I believe that engineers are at their best when they complement strong technical expertise with skills from other disciplines such as product, project and people management, customer support, HR, finance, UX, and many others. I believe that any software engineer should structure their growth plan to acquire the basics of some of those disciplines. I recommend undergoing a tour of duty wearing one of those hats.

I also believe that engineering teams are better when they are not limited to executing technical work, but also understand why. Engineers power-up when they have a clear understanding of the business and product strategy. When they are involved with other domain experts (product, project, people managers, customer support, HR, finance, UX, etc.) in designing the organisational structure and processes that govern their day-to-day technical work.

Some may disagree with this. That’s fine, but that’d be a different discussion. Here I assume that we agree on those points, and therefore we should want to design organisations to pursue those goals. Where engineers are supported and encouraged to develop a diverse toolbox of skills from other disciplines, and where engineers are supported and encouraged to participate in more aspects of the business than merely typing code.

Here I want to discuss how attempts to implement these worthy objectives often backfire.

Let me present a simplified version of a pattern I’ve witnessed a few times.

  • Leadership learns from product manager feedback that technical decisions are not well aligned with user needs. They diagnose (rightly) that engineering is not close enough to the user. Since we have an interest in augmenting engineers with product management skills, it seems like a good idea to introduce a change in the organisation’s processes so that engineers spend more quality time with PMs and customers when defining epics / stories. It’s hard to argue with this! It makes total sense.
  • Some time later UX designers raise that the software is disconnected from the actual user experience. After a similar analysis, it seems like a good idea to modify our processes to allow engineers to spend more quality time with UX designers when designing features. Again, it’s hard to argue with this! It makes total sense.
  • Some time later leadership notices that project management work is falling through the organisational cracks which harms delivery, quality, etc. They realise that this is a good opportunity to help engineers develop their project management skills, so we incorporate some project management responsibilities into engineering teams. Again, this makes sense!
  • Then leadership meets with Customer Support.
  • Then, with Sales.

You see where I’m going, right?

Here is a simplified version of another common pattern.

  • Product stakeholders are defining product priorities for the quarter. We want an inclusive work environment where any engineer can contribute ideas for the product. This all makes sense, so we ask the managers to work with their teams in proposing ideas for initiatives and projects.
  • HR are looking to improve social media presence and attract leads to the hiring pipeline. Having Engineer-generated content in the corporate blog would be powerful! It also helps engineers build writing skills, get a public presence. Let’s ask engineers to write!
  • Hiring processes are about to be redefined. We dig inclusiveness. We want engineers engaged and involved. The hiring managers and HR ask teams to get the engineering hive mind to work and crunch some proposals.
  • Customer support needs new standards, some consolidation of processes and tools. Engineer feedback and engagement is valuable! We ask each team’s manager to collect feedback and ideas from their teams.
  • And so on.

A sum of individual good ideas doesn’t guarantee a good outcome

It’s a common mistake to assume that by adding up rational individual decisions you get to a good aggregate outcome. It’s usually the opposite. In an evacuation, running for the exit is a sensible individual decision, but aggregate them and you get a lethal stampede.

Something similar happens in our little stories. Making process changes to bring PM, UX, Customer Support, etc. closer to engineers, or asking engineering teams to propose ideas for organisational aspects makes sense as individual decisions. But put together, they can have bad consequences which harm engineering teams (and by extension, the larger organisation). As we implement them, we suddenly realise that engineers barely spend time in actual engineering.

Now, I know this is a trigger for many people. They think. “Hah! Here we go again! An engineer arguing that engineers should be left alone with the code”. This is not what I’m saying (I said the very opposite in the first paragraph!). But my strong belief in multi dimensional engineers that are engaged with the larger organisation is compatible with the belief that engineers should spend most of their time in engineering.

That statement is not even controversial if you swap industries. Think construction. There is value in bricklayers, plumbers, electricians, designers and architects knowing some of each other’s skills. Still, bricklayers must spend a substantial amount of their time laying bricks. Electricians wiring. Plumbers plumbing. Architects architecting. Or else the building won’t get done.

Software engineering is not different. Engineers need to spend time doing engineering. Who else will do the technical designs, write, review, test, operate software?

A more measured objection to my point is to accept that while engineers should spend time engineering, they should still spend some of their time in activities outside of their core expertise area. Sure. I agree. But “some” is quite broad. Let’s be more precise. What % of time spent in core engineering activities are we talking about? 50%? 25%? Give me a ballpark.

Minimum reasonable focus

Or rather, let’s change places. What is the minimum % of time in activities not related to the core expertise that you consider reasonable for your own role? What is the minimum % of time that a PM should spend on product management tasks? Is 50% reasonable or does it seem too low? It does sound low to me! Isn’t it more like 70%? Would it be reasonable for a UX designer to spend less than 70% of their time in core UX design activities? What about people managers? Customer Support?

But let’s go further. I guess we agree that multi dimensionality also applies to non-engineering disciplines: that they are also enriched by acquiring the basics of engineering (among others). So let me ask the PMs, UX designers, People Managers, HR, Sales and customer support folks in the room. What % of your time do you spend doing core engineering activities like code, tests, code reviews, technical documents, operations and so on. I am fairly confident that if I take the average of this poll, it would round up to low single digits. That sounds reasonable! But doesn’t that mean that having engineers spend low single-digit %s of their time on those non-engineering activities is also reasonable?

Building a house needs bricklayers, architects, plumbers, designers, electricians, and so on. All matter. All are valuable. All benefit from learning the basics about the other’s expertise area. And yet, plumbers spend most of their time plumbing. The many experts involved in building software are in exactly the same situation. All matter. All are valuable. All are richer when they learn the basics of the other’s expertise area. And yet, all need to dedicate a substantial % of their focus and dedication to their core activities.

We can now go back to that sequence of individual, rational, sound decisions that the leaders who design organisations tend to make. Of course it’s great to design organisations that help engineers acquire a diverse set of skills, that they engage with defining strategy, organisation, process. But because time is limited, we must be conscious that every time we direct an engineer’s attention away from engineering, we’re chipping away from that minimum reasonable allocation of time that they, like any other professional, need for their core activities. I reiterate that this is not just writing code. It’s also about code reviews, technical designs, and so on. I struggle to see a minimum reasonable allocation for those core engineering activities of less than 70%.

You might think that a budget of 30% non-engineering time doesn’t seem so bad. It’s 12h in a standard 40h week! It can fit a lot of stuff.

But notice that we didn’t even talk about the baseline of day-to-day overhead that goes into every individual engineering team. I’m thinking of activities involved in backlog grooming or ordinary human coordination that already consume a good chunk of that non-engineering budget. Those activities tend to be inflated with a proliferation of rituals, meetings, paperwork, rich in post-its and generally under the umbrella of a methodology, that go well beyond the necessary to achieve their purpose with pragmatism. Not much is left of those 12h.

Project/product/people management specialists easily overlook that overhead and inflation because, from their perspective, that time seems well spent (engineers are project managing! Growing multi disciplinary skills! Applying the latest methodologies! Good stuff!) But what happens if we now add some time working on requirement gathering? And on customer support? And on designing interfaces? And on pitching project ideas? And writing posts for the corporate blog? Great learning! Inclusiveness! But Ars longa, vita brevis. Engineers spend less time in engineering.

Would you, product manager, people manager, UX designer, $insert_your_discipline_here, be able to do your job properly if you had to spend 5% of your time in each of 10 other disciplines? If your core activity was loaded with a crust of unnecessary ritual? Of course not!

Work fragmentation hurts engineers

There is a factor that makes this problem even worse in engineering (as well as in other disciplines). I will refer here to the well-known Maker’s schedule, Manager’s schedule. An engineer’s schedule is like a glass jar that you want to fill with stones, pebbles and sand. You can only succeed in that exact order. If you try to put the pebbles and sand first, the stones won’t fit. Maker-type work is primarily like stones, it requires solid blocks of uninterrupted time. Manager-type work is mostly like sand or pebbles, it can fit in a more fragmented schedule with small blocks of time. Maker schedules don’t work like that: it’s not just a matter of how much time is spent in non-engineering work. It’s also the fragmentation. Put diverse, varied activities into an engineering team and the quality of the engineering will go down because the engineering rocks won’t fit. This isn’t to say that Manager-type work is less important! It’s equally important! But they are different jobs for reasons like this one.


When the minimum reasonable threshold of time dedicated to core engineering tasks is broken, things backfire. I’ve seen this in two main varieties:

Teams neglect their engineering standards.

This is unsurprising if they don’t have time because they are doing too much work in adjacent expertise areas, like figuring out requirements, talking to customers, writing blog posts, or having meeting after meeting to push JIRAs around. Of course all those activities are important. Of course engineers grow by doing those activities. Of course they should individually do them at some point in their careers. But time available for those is relatively small. They can’t do all, plus engineering at the right standards. It just can’t happen.

The amount of time matters. But for engineers and other maker roles, so does fragmentation. Put diverse, varied activities into an engineering team and the quality of the engineering will go down. The engineering rocks won’t fit.

It burns people out.

On one hand, red tape and bureaucracy are well known demotivators for engineers (“I could fix this in less time than I write the JIRAs”). On the other hand, we have seen quite a few instances of the following pattern. A gap appears in the people management / product management / project management area. Senior engineer is spotted as capable of plugging that hole. The engineer’s manager makes the case that taking those activities will broaden their toolbox. This makes sense! Engineer accepts. Does less engineering, more people/product/project management. Gradually, no engineering. Some of these people become happy project, product or people managers. But a good chunk of those end up stuck in a position they don’t quite enjoy, not knowing how to go back, constrained by a web of pressure points (e.g. lack of equally clear growth plan in the engineering track as for management roles), until they burn out and interview elsewhere for an engineering position. And yes, they now shine as a multi-dimensional engineer. But shine elsewhere.

Both are bad outcomes for the organisation, even if they derive from an accumulation of individual decisions that are rational and hard to disagree with.

So I guess I have two messages

First, to leaders and managers outside of engineering.

We are all aligned on the value of multidimensional engineers, on transparency, on inclusiveness. You should design your organisation accordingly. Sometimes, engineers will have to be strong-armed against their will or their preference! Many times, the “we have project management work that’s falling through the cracks” or “we need UX and engineering to be closer” serve as great opportunities to learn the basics. All that is welcome.

But please, you need to balance this with an awareness that time matters and context matters. That you cannot have engineers participate in product and project management, UX, HR, customer support and three more things at the same time, as part of their day to day, full-time job as engineer. That sometimes yes, it’d be great to have engineers join sales, or HR, or customer support, or something else, but this is incompatible with keeping a “maker schedule” that is vital to healthy engineering. That involving the team in that well-intentioned brainstorming session to figure out the next quarter’s priorities can disable the same team from delivering the last quarter’s goals up to the right standards. That sometimes, if there is a hole in work, maybe the solution is not to throw an engineer at the problem, but rather go and get the to plug it. That you may be interested in old or new methodologies, tools of your trade, etc. but introducing them in engineering teams may inflate the amount of non-engineering time they have to deal with unnecessarily, to the detriment of the time available for their core responsibility.

That all of this does not mean devaluing your discipline. It just means that engineering is a different one.

Second, to Individual Contributors in engineering leadership roles.

You have to convey to engineers around you the importance of understanding the Why of your work. The value of growing a diverse toolbox of skills. Be a role model in this. Help them engage with the business. Push them to get out of the code sometime, and walk the organisation learning what’s beyond the brick laying. To get into the project manager or the UX designer’s shoes, to go help customers ensure that disaster of an API we designed behind our noise-cancelling headphones. To do the project management that’s falling through the cracks, and learn from the experience.

This is all essential. But it is equally essential that you help engineers keep their focus, attention, raw, solid, uninterrupted quality time, on core engineering activities. Ensure that their jars fill with big stones first. Sometimes you do this by pushing back when the organisation wants to use some of the engineer’s time budget into for purposes that seem good, well motivated and rational, but can have unintentional side effects on the engineers’ ability to write, review, operate, deliver and maintain the engineering dimension of high quality software up to high standards.

This doesn’t mean that engineering is the only dimension that matters. Nor that it’s the most important one. Nor should you think of yourself and your team as sacred cows among lesser professionals.

It just means that you’re engineers, and you have a job to do.

Any thoughts? send me an email!