in a need for support). People with this ability are like butter slicers, problem choppers, icebreakers or ... like Tommy Lee Jones in "The Fugitive" ;) Once they pick up the trail, nothing can stop them, they are like fricking homing missiles.
Of course it's not much of big deal if the problem is either well known or crude & simple, but engineers with an ATE fiercely tackle even the most complex & challenging obstacles - in their case it's a matter of attitude, pro-activity & a hunger for achievements.
If I had to choose between ATE & expert knowledge / vast experience, I'd bet on ... ATE. I know some relatively fresh people (2-4 years of professional career) with a proper mindset & "fire in the eyes" who were regularly embarrassing some industry veterans ...
Born to be a Doer?
ATE may seem like something innate, a trait someone gets born with. And this impression is correct to some point - I've met several people who just have this "spark" in them since the beginning of their professional career (pure naturals), but honestly, I've also seen several examples of people who've managed to develop impressive ATE, even if they've started at relatively low level. It seems to be a matter of discipline, strong will, grit, ambition, motivation & perseverance. Some talent is very useful for the start, of course it is, but cultivating ATE is mainly about the hard work & consistency.
It works both ways - ATE can get muffled and even muted. Fortunately it's not that hard to identify behaviours & attitudes that detriment individual's ATE:
- lack of focus (due to messiness, proneness to politicking, lack of priorities)
- misaligned targets / ambitions (between the individual, team & the rest of the organisation)
- basic inability to listen (because of simple vanity or selfishness)
- technical dilettantism (how can you deliver if you don't understand the technical means?)
- inability to pick up the ownership / responsibility (to orchestrate more joint effort)
- lack of vision / clarity (it's hard to succeed if you don't lack belief in the end-goal, it's importance, etc.)
And individuals who lack ATE are not that hard to spot out if you take a closer look:
- they complain, complain, complain & complain - but nothing ever comes out of this grumbling
- they aren't able to keep any promise or ...
- ... they avoid giving straight answers that could be interpreted as even the slightest trace of accountability
- starting anything has a high (mental) entry threshold for them - they are poor in prototyping, PoCing, experiments -> they always need more "planning" & "preparation"
- they tend to speak about what they are "doing", instead of what they have "done"
- their sense of purpose is fuzzy (because don't find it important)
- they've worked out (sometimes subconsciously) some form of ass-covering technique (at least 1) - as they feel self-justified when shielding behind someone else's fault / limitation / delay
- they are really great in looking for excuses (some call it "victimship"), their solution space is very local (they are reluctant to look for support / knowledge / help out of their closest environment)
Of course it's much more challenging to assess someone's ATE when you haven't worked with her/him before (e.g. while recruiting). But frankly, at this point of my career I believe I can tell a lot about one's ATE after just 45-60 minutes of 1:1 talk. Of course I won't be able to tell for sure whether someone just makes a good impression (potential false positive), but I'm quite confident that when I say that someone lacks ATE, (s)he really does (so, I don't make many false negatives).
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