How One Engineer Can Outperform 1000 Engineers at a Big Tech Company (Or How to Get an Executive Fired)
Did you just get a job at a big tech company with over 100,000 employees? Are you wondering how you are ever going to get anything done when there are so many other people working at your organization? Well, let me tell you how you, as a single engineer, can outperform 1000 engineers and maybe get an executive fired in the process.
Why Can You Trust Me?
I have worked at very well-known large software companies. Not only that, I have personally outperformed teams of 3 or 10 software engineers at that very same company using the tactics discussed in this article. And I saw one software engineer on my team outperform a 1000 software engineers in a different part of the company.
Strategy vs. Tactics
If you are a new software engineer at a big tech company or even someone who is leading a team of ten, most of the work you end up doing is tactical. That is, someone tells you what to do and you execute. A Vice President (VP) at your company wants someone to implement a new feature in a new product and the order filters down the organization to you or your team and you implement it. That is tactics. You don’t get to decide on the overall goal of what you are working on, but you can choose how to implement it given the requirements of the project and if it turns out the order is impossible, you can push back and figure out how to pivot such that you ship something that is approximately what the VP wanted.
On the other hand, strategy is conceived of by people at the top of a company. If you are a CEO, Senior Vice President, Vice President or CT, you’ll conceive of new product directions for your company and come up with new ways to delight your users and make money from your customers.
If someone gets a strategy wrong, it’s not just their time that is wasted. All of the time of all of the people implementing the strategy’s time is wasted. For example, a VP might tell a thousand engineers that indirectly report to him that they need to design a new antenna for a baby monitor to allow that baby monitor to communicate with a base station where parents can keep a watchful eye on their new child. The decision to make this new antenna is a strategy. The work of the 1000 engineers is tactics. If making that new antenna was the wrong decision and there is a better way to implement it, then the work of those 1000 engineers is wasted. Maybe they designed the most perfect, energy efficient antenna. However, if there’s a better way for the baby monitor to communicate with the base station, then it is all for nothing.
Breaking Across Team Barriers
One way you, a single engineer, might be able to implement what that VP wants (a better way for the baby monitor to communicate with the base station) is to try to use existing hardware, such as say a WiFi module on both the baby monitor and base station. Maybe the VP thought it was impossible to use existing hardware to get good fidelity video between the baby monitor and base station because the existing software produced a throughput that was 10x slower than what was required.
However, maybe one team in the company’s hardware organization owns the software that controls the WiFi module, another team who is making the baby monitor app controls the way video is sent across the two WiFi modules and a third team controls the exact compression algorithm used for the video. These three teams might all be in different divisions of the company. Say hardware, devices and research, all of which are controlled by different senior vice presidents and the only way a dispute between them can be resolved is if the CEO steps in. And the CEO does not have enough time to do so.
You as an enterprising engineer might discover that there is a 10x optimization that is only possible if you modify the software controlled by all three teams. You’ll need to get buy-in from all three teams to make the change. However, if you explain that the optimization can eliminate the need for the antenna, they might be happy. They are probably all annoyed that the new antenna is responsible for 90% of new bugs reported by internal users of the product and they can’t do anything to fix those bugs.
Congratulations! You just outperformed that VP’s entire organization.
Be Willing to Do More than What Is Asked
Your performance was only possible if you didn’t stay in your lane and modify the part of the software that your team controlled. Your manager and even your manager’s manager might not have realized it was possible. You’ll only be able to outperform a VP and his 1000 indirect reports if you are willing to step across team boundaries and reduce inefficiencies in your organization.
In our hypothetical example, people across the company will congratulate you for the amazing work you did. However, it will be too late to remove the antenna from the product, so marketing teams will come up with copy giving public credit to the antenna for what you did. That’s ok though. The highest level officers of the company will know that you not only achieved the goal of speedy communication between the antenna and the baby monitor, but you also eliminated 90% of the bugs the baby monitor had by getting rid of the dependency on the antenna. You’ll be rewarded monetarily with an extra 10% bonus of a few thousand dollars and perhaps with a promotion. The real reward, however, will be knowing that the VP who asked his 1000 reports to make the antenna was fired a few weeks after the baby monitor was launched. Good riddance!
Maybe you can use your bonus to pay for the annual fee of an Amex credit card.